Vishnu’s Crowded Temple by Maria Misra


A major, contentious, highly entertaining new history of India, Published to mark the 60th anniversary of India’s independence and by one of the most eminent, cutting-edge historians of India – Published: 2nd August 2007 ‘ Hardback ‘ £25 ‘ Penguin Allen Lane

On the sixtieth anniversary of Independence, India is at the centre of international attention. Indeed, there can be few more discussed countries in the world today than India. From being a seemingly isolated, economically stagnant part of Asia, with intractable problems of poverty and over population, India has in a short space of time reached an astonishing level of growth, taking with China the lion’s share of benefits from post-Cold War globalisation.

And yet India remains a baffling paradox, strikingly different from all other global colossi. Juxtaposed to the ‘Shining India’ of recent party manifestoes is the startling poverty apparent to any visitor. Abutting the gleaming call-centres and software laboratories are the squalid shanty-towns and slums of every Indian metropolis. It is a society of awesome creativity, and yet also one unable to provide simple dignity and welfare to millions of its own citizens. Moreover, while the achievements of India’s democracy are undeniable, so too are the violence, criminality and murderous religious passions of its turbulent politics.

Maria Misra has written the essential history to allow us to understand, in all its complexity, this extraordinary transformation. Vishnu’s Crowded Temple seeks to explain the persistence of India’s paradox of extremes by presenting a new interpretation of its history.

Maria Misra argues that India is different to other emerging super states largely because its politics rest upon a peculiar foundation, in which traditional philosophies of hierarchy, difference and privilege coexist to a remarkable degree with modern notions of equality and democracy. This book traces the unresolved tensions between these ideas: from the British Raj’s entrenching of caste and rank after the Great Rebellion of 1857 to the new rebellion of India’s lower-castes and untouchables one-hundred-and-fifty years later. It also dissects the intervening attempts of various polemicists, politicians and prophets to transcend the inherent contradictions between the traditional and the modern: from the baroque pseudo-traditional fantasies of the British to the religious arcadia of Gandhi; from the planned paradise of Nehru to the Hindu-raj of high-caste elites or the cyber utopias of its new business moguls.

Vishnu’s Crowded Temple is an enthralling and often richly comic story and Misra tells it charismatically with great wit and style. Though she concludes that India will undoubtedly fulfil the ambitions of its leaders who are determined to win for it a place among the Great Powers, it will remain defiantly different. The tensions between market liberalisers and radical anti-capitalists, between high-caste traditionalists and low-caste egalitarians are by no means settled. India will remain a unique hybrid of history – the product of a curious conjuncture between an ancient culture, colonialism and modernity.

Vishnu’s Crowded Temple conveys in a pacy, enjoyable and highly readable way the history of this wholly contemporary state, shaped by both western and eastern ideas, but the slave of neither.

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