Pankaj Mishra in his latest book explores the life and times of people who first led the struggle against Western imperialism
Pankaj Mishra is a man on a mission. But without the strident, self-indulgent missionary zeal that can often turn people off. Unlike some of the men who are the subject of his new book, From The Ruins Of Empire: The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking of Asia, who he says can often look confused or incoherent, he knows exactly what his convictions are and went about voicing them quietly, even charmingly, in a conversation with Mukund Padmanabhan, Senior Associate Editor, The Hindu at the launch of his book in Chennai recently. The event was hosted by the Madras Book Club and Penguin at the Vivanta by Taj Connemara.
The book is about a fascinating period in Asian history, the 19th and early 20th centuries when men and women were formulating a response to that very aggressive presence in their lives: Western colonialism and imperialism. They are fairly obscure figures, not men valorised in history text books such as Gandhi, Nehru or Mao Zedong. Men like Jamal al-Afghani and Liang Qichao and there are reasons why they are not as famous as the men they inspired later. “They are not known much,” Pankaj says, “because they don’t belong to the kind of triumphalist nationalist narratives, both of the West and the East. The histories we are told are nationalist histories and they talk about the emergence of the nation state from Western imperialism and they talk of the generation that led that struggle and the mass movements and then assumed power when the Europeans left. But these were the first generation and because they incarnated so many political ideas and tendencies, they almost seem like, in retrospect, confused or incoherent figures as opposed to the people like Mao Zedong who came later.”
Why the choice of these men to tell the story of Asia’s response to colonialism? Because, sometimes marginal figures tell you more about historical moments and their societies. When one reads about the histories of Egypt or China in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, he says, one keeps coming across references to these men. Both were born in traditional Asian families but were curious about the politics and ideologies of their time and were great travellers. But one never gets to know more. Who exactly are they as persons, politically, intellectually, what was the larger shape and trajectories of their lives? One never got a sense of what their journeys were. But there were connections between them. Liang Qichao admired Tagore who himself had travelled to Cairo to meet one of al-Afghani’s disciples and “suddenly as I read more widely, this world of Asia began to emerge more systematic than before in its response to the West.”
He accepts that he is not a trained historian but delights in the freedom that comes with that, because he can travel across disciplinary boundaries and discover and make available to a larger audience the stories of these men. And these stories need to be told, he says, especially today when neo-imperialists and Islamophobes hog all the popular narrative platforms in the West.
Looking at his recent run-ins with the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and the ‘hatchet job’ on Niall Ferguson in the LRB , does he love a good fight? Not necessarily, he laughs. “Why aren’t other people provoked enough by the kind of nonsense peddled by these figures,” he asks. “The melancholy answer is that very few non-White people in the West have any kind of platform of the kind enjoyed by the new imperialists. So they can talk about anything they want in the most ignorant and paranoid way and we listen to them and take them seriously. There are very few voices able to challenge them in the big platforms like The Guardian or The New York Times. If I had those platforms, if I had the opportunity to tell them ‘You don’t know what you are talking about’, why should I not accept that opportunity?”
Why not, indeed?