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Since 1st March, 1999
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From the ruins of empire By Pankaj Mishra, Allen Lane, £11.99

Given the way in which we have learnt our history during the times when it should really have mattered, it is not surprising that few among us know more than a little of the fairly recent socio-political history of our Asian landmass. A system persistently chooses our inputs in terms of their singular and pluralistic values to us and is like some omnipresent teacher who, having decided, for instance, that Asia per se is an awfully diverse conglomerate of nations each with its built-in set of complexities, then applies the principle of need-to-know to narrow the agenda down to our immediate prerequisites and filters out the rest. After that, it is unlikely that more than a few would dig deeper into those early accruals. Putting aside those who chose History as a specific academic pursuit, the rest of us, particularly those whom John Kennedy would have loved to call ‘l’homme engage’, generally pick up whatever they can lay their hands on, trying to make sense of things which they believe do matter. But the job presents hard options, caught as one is between writings that are upper echelon at the one end and serve Zero Dark Thirty-ish gratification at the other. The search goes on for something which is not too ersatz and will neither leave you intellectually challenged.

It is tempting to speculate whether Pankaj Mishra had been thinking along similar lines and found it necessary to come up with a book that could meet the required ends. In the event, he has done a sterling job of not just filling in the empty spaces but opening up a number of search avenues for his re-energized reader. He uses the skills he has developed in his years of satisfying unrelenting editors at The Guardian, The New York Times, The London Review of Books and others to unravel the threads that have gone into the making of the often bizarre Asian weave. As a consequence, the texture of his book is an admixture of researched data, culled viewpoint, reasoned analysis and virtually on-the-streets reportage, this last giving the book an immediacy and grittiness that is often missing in much of historical non-fiction — which does not have to be the case. Clearly, serious scholarship, whilst relevant to a niche readership, can turn out to be either ponderous or run of the mill, depending on the mindset of those beyond this circle, that is, a readership looking for enlightenment and not so much for erudition.

Mishra hangs his narrative on four major hooks. Colonization: pre- and post-, Islamic imperatives, the face of reform and the personalities — some heroic and others not so — who were integral to the history of their times. He believes that all four were collectively responsible for the Asia experience, in the sense that one could be taken to have fugued into the other. This is a difficult hypothesis to establish given the exceptional diversity we cited earlier, yet the thought that this could actually be true is intriguing. Towards the end of the book, Mishra sums up all that has been said, and, in the process, trashes the Janus-like face of reform; he uses the post-colonial ‘crisis of modernity’ label and writes: “Formal decolonization was always unlikely to guarantee true sovereignty and dignity to Asian regions”, and quotes Ryszard Kapuscinski’s rather harrowing summation of “the tragic drama of the honest and patriotic postcolonial leader”, who is confronted with the appalling collapse of the individual and collective dream. The failure of the post-colonial elite fathers an opposition and the cycle begins anew. The brutalities of Tiananmen Square and Tahrir Square, the edginess of the Arab Spring and the Maoist insurgency in the eastern states — which presents the greatest internal security threat faced by India since Independence — are all links waiting to be connected.

Having addressed these four prime movers of the Asia transition, and to which I will add Third World trauma, Mishra examines the personas and perspectives of those whom he believes played crucial roles in, to borrow his sub-title, “The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia”, not so much through ground-level involvement but intellectually, without question. He writes first of a remarkable 19th-century Muslim, an activist, trenchant journalist, world traveller and thinker, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the intellectual guru of Ali Shariati, who was to become the ideological mentor of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. Al-Afghani’s pathological distrust and dread of the West and his passion for Muslim self- actualization moulded those leaders who followed — Atatürk, Nasser, Khomeini — and he is still, a century after his death, politically relevant, even though the once pervasive face of Islam has radically changed, due in large measure to internal and external pressures that have allowed into the weave those subversive aspects which are alien to Islamic doctrine.

Across the continent, in China, Liang Qichao had as powerful an obsession — but in his case with building State power — which he handed down to a brilliant young Hunanese, Mao Zedong, and his heirs to carry forward with spectacular results in the decades that followed, until it collapsed under the weight of its success and had to be shored up by the Deng Xiaoping model. Then, in what would come as a surprise to quite a few, Mishra presents Rabindranath Tagore as both the essential visionary and the stubborn non- conformist and quotes copiously from the poet’s writings and speeches to establish the relevance of a non-judgmental and optimistic world-view which the poet articulated so splendidly. It is another story that the same Japan which had earlier welcomed him for his anti-colonial postures earned him insults from a xenophobic, lunatic fringe which was convinced that a Japan which has decimated a massive Russian naval fleet in about 48 hours at Tsushima Straits 24 years before Tagore’s visit in 1929, and which is heady with imperialistic conquest, did not need to indulge in his moral and spiritual humanism. Moreover, Tagore’s bubbling disenchantment did not make things any easier; he recoiled at Japan’s brand of eastern imperialism, and wrote in frustration to an English friend, “She (Japan) is hungry — she is munching Korea, she has fastened her teeth on China and it will be an evil day for India when Japan will have her opportunity”. At another meeting, he declared angrily, “You have been infected with the virus of European imperialism.”

To those who would obviously quibble about the three who have been singled out for special attention from amongst the many others like Gandhi, Sun Yat-sen, Ho Chi Minh, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mao Zedong and a host of sub-continental luminaries from Muhammad Iqbal to Aurobindo Ghose, Rashbehari Bose and Subhash Chandra Bose, Mishra offers a reason, saying that the focus on lesser-known individuals (sic) “makes it possible to see the main political and intellectual tendencies that preceded and outlasted the better-known figures that have come to monopolize and limit our sense of India, China and the Muslim world.” This last sentence is enough to fuel intense debate. Speaking of which, Mishra’s book offers ample scope for armchair introspection. He writes pithily about the tortuous road, replete with confused intersections, misread signs and retraced steps, taken by the Asian ideologues to finally arrive at a sustainable doctrine of revolution and reform. Then, was India’s first war of independence truly an Islam-fuelled revolt? Crucially, has the revolutionary impulse corrupted and demoralized its standard bearers and is some kind of social change — the most dominant energy of our times — and whoever gains control of it, “whether in legitimate or distorted form, will triumph”?

Restating Sartre, “those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to relive it.” If you do not like history, read Pankaj Mishra’s book as an adventure.