Asian Intellectuals and the Roads Not Taken



by Ananya Vajpeyi

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia

by Pankaj Mishra

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012)



Is the whole world modern in the same way? Or are there many different forms of modernity out there, and many different ways of becoming modern? How did older societies, with long histories and highly developed premodern civilizations, respond to the encroachments—and enticements—of the modernizing West? How did the great cultures of the East—China, Persia, Turkey, India, Egypt—reconcile tradition with modernity? What aspects of modern Western politics did they embrace—democracy, say, or communism, or the secular state—and which elements of their own pasts were they able to integrate into their changing political and cultural identities? These questions preoccupy a number of important historians who are interested in the transformative effects of globalization, but often their assessments of the encounter and exchange between Europe and Asia over the past four or five hundred years turn into harsh value judgments against one or the other of these two regions of the world, too easily construed as implacable adversaries. 


Much of the discussion around globalization in the 21st century is burdened with bitter memories of colonialism, imperialism, and the Cold War. Pankaj Mishra, author of From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia (FSG, 2012), has himself been entangled in recent years in some rancorous public disputes, most famously perhaps with Patrick French (author of India: A Portrait, Knopf 2011) and Niall Ferguson (author of Civilization: The West and the Rest, Allen Lane 2011). But in his new book, Mishra steps away from the tiresome polemics of “us” versus “them,” and explores the immediate prehistory of globalization through the lives of a small set of important Asian intellectuals spanning about a hundred crucial years from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries. His attempt to answer the perennial question: “How did we get here?” results in an original, engaging, and often completely surprising account of the intellectual journeys and political adventures of men like the Muslim Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), the Chinese Liang Qichao (1873-1929), and the Indian Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), as well as others of their peers and contemporaries in the Middle East, China, Japan, and South Asia


In his previous book, The Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond (FSG 2006), Mishra painted sensitive portraits, mixing history and reportage, of South Asian cultures in flux. His characters struggled to come to terms, often violently, with their various predicaments, as postcolonial societies were torn between burgeoning nationalist aspirations and world-views based on faith and custom; the desire to soar in the skies of modernity and the anxiety of coming loose from the earth of tradition. From the Ruins of Empire revisits many of the same themes—nationalism, religion, capitalism, technology, war—but this time through the ideas and writings of some of the leading intellectuals of their age, who were among the first, in their respective cultural contexts, to grasp the magnitude of the change that was coming their way. They tried to imagine on behalf of their people ways to survive and flourish in a world that was fast becoming unrecognizable to the greater part of humanity.


In choosing as one of his book’s protagonists a peripatetic Muslim—born in Iran and buried in Afghanistan, having spent significant portions of his adult life in British India, Ottoman Turkey, and a highly Europeanized Egypt—Mishra is able to show us both the cohesiveness and incoherence of a huge expanse of Islamic Asia. As al-Afghani pops up unexpectedly in Cairo and Kabul, Istanbul and Calcutta, Paris and Bombay, we begin to realize that the socio-political and religious realities of these places are truly heterogenous, both 150 years ago and today. A category like “Islam” just does not provide the kind of common logic that might organize these peoples and places into a unitary and consistent form that the West could then master either economically or politically. This cluster of historical and cultural worlds is ultimately strung together as much by the wanderings and polemics of a character like al-Afghani as by a seemingly shared religion.


That al-Afghani can shape-shift as orthodox or heterodox, Shia or Sunni, ideological or theological, radical or conservative, suggests that both the man and his putative religious identity as a Muslim are pliable and context-dependent. His intriguingly protean nature as the quintessential modernist intellectual of the Muslim world, and of Islam itself under the sign of modernity, together provide a powerful counter-narrative to the negative and essentialist image of Islam that has come to dominate global consciousness after 9/11, reducing and stereotyping Muslims everywhere as fanatics, terrorists, jihadis, misogynists, and bigots. Mishra's careful and compelling history shows us Muslims in a number of different countries dealing with the newness of modernity and literally becoming modern in all kinds of completely irreducible and incommensurate ways that do not permit the easy construction of a self / other divide. There's simply no “them” there. The fantastically learned, impressively polyglot, self-made, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, rabble-rousing Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who isn't even from Afghanistan, dead before he's 60, provides a superb parable for the predicament of modern Muslims all over Asia, from Palestine to Kashmir, and Syria to Bangladesh, in his times and in our own.


Mishra's two other principal figures, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, speak as much to a historical moment a century ago as they do to our own preoccupations. If for the past decade or more the West has been obsessed with Islamism, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda; with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and most recently with the Arab Spring, then it has just as much been troubled by the rise of the two Asian powers, China and India, which together account for about half of the world's population and have registered a huge surge in economic growth. Through diverging paths of Maoist cultural revolution and secular democracy, China and India have both converged on the free market, in defiance of their not-so-distant pasts as beleaguered Asian giants. A careful look at the intellectual ferment that accompanied the awakening of both these countries as modern nation-states, at a time that is still within living memory, reveals once again the hesitations, the alternatives, the false starts, the roads not taken. 


Interestingly, each of Mishra's protagonists were alike not only in being prescient and proactive as the makers and harbingers of entirely new political cultures, but also in sharing a comparative vision: each of them looked beyond his own society to both the West as well as to other Asian neighbors. Thus they were in conversation, in a sense, with each other's historical experiences, and keen not to replicate each other's mistakes. The Chinese, especially, were wary of both the Middle East's porosity to Western values and India's colonial subjugation at the hands of the British. But the Chinese, unlike both the Muslim world and India, did not take solace nor seek a true identity and interiority in religion—rather, they sought to make a clean break with Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in their quest to become modern. The sources of the self, in China's modernization, lay neither in home-grown traditions nor in imported liberalism, but in fierce struggles to genuinely forget the past and rebuild society from the ground up, through labor, violence, and sheer ideological determination. The results, both spectacular and devastating, are there for all to see, as China quickly ascends to superpower status, leaving India still deeply conflicted about its relationship to both the past and the future. 


Mishra's book reflects not only his erudition and fluency as a scholar, writer, and thinker, but also his extensive, incessant travels through China, the Middle East and of course South Asia—qualities that make the author oddly like the characters he writes about: a cosmopolitan, curious, critical and ambitious mind, constantly engaging with the key questions of his age. At a juncture where powerful journalists are forgetting to report or fact-check their stories, and public intellectuals are succumbing to analytic laziness as well as the tendency to make unsubstantiated pronouncements and pass dubious judgments, From the Ruins of Empire is a welcome return to a more rigorous form of thinking, writing and argumentation. It is especially timely, coming as it does at a moment when historians on both the right, like Niall Ferguson, and the left, like Perry Anderson, are seeking to provide revanchist readings of colonialism, imperialism and nationalism and the effects of these ideologies in the West and the non-West over the past two centuries. As a history of some of the ideas that have shaped the world we inhabit but remain neglected in the historical scholarship, Mishra’s narrative breaks new ground.


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Ananya Vajpeyi's book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India is published by Harvard University Press in September 2012.

Originally posted on our partner site, the World Policy Journal Blog.



Afghanistan, Asia, China, India, Iran, Islam, Japan, Middle East