Ruins of Empire with Pankaj Mishra

The Victorian period, often viewed in the West as a time of self-confident progress, was experienced by many Asians as a catastrophe. As the British gunned down the last heirs to the Mughal Empire, burned down the Summer Palace in Beijing, or humiliated the bankrupt rulers of the Ottoman Empire, it was clear that for Asia to recover, a vast intellectual effort would be required.

Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire, explores the historical fallout of the end of the Qing, Ottoman and Mughal empires with historian and filmmaker Michael Wood. (See Pulse’s review of Mishra’s book)

Archaeology of Revolutionary Knowledge

My review of Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire which first appeared in Guernica.

As tsar Alexander III sat down for an evening’s entertainment at the St. Petersburg opera in late 1887, he little knew that the performance would be upstaged by one far more dramatic. Shortly after the curtains rose, a slender, goateed man with azure eyes, dressed in robe and turban, got up from a box nearby and proclaimed loudly: “I intend to say the evening prayer—Allah-u-Akbar!” The audience sat bemused and soldiers waited impatiently as the man proceeded unperturbed with his evening prayers. His sole companion, the Russian-born intellectual Abdurreshid Ibrahim, squirmed in fear of his life.

Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani was determined to recruit Russian support in his campaign against the British. Having failed to secure an audience with the tsar, he had decided to use his daring as a calling card. The tsar’s curiosity was duly piqued and Afghani had his hearing.

This could be a scene out of Tolstoy or Lermontov; but so extraordinary a figure was Afghani (1838-97) that inserting him into fiction would have compromised verisimilitude. So, renowned essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra has opted for the genres of historical essay and intellectual biography to profile the lives of Afghani and other equally remarkable figures in From the Ruins of Empire: The intellectuals who remade Asia.

The book is a refreshing break from lachrymose histories of the East’s victimhood and laments about its past glories. It concerns a group of intellectuals who responded to the threat of western dominance with vigour and imagination. Together they engendered the intellectual currents that have shaped the last century of the region’s history. Continue reading “Archaeology of Revolutionary Knowledge”

Mishra and Lydon on the Ruins of Empire

Two dear friends of mine, Pankaj Mishra and Chris Lydon, in conversation. Pankaj is easily one of the world’s most important public intellectuals and Chris is the world’s best interviewer. Radio Open Source is the place where all the intellectual synergy happens week after week.

Pankaj Mishra is sounding a wake-up call about “angry Asia” — from an alarm clock that, he’ll tell you, has been ringing for more than a century. He’s made it a story for today on the conviction that de-colonization is still the world’s pre-occupying project: to regain dignity that non-Westerners remember enjoying before the Europeans came. From the Ruins of Empire is Pankaj Mishra’s re-introduction of “The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” the god-parents of Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and Nasser. No less an icon on the East-West bridge than Nobel-laureate Orham Pamauk testifies that Pankaj Mishra is giving us “modern history as it has been felt by the majority of the world’s population from Turkey to China.”

Continue reading “Mishra and Lydon on the Ruins of Empire”

Pakistan’s Unplanned Revolution Rewrites Its Future

By Pankaj Mishra

Change Returning last week from an instructive three weeks in Pakistan, I was detained briefly at Islamabad’s chaotic airport after an X-ray machine showed two highly suspicious music CDs and a USB memory stick in my check- in bag.

The music was of Mehdi Hassan, my favorite singer in South Asia, and the USB was part of a PR packet given to me by a Bangkok hotelier. It didn’t matter. For nearly three hours, two men in shalwar kameez — members of one of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies — supervised customs and immigration officials, and even the staff of my Middle Eastern airline, through an extensive scrutiny of my bags and the many visas in my passport.

These plainclothed, thuggish-looking men seemed to confirm the popular Western stereotype of Pakistan’s “deep state,” a vast subterranean network of soldiers, spies, and militants-for- hire that actually runs the country while the state fails to provide health care and education to a largely poor and illiterate population of nearly 190 million.
Continue reading “Pakistan’s Unplanned Revolution Rewrites Its Future”

Indians Against Democracy

by Pankaj Mishra

Growing up in India in the 1970s and 80s, I often heard people in upper-caste middle class circles say that parliamentary democracy was ill-suited to the country. Recoiling from populist politicians who pandered to the poor, many Indians solemnly invoked the example of Singapore’s leader Lee Kuan Yew. Here was an Oxbridge-educated and suitably enlightened autocrat, who suffered no nonsense about democracy, and, furthermore, believed firmly in the efficacy of publicly caning even minor breakers of the law. Devising his wise policies with the help of experts and technocrats, he simply imposed them on the population. Lee Kuan Yew’s success in transforming a city-state into a major economic power was apparent to all: clean, shiny, efficient, and prosperous Singapore, the very antithesis of corrupt and squalor-prone India.

Such yearnings for technocratic utopia may seem to have little in common with the middle class protests against “corruption” that recently gained much attention before abruptly losing steam at the end of the year. Led by Anna Hazare—an army veteran described in the foreign press as a “simple man in a Gandhian cap” when he went on a hunger strike last summer— the movement was presented by sections of the media in both India and the West as a long overdue political awakening of the middle class, even as India’s “second freedom struggle.” With his unambiguous denunciations of venality in public life, Hazare seemed to have alerted tens of millions of otherwise apolitical Indians to the possibilities of civil society, mass mobilization, and grass-roots activism.

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Why silence over Kashmir speaks volumes

by Pankaj Mishra

Once known for its extraordinary beauty, the valley of Kashmir now hosts the biggest, bloodiest and also the most obscure military occupation in the world. With more than 80,000 people dead in an anti-India insurgency backed by Pakistan, the killings fields of Kashmir dwarf those of Palestine and Tibet. In addition to the everyday regime of arbitrary arrests, curfews, raids, and checkpoints enforced by nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers, the valley’s 4 million Muslims are exposed to extra-judicial execution, rape and torture, with such barbaric variations as live electric wires inserted into penises.

Why then does the immense human suffering of Kashmir occupy such an imperceptible place in our moral imagination? After all, the Kashmiris demanding release from the degradations of military rule couldn’t be louder and clearer. India has contained the insurgency provoked in 1989 by its rigged elections and massacres of protestors. The hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that fill the streets of Kashmir’s cities today are overwhelmingly young, many in their teens, and armed with nothing more lethal than stones. Yet the Indian state seems determined to strangle their voices as it did of the old one. Already this summer, soldiers have shot dead more than 50 protestors, most of them teenagers.

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Culture of Fear

The Eternal Jew. Nazi-era film.
The Eternal Jew. Nazi-era film.

I don’t usually subject myself to it, but a few days ago I found myself near a television in the act of broadcasting the BBC news. One of the headline stories, carefully selected for relevance from this world of trouble, concerned a bleach attack on the boyfriend of a married woman. The woman and her boyfriend were both British Muslims, so the newscaster expected the attack to put the focus back on ‘honour crimes in the Muslim community’. I wonder how many ‘native’ white males were glassed or bottled in Britain last Saturday night for looking at somebody’s girlfriend the wrong way. I wonder when the focus will be directed (it can’t be ‘put back’ because it wasn’t there in the first place) on Anglo honour crimes, on show right now in a pub near you.

Next little episode: Jim Fitzpatrick MP, whose east London constituency is a third Muslim, walked out of a constituent’s wedding party when he discovered – to his horror – that men and women were asked to sit in separate areas. Many comment-posters on the ‘liberal’ Guardian supported Fitzpatrick’s action, because gender segregation is not something we do in this country. Absolutely. If it weren’t for the Muslim cultural invasion, proper Brits wouldn’t have picked up the foreign habit of the stag and hen night.

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