Monday, September 17, 2012

Crafting an alternative history


From the Ruins of Empire
By Pankaj Mishra


Once in a while comes along a book with whose content you may thoroughly disagree but still relish reading, simply because it offers a compelling intellectual argument. This is one such book. Seventeen years ago, Pankaj Mishra took us on a roller-coaster ride with his delightful Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. If there could be a truly desi book written in English, it was this chronicle of travel in small town India. It had the feel and smell of the country and its people that only the legendary RK Narayan could bring out through his writings. At that point in time, few people would have realised that there lurked in Mishra’s mind an idea that covered a domain larger and more ambitious in scope than the mere idiosyncrasies of small town Indians. Perhaps it did not then, because Mishra went on to craft a novel titled The Romantics and then wrote some more travel pieces. But all of these writings, though vastly different from one another, had a common thread: The eagerness to explore the shifts and twists in the cultural history of people in the course of their socio-political journey. And, that desire has been given full expression in his latest offering.
The author’s determination to re-look at the history of the East by cleansing it of a Western perspective is admirable — though he does claim that his aim in the book is not to replace the “Euro-centric perspective with an equally problematic Asia-centric one”. To attain that he has deftly managed the travels and thoughts of two 19th century Eastern travellers-thinkers: The Persian Jamal-al-Din-al-Afghani and the Chinese Liang Qichao. Both these men of thought had been disillusioned by the imperial powers of that time which had been recklessly stripping countries they had colonised of their wealth. Worse, the imperialists had been rendering body blows to the cultural ethos of these unfortunate nations. The choice of these travellers is not accidental; Mishra has deliberately used them as sutradhars to pursue his belief that such thinkers, marginalised by the rulers and thereby projected as inconsequential, had in fact left a sustained impact on the people and even to some extent determined the course of events that unfolded in the decades to come.
Given the scale of the enterprise that the author has chosen to undertake and the scintillating manner in which he has achieved that, it would not be an exaggeration to say that From the Ruins of Empire is as important a book of our times as the recently published Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. If the latter takes us into the intricacies of how some countries have become rich while others have lagged behind, seeking pointers from ancient culture to history to governance for the phenomenon, Mishra’s work explores facets left unattended by historians and academics largely because it would be too much of a trouble to question those presumptions and develop cogent arguments against them.
In his many interviews in the wake of the book’s release, the author has emphasised that the time had come for all of us, especially in the East, to emerge from the stranglehold of the Western theory. In a conversation with Belen Fernandez, an author and columnist, Mishra stated that the West had seen Asia “through the narrow perspective of its own strategic and economic interests, leaving unexamined — and unimagined — the collective experiences and subjectivity of Asian peoples.”
Given his vehemence to revisit history in search of the ‘alternative truth’, it comes as a bit of surprise and significant disappointment that, when it comes to India, he should succumb to the very premise that he seeks to demolish. For instance, he deals with the 1857 mutiny in much the same manner that British historians and their Indian counterparts by and large have done. The author believes that the rebellion that almost succeeded had been an “eruption” of an “anti-West xenophobia, often accompanied by a desperate desire to resurrect a fading or lost socio-cultural order”. But surely the mutiny was more than just that; it was an expression of a larger desire among Indians to be masters of their homeland and their destiny. While it is true that the assorted rebels drawn from the west to north were not as well organised or equipped to take on the might of the British, it is also a fact that even with such handicaps they did manage to capture major towns and even Delhi where the Mughal ruler symbolically reigned and headed the revolt. If they could not hold on to those gains, it had to do with their failure to win support from a broader spectrum of the people and the intelligentsia of the time.
A more refreshing perspective, which Mishra would have done well to factor in his book, is offered in Operation Red Lotus. Written by Parag Tope, a descendent of the legendary Tatya Tope who played a stellar role in the mutiny, the book demolishes with new material many established beliefs about the uprising. It can be said that Parag Tope’s opinion is overly subjective, given his family connection. But then, it is no more subjective than those of al-Afghani and Qichao, who had their own reasons to be sore about imperial rule.
The other jarring point in the book is the short shrift that Mishra gives to ‘radical’ freedom-fighter Aurobindo Ghose, who later metamorphosed into a spiritual leader and came to be known as Sri Aurobindo. He does acknowledge Aurobindo’s eminence, but only just, picking some of his sundry quotes like, “Bengalis were drunk with the wine of European civilisation”. It is not a remark that must have made him popular in his home State, and perhaps explains why he has been gently set aside when the country’s history is discussed. Apparently, for the author — like for the British — Sri Aurobindo was a mere footnote in the pages of history, while the likes of Rabindranath Tagore were the central figures. It is true that Tagore influenced the country’s political philosophy immensely, but he had one ‘advantage’ which Sri Aurobindo lacked: A greater acceptability in the West following the Nobel Prize for literature that he won. Suddenly, he was an international figure and had a global platform to propagate his views. Still, it cannot be forgotten — and Mishra ought to have taken it into account — that Aurobindo’s contribution was not merely restricted to political awakening; he showed the path to ‘intellectual spiritualism’. That legacy still lives on in the Auroville Ashram in Puducherry.
Despite these warts, one has to heartily agree with Mishra’s concluding remarks in his book: “The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth — that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans — is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by Al Qaeda.”

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