Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire ambitiously attempts to unite Asia intellectually, and such an enterprise is bound to face insurmountable odds.

Mishra might argue that it’s merely about how the de-colonisation of Asian countries was preceded, in the 19th century, with the stirrings of intellectual de-colonisation. Specifically, he says that the Islamic Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, the Chinese Liang Qichao and the Indian Rabindranath Tagore were first to intellectually reject the West; that this happened even before the 1905 defeat by Japan of Russia, a historical watershed demonstrating that the white man was not invulnerable; and that their ideas, rooted in “going back to one’s roots” influenced one another and subsequent Asian thinkers till de-colonisation became inevitable after World War II.

It’s probably a good thesis but seems a bit jarring when evidence keeps popping up of how a different template – race – governs the relationship of Asian countries. For instance, last week there was a Chinese newspaper report on Indians’ love for gold “even though it highlights their black skin”; the week before, writer Martin Jacques in a magazine interview prophesied that China will remake the world in its own image and candidly added that in Chinese history, (skin) colour is very important, sounding a dire warning for India’s future vis-à-vis a hegemonic China. The Chinese may have read Edward Said and seem determined to set their discourse with India on terms that show us as a “lower” country, in colour, knowledge and power. Thus, Mishra’s project seems a bit idealistic, to say the least.

He might argue that the Chinese return to the worldview that theirs was the “Middle Kingdom” and the rest of us barbarians — a view rudely shattered by the Opium War and the “century of humiliation” that the British heaped upon them — only proves his hypothesis that Asian intellectual decolonisation sought to return to tradition; in this case, the tradition of self-superiority, even if it seems anachronistic in today’s age of nuclear weaponry and climate degradation. Saying so, however, undermines any suggestion that there ever was a process of exchange of ideas, much less an Asian intellectual unity. In any case he ends on a defeated note: “the course of history has bypassed many of (the thinkers’) fondest hopes”.

Some of Mishra’s inferences are also problematic, like the Second World War. It is widely accepted that WWII hastened the end of colonialism and that the Europeans were so worn down by two exacting wars — wars that only underlined the assertions by Tagore, al-Afghani and Qichao about the hollowness of the Western template of individualism and mercantilism — that they had no energy to govern their colonies. Mishra writes that it was Japan’s occupation of much of East Asia that roused nationalisms in those countries (along with showing European fallibility). But Mishra also infers that the Japanese were victims of two atomic bombs because, as the Dutch prime minister in exile wrote to his British counterpart, Winston Churchill, “Japanese injuries and insults to the White population…would irreparably damage white prestige unless severely punished within a short time”. That’s stretching it a bit.

Perhaps such problems are bound to occur when a book comprises almost no primary sources, and wholly secondary (or even tertiary) sources. Data that has gone through one generation of filtering is now put through another generation of filtering, with the danger of losing sight of what the primary historians were saying originally. Or perhaps such problems were bound to occur if the book was written merely as a riposte to Niall Ferguson, with whom Mishra has had of late a public debate, of more heat than light. Sad. Ferguson is intellectual deadwood and not worth anyone’s time. But then Mishra, according to the book jacket, writes principally for several Western publications; so what does that mean — that his own intellectual decolonisation remains an incomplete project? And that this book is just a personal-level wishful thinking? Maybe we wouldn’t get bogged down in this post-modernist critique of a post-modernist critique if it weren’t for the fact that the book is not a fun read by any means. It is excruciatingly hard work, and should be picked up only by those who have no choice.

Not that the book has no moments. My favourite included the passages surrounding the great betrayal of Asians by US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points, one of which was the principle of self-determination. Of course, President Wilson intended this principle for Eastern Europe, not for the coloured peoples, as assorted Asians were to find out at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Australian prime minster Billy Hughes made jokes about cannibalism, and his British counterpart Lloyd George referred to “niggers”. Race, not geographical grouping, was the more relevant template of discourse. No wonder so many non-radicals and non-Muslims had a smile on their face when a certain disciple of Sayyid Qutb, another activist for intellectual decolonisation, flew three planes into America on September 11, 2001. Was 9/11 an act of terrorism, or was it a post-modernist act of post-colonialism?

– Aditya Sinha is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai


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