Pankaj Mishra’s new book looks at how a few Asian intellectuals dealt with the challenge of the West

Pankaj Mishra’s latest non-fiction book From the Ruins of Empire was launched in the Capital recently. The book narrates the early responses to colonialism in Asia, by focusing on the lives of a few continental figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore. Mishra has previously looked at the interactions between East and West, albeit in a contemporary context, in his collection of essays, Temptations of the West, and written a travelogue, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, and a novel, The Romantics.

In the conversation between Mishra and Jonathan Shainin, Senior Editor, Caravan Magazine, that followed the launch, the author explained that the idea of looking at the “pre-history of anti-colonial sentiment” came to him while reading The Politics of Hysteria by Edmund Stillman and William Pfaff, which argues that “American and European policy makers do not understand Asian nationalism.” He turned, therefore, to poets and scholars, who, according to him, speak more deeply about the condition of their society than those in power.

The prophets who populate his book responded in different ways to what they perceived as the threat of colonialism. While Al-Afghani, the Iran born Shia who posed as a Sunni in Afghanistan, proposed pan Islamism and advocated violent struggle against the West, Qichao, a Chinese journalist, defended Confucian ideals and attacked Western materialism and would later influence Mao Zedong.

These differences notwithstanding, there was a lot in common between them. They espoused a certain cosmopolitanism in thought and were all opposed to the Western model of the self-seeking nation state. They also resorted to similar means while disseminating their ideas, and were not consistent in their thought. “They were thinking on the run and improvising solutions. They were all over the place in their intellectual and political affiliations. Coherence was a luxury they simply could not afford,” Mishra said.

Turning his attention to Tagore, Mishra noted the irony in the persistent critic of nationalism becoming the inadvertent author of not one, but two national anthems. Calling him a central figure of the book, Mishra also shed light on Tagore’s cold reception in Japan, a country whose transformation into Asia’s first imperial power the poet forecast. Responding to the suggestion that the role played by colonialism “wasn’t so bad”, Mishra said, “It would be disastrous to engage with the notion that the force that destroyed local industries and thousands of lives was beneficial.” However, he acknowledged that “Western modernity is necessary for the vocation of a writer.” In conclusion, Mishra hoped the book would inaugurate further research into Asia, and expressed his desire to revise the book to include other important forgotten figures of the continent.

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