In school, we had the Bengali playwright Dwijendralal Ray’s 1911 historical play Chandragupta as a prescribed text. In one of its iconic scenes, Alexander of Macedon is standing on the bank of the Indus staring at the expanse before him that he plans to conquer. He tells his trusted general Seleucus Nicator, ‘‘Satya Seleucus, ki bichitro ei desh.’’ (Really Seleucus, this is such an amazing country.)
Bichitro, in this context, is actually various things at once: amazing, variegated, peculiar and wondrous. And strange. Some 25 years after first coming across Alexander’s line to Seleucus—people using it more for ironic effect to denote how the country is going downhill —and 2,340-odd years after the Greeks first came to the border of the Indian subcontinent, I got to encounter India and its strangeness through Sam Miller’s A Strange Kind of Paradise: India Through Foreign Eyes.
Miller’s not the usual Brit Prop putting his vision of India on pages with a checklist in hand. His book is about how foreigners—and not only from west of the Suez or east of the Pacific—have seen India through encounters and fantasies (and a mix of both) down the years.
He isn’t afraid to go wherever it takes—history, geography, anecdotal evidence, personal biography—to lay down his peripatetic narrative. There are dollops of history, but put on the plate lightly in the form of a space-time continuum travelogue of sorts.
Miller manages to not sound like a crypto-Orientalist because he is keenly aware of its smog hanging over him. He actually shares episodes where he walks perilously close to the Orientalist’s cliff-edge. Such as the one in which he asks archaeologist P J Cherian whether the site they are standing on in Pattanam in Kerala may be Muziris, described by Pliny as ‘‘the greatest commercial city in India’’. Cherian ticks him off saying, ‘‘That’s the one thing that everyone asks, even Indians... especially Indians.... This dig is about much more than whether this is Muziris. It’s about the discovery, perhaps, of a major Indian urban settlement and sea port that dates back more than two thousand years.... But this obsession with Rome is just too much.’’
Miller is aware of the symptoms of ‘going native’. At the ruins of Nalanda in Bihar, he starts a conversation with a Thai woman who is part of a group of Buddhist pilgrims. He asks her what they thought of India. Her reply shocks him. ‘‘‘India is dirty,’ she said, “I’m ashamed to say I felt like cursing her, that the words that came to my mind were ‘Fuck off back to Thailand’…” Miller’s elucidates: ‘‘I felt she was trying to make me complicit, as a fellow foreigner, in a particular view of India—to be kept as a secret from Indians, for fear of causing offence."
But the book is far more than a frolicking journalistic-anthropological study of what India is to foreigners. Facts, episodes and information jostle in a textual Brownian motion. We are told about the ideas of India gleaned from fabulist ‘travel’ literature such as Travels of Sir John Mandeville (which Christopher Columbus consulted before setting off in the wrong direction), Ludovico di Varthema’s Itinerario, even the ‘India’ in Portugal’s most famous poet Luís de Camões’ epic poem Lusiads. Miller’s dramatis personae includes well-known proto-travel show presenters such Fa Hien (aka Fa Xian), Hiuen Tsang (aka Xuanzang aka Tripitaka) and Ibn Batuta, as well as foreigners such as merchants from West Asia, the early Mughals from Central Asia and European missionaries and businessmen.
The footnotes make a fascinating read by themselves. I certainly came out of the book far more weaponised for a pub quiz than ever before, having learnt about facts that include the now-destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan being originally oil-painted on their surfaces: that Gaya, until recently, was the only international airport with no domestic flights; that ‘Hindu massage’ is term for when ‘a woman contracts her vaginal muscles around a male’s penis during intercourse to bring the male to orgasm’; that Bijay Mandal, the remains of Muhammad bin Tughlaq’s palace, is frequented mostly by ‘‘latrine-less locals who use it as a urinal and shithouse’’; that Marco Polo’s Indian sojourn, ‘‘giving the first detailed account of the south of the country by a foreign visitor’’, is forgotten.
Along with hilarious throwaway lines, wonderful digressions and wicked asides, not to mention black-and-white photos that provide visual captions to the adjoining texts, A Strange Kind of Paradise is a deceptively scholarly book. It’s bichitro in the finest sense.