Review: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra


From the Ruins of Empire

A '3 for 2' offer in Landmark made me buy this and other two books much earlier than anticipated. When on the back cover I saw Pankaj Mishra's photo I could clearly remember having seen him on either some debate on a news channel or on a talk show years ago and apart from that I knew nothing about him. A search on Amazon wasn't useful for lack of a substantial number of reviews. However, the description on the interior of the front cover and a fleeting glance of the contents got me interested. It looks like apparently there are multiple sub titles being used for the book - one being "the revolt against the West and the remaking of Asia" and the second one being "the intellectuals who remade Asia".

The author starts with The Battle of Tsushima between Russia and Japan in which "for the first time since the Middle Ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war; and the news careened around a world". He brilliantly captures the reactions this garnered around the world: in Calcutta of Lord Curzon, in South Africa of Gandhi, in Damascus of Mustafa Kemal, in England of Nehru and Sun Yat-sen, in United States of W.E.B. Du Bois and of Rabindranath Tagore. Reading the three paragraphs was like watching the beginning of a fast paced thriller movie with its contemporaries across different cities in different settings. Mishra stresses on the importance the Japanese victory as it reinvigorated non-white peoples and "seemed to negate the West's racial hierarchies" and "infused Asian peoples with a 'new hope'".

A semi-biographical account of the life of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani takes the reader from Persia, his birth place, to India, then Afghanistan, Turkey, Egypt and France. Each country’s political background is introduced in a welcoming way and other major players, though not many are there, are brought into the plot only after a substantial progression of the milieu. Jamal al-Afghani's intellect and influence on later Islamic movements is written as much as about his shrewdness in his adopting the 'Afghani' part in his name to hide his Shia roots and using traditional religious interpretations to bring Muslims together to revolt against imperialism though he himself was a revisionist. The part where al-Afghani's unmarked grave is found in Istanbul and disinterred and the remains taken to Kabul reveals the contradictions - he was born in Persia rather than Afghanistan; and the donation by the U.S. for repairs of the damaged tomb in Kabul because of strikes couldn't have been more wry.

The story then moves to China, where "Western powers had begun to nibble at the edges of the Qing Empire". The intellectuals like Sun Yat-sen, Li Hongzhang, Kang Youwei, Mao Zedong, Tan Sitong, Yan Fu amongst others and their philosophies. The roots of the current communist China can well be understood from the treacheries of the West it was long subjected to under the garb of modernisation, liberalism and equality. That democracy cannot be successfully implemented in toto around the world is proved by the efforts of Chinese to embrace modernization to match the West and to defeat it at its own game. Japan's own contorted view of 'Asia for Asians' falls apart when its hunger for growth, limited by its small size, drives out the powerful out of most of the east of Asia and a 'Yellow Peril' stops just in time next to India's borders.

The last figure to be covered in sequence of the three is Rabindranath Tagore; disappointingly though the author dedicates much lesser space to him than to others. The author brings out how "proximity of lives in Indian villages helped distinguish his worldview from that of the middle-class intellectuals in Calcutta". Tagore's visit to various countries after becoming a Nobel Laureate throw light on his reflections and the reactions which his views provoked, especially in Japan and China - where many were vying for an embrace of developmental philosophy against Tagore's position of retrospection rooted in Eastern values and of "moral superiority over their colonial masters".

In the concluding part titled 'Asia Remade', Mishra poignantly and masterfully rues about Asia's own acceptance of a path to industrialization and the resulting contradictions in the Islamic world and the rest of Asia. He writes of how "White men, conscious of their burden, changed the world for ever, subjecting its great diversity to their own singular outlook" and how they "squandered much of their moral authority". He also states that "globalization doesn’t not lead to a flat world marked by increasing integration, standardization despite wishful thinking" but rather "sharpens old antipathies, and incites new ones". This was a dig at Thomas Friedman (the famous World-is-Flat(ter/test) fame) but is at the same time debatable.

This has been, for me, one of the best books in revisionist history by an Indian writer in recent times (nevertheless, its not a complete account of all historical events which have happened from the late nineteenth century till now and at points does skip important events and movements) (around half a dozen editing mistakes exist as well). When ideas as great as in this book are probed by a mere mortal like me it results into a tumultuous spark in thinking and in no way have I been able to grasp all of them. One of the most useful sections is towards the end: Bibliographic Essay which introduces to the general reader a hugely commendable list of books on each topic as covered in the book. Throughout the conflict between the Western thought of a nation-state and the Eastern one of a community is focused on, especially the latter half when covering China and Arab countries. The three thinkers: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore have been shown as powerful forces in the Eastern thought of anti-imperialism, the author also vividly covers, more than anything, the ideas and other men as the propounders in the rise of Asia. The tussle between the core centrals of Eastern philosophy of the spirit and Western philosophy of material "allows the reader to see the events of two centuries anew, through the eyes of the journalists, poets, radicals and charismatics who criss-crossed Europe and Asia", and is a testimony to the fact that history is history only when not confined to a geography.


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