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Kaplan's dreary romanticism

Kanishk Tharoor
24 April 2009

Robert Kaplan is not a writer who tries to get your blood boiling. The Atlantic correspondent genuinely wants to edify, not provoke. But in his bid to become the American world of letters' chief interpreter of south Asia, some of his recent pieces have quite successfully got under my skin.

His sin is not so much one of substance - though his insight often leaves much to be desired - but one of style. I don't really mind the poetry. American journalists aren't known for lyricism, so it's almost refreshing that Kaplan single-handedly attempts to make up for the austerity of modern US prose. He populates his political commentary with passages like this: 

An exploding sea bangs against a knife-carved apricot moonscape of high sand dunes, which, in turn, gives way to crumbly badlands. Farther inland, every sandstone and limestone escarpment is the color of bone. Winds and seismic and tectonic disruptions have left their mark in tortuous folds and uplifts, deep gashes, and conical incrustations that hark back far before the age of human folly.

There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this species of expansiveness and earnestness (certainly, it'd be fairly ridiculous of me to complain about it). The trouble lies rather in how he allows this gush to infect his view of real people and real places. It leaves his writing at best exoticising, at worst downright a-historical and reductive.

His most recent piece in the Atlantic explores the decades-old crisis in Pakistan's marginalised, restive region of Baluchistan and its new Chinese-backed port at Gwadar - a very important (and oft-discussed) subject in south Asia that deserves more of the international limelight. Typically, he can't keep the Pandora's box of his historical imagination closed. He introduces Baluchistan to American readers via classical evocations. "Through this alkaline wasteland, the 80,000-man army of Alexander the Great marched westward in its disastrous retreat from India in 325 B.C... Here, along a coast so empty that you can almost hear the echoing camel hooves of Alexander’s army, you lose yourself in geology." One can almost stomach this syrupy stuff, but it gets worse: 

Baluch tribesmen screech into these road stops driving old autos and motorcycles, wearing Arab head scarves, speaking in harsh gutturals, and playing music whose rumbling rhythms, so unlike the introspective twanging ragas of the subcontinent, reverberate with the spirit of Arabia.  

"The spirit of Arabia"? "Twanging ragas of the subcontinent"? Really? Such loose and silly language makes Kaplan seem less a polished 21st century journo than a rheumy-eyed Orientalist, the rearguard of centuries of dreadful (but often pretty) European and north American writing about the region.

Take his op-ed in the NYT on last November's Mumbai attacks. In describing how globalisation has fomented fundamentalist violence in south Asia, he lapses into feeble historical connection. "The route that intelligence agencies feel was taken by the fishing boat hijacked by the terrorists - from Porbandar in India’s Gujarat State, then north to Karachi in Pakistan, and then south to Mumbai - follows centuries-old Indian Ocean trade routes." Sensible readers should see that this observation is of no relevance whatsoever. It barely makes sense, it's tantamount to saying, "The route that the 7/7 bombers took to London followed ancient trade routes from the Pennines to the Thames Valley."

No south Asian would write like this about the west and labour under the illusion that he was saying anything meaningful, but Kaplan can do just so about south Asia. He taps into the insidious and outdated notion that somehow history is more relevant in other parts of the world, that you can turn other peoples more readily into cutouts from a storybook. If we are lured into Kaplan's world of velvet words and rich imagery, it becomes appropriate to dress political analysis with the trappings of the most saccharine tourist brochure. 

The small tragedy is that Kaplan knows better. He understands south Asia's many layers of complexity and remains, for the most part, a decent observer of the region. By and large, he seems to choose subjects already well discussed in their own context, recasting them for an American audience (e.g. this piece on the BJP's unsavoury heir apparent, Narendra Modi). Some of his larger ideas - like the notion of a "greater near east", a "single zone of conflict" extending from the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal - are merely quaint in their faddish simplicity.

But when he casually refers to the "spirit of Arabia" and asks us to hear the echoes of Alexander the Great's footsteps, Kaplan ceases to be simply innocuous. It doesn't help that his piece on Baluchistan very unevenly sides with Baluch nationalist sentiment, continuing the old western tradition of romanticising desert nationalists in the middle east. For the sake of his subjects, and for the sake of his readers, Kaplan ought to trade in fluff for fact. 

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