Books · Colonisation · Political · Whiteness & racism

Writing Back Historically

From the Ruins of EmpireFrom the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mishra’s approach here can’t be faulted; it would be preposterous to offer the sweeping statements and crisp conclusions of the sixth chaper Asia Remade without carefully laying the foundations in the previous five, painstakingly excavating the neglected work and histories of thinkers like Jamal al-din al-Afghani and Liang Qichao, whose shadows lie tall across the decades in myriad shapes: from Mao Tse-Dong to the Confucian resurgence, from Ayatollah Khomeini to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. For me it was a bit of an uphill slog, but all worth it for the exhilarating freewheeling down from the top

Commonplace critique of colonisation tends to assume a passive Asia in subdued thrall, an orientalist picture in itself. Mishra energeticaly corrects that misconception here, showing how colonial powers were seen by Asian intellectuals and how various strands and flavours of resistence were built up. For most of the book I felt that everyone, Mishra included, was giving too much quarter to coloniser epistemology, which only begin to partially unravel at the hands of Gandhi and Tagore and in the later chapters. It is interesting in itself though that ideas like social Darwinism and scientific materialism caught on and wrought significant changes to Asian state structures and societies. ‘Western’ ideas were not merely assimilated but furiously and critically debated, adapted, edited, and in the case of the nation state, eventually used to overthrow the imperial powers and to remake Asia. The thinkers Mishra follows change their minds in the course of their intellectual careers; first imagining how the key tenets of Western success might work for Islam or the Chinese, and later, on some level recognising the West as a disaster to its own populations as well as others.

Mishra has been astonishingly effective at synthesising and condensing whole libraries of background reading into this focussed, highly structured work. Of thousands of possible strands, he has selected a handful, and woven them into coherence, into something that can be digested and absorbed usefully for reflection and discussion. I was struck by what I felt to be its dispassionate tone; until the concluding chapters, the attrocities of empire were treated almost casually, and strands of opposition are discussed quite matter-of-factly, creating an impression of even-handedness and objectivity. But of course, I have been sheltered from these shameful histories.

What is outside the scope of this history is the ground-level perspective. I suppose many readers will be much more familiar with this view, which is the domain of literature, but the thinkers Mishra follows addressed themselves mainly to elites, at times academic, but mainly political, and only late in their careers realised that cultural change comes from the roots of the grass. Thus, the hinges of Mishra’s story are unoiled by vernacular voices, and women make almost no appearance at all. While I found it an edifying read, there was more duty than pleasure in the text for me!

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