Empire States: On Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra is a writer who has made a mixed career of reporting from the shadow line of the North/South divide. Born in 1969 to a down-at-the-heel Brahmin family in the city of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, where his father worked as a trade unionist in Indian Railways, he came of age just before India’s headlong rush into the global economy. During the magical years of his childhood, Mishra subscribed to Soviet magazines (commonly found in India at the time), owned a framed picture of Lenin and took Brezhnev’s death personally. His intellectual epiphany, recounted repeatedly in his books, centered on an unexpected encounter with the works of Edmund Wilson in a termite-infested library in Varanasi—which might be about the most irresistible thing that an editor in Manhattan could ever want to hear. In Wilson, Mishra found not only an attractive confidence of judgment, but also a writer willing to examine critically the ideological passions of his youth. In 1993, Mishra was asked by an Indian publisher to write a travelogue of midsize cities in the country. The result remains Mishra’s most winning book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, in which he confronts his own pretensions and dreams along with those of India’s fast-emerging middle class. It’s a world of automatic-flush toilets, cramped buses, radical students, furtive lovers, sentimental novels and ham-handed pornography. Poor Mishra can barely find anyone to discuss Thomas Mann with him. But for the most part, his sense of wonder keeps his studied rancor in check, and the uncertain scribbler who began the journey stands before us as a writer at its end.
Amid the economic and religious upheaval of India in the 1990s, Mishra began asking a question that still preoccupies him: How can a people become authentically modern and selectively take on the best of the West without becoming culturally unmoored? Mishra has come to find new areas of darkness concealed behind the glitter of Indian modernity: the wealthy Indian elites who have exiled themselves from participation in civil society and live in gated colonies; the Naxalite movement that has raged for the last forty years against government policy; the massive influx of rural people into the cities, whose sense of drift is exploited by Hindu nationalist parties; the corrupt development schemes that seem to have made slums a permanent feature of the urban landscape. For all the talk of India as the next great global power, what has passed for political imagination there since independence seems to betray an intellectual failure, especially if one takes as a starting point Gandhi’s call for India to become a spiritual example to the world.
From the Ruins of Empire is Mishra’s investigation of that failure, which he sees as not confined to India but including Asia as a whole and reaching far back in history. His book does not revisit the possibilities of any postwar revisions of the Western world system, but instead plunges into the last decades of the nineteenth century. This is the age of formal empires, when for the first time intellectuals in Asia were faced with breakneck modernization, but before any of the standard forms of resistance were established. The dramatic rupture was the Russo-Japanese War of 1905—“World War Zero”—where, for the first time, an Asian power defeated a Western one and seemed to signal a turning of the tide. As Mishra stresses, this was a triumphal global moment for non-Westerners. Indian parents named their sons after Japanese admirals; Chinese revolutionaries went to organize in Tokyo; shortly after the Russian defeat, the Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen found himself being cheered by Arab dockworkers at the Suez Canal who mistook him for Japanese. At this charged historical moment, the major political ideologies of the twentieth century had yet to congeal. Ideas moved through Asia like free radicals, still yet to be assembled in practice. As Mishra sees it, there were three main postures available for those pitted against the West: outright embrace of Western methods and modernization (the course followed by Japan); outright rejection (the course followed by Muhammad Ahmad, “the Mahdi,” who tried to restore the caliphate in the Sudan); or the various attempts to synthesize Asian and Western traditions that can be found across the spectrum of Asian thinkers.
It’s this third, syncretic attitude that most interests Mishra. His book is a triptych of three Asian intellectuals who each experienced the onslaught of Western modernization and saw himself as a political reformer. The first of the group is the mysterious Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who was born in a Persian village in 1838 and died in Istanbul in 1897. Early on, al-Afghani argued that while Muslims would have to adopt Western science, this did not mean they would need to adopt everything else Westerners packaged it with. He was one of the first Middle Eastern thinkers to recognize the potential power of Islam as an international anti-Western political force. Through his tireless networking of Muslim leaders across the Ottoman lands, he became an anathema to Whitehall officials, who linked him to uprisings across the empire. Yet at least al-Afghani obliged future historians by taking time out to debate Western intellectuals. In 1883, in what Mishra bills as the first modern debate between a Muslim thinker and a European one, al-Afghani sparred with Ernest Renan. In his response to an article by Renan that condemned Islam for being an impediment to science and progress, al-Afghani tore through Renan’s prejudices. But the riposte is not quite as triumphant as Mishra makes it out to be. Al-Afghani’s syllogisms are almost equally facile: if modern science is the product of Christian society, he argues, and Islam was founded as a religion after Christianity, then shouldn’t modern science also issue eventually from Islam?
But it’s al-Afghani’s status as an intellectual hustler that makes him intriguing. He tried to persuade Muslim leaders of the necessity of protective modernization and the compatibility of nationalism and pan-Islamism, and to interpret Sharia according to the needs of a modern Middle East. Al-Afghani appealed to the scriptural principle of ijtihad—which holds that analogical reasoning could be applied to the law as new circumstances arise—in an attempt to convince the clerics of his day to make Sharia speak to the present. That al-Afghani was almost certainly a theological opportunist—a Shiite-born Muslim who passed as a Sunni—only sweetens the irony that he is now a revered figure among Islamists. Mishra reports that he was an inspiration for the Iranian intellectuals who plotted the downfall of the shah in Parisian cafes in the 1960s. In 2002, the US ambassador to Afghanistan pledged a donation of $25,000 for the restoration of al-Afghani’s tomb outside Kabul—apparently under the impression that he was some sort of wholesome Muslim liberal.
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Mishra’s second shadow man is better known. The Chinese anti-colonialist Liang Qichao was born a generation after al-Afghani, but he offers Mishra a parallel life both in his aims and frustrations. Like al-Afghani, Liang was a man who paid court everywhere, working under the assumption that if he proselytized hard enough, whoever was in charge of China would listen to his ideas. At first this was the empress dowager, whom, unsurprisingly, Liang failed to convince to unravel the Manchu empire in favor of a modern state. Mishra has better sources for Liang and draws a good picture of him moving in the constellation of other Chinese reformers like Kang Youwei. Again like al-Afghani, Liang wanted to retrofit his country’s classics to suit modern needs. He attributed some of the most un-Confucian ideas imaginable to the sage: mass education, the emancipation of women and popular elections. But Liang seems to have changed his mind about everything every few years, finally settling on enlightened despotism as the best way forward for China. It’s fascinating to learn that Liang inspired the young Mao Zedong, who in Mishra’s account comes off as an ideological taste-tester with Lenin’s and Liang’s pronouncements swirling before him.