Saturday, September 29, 2012

On the ‘ruins of empire’!

Book Review: Non-fiction/From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra, Allen Lane, 356 pp; Rs699 (Hardback)
Stepping in the contested history is possible without stucking with gauche mannerism, which Pankaj Mishra has proved long back with his thought provoking account on European influence in “Temptation of the West” and now with much awaited work on the colonial history, “From the Ruins of Empire”. ‘Ostentation of knowledge’ is an established plank of western historiography that primarily aims at defying the civilisational distinction in favour of much compressed and narrowly oriented idea of knowledge that obviously is West favoured.

Mishra tries to answer those biased antics, with his own high polemical standard and by recalling some of the refreshingly independent thinkers from Asia, who stood against the Western narratives of knowledge or authority at the height of imperialism. This whole process stemmed through the project-colonialism, though its death happened decades back but shadow remains strong enough (as of now, even in the follies of its believers) to suppress the efforts of damage control through historical interpretation.

This book doesn’t nibble the ideas; rather it hammers the odd convictions and concretizes the assertions from Asia against the western colonialism. Never to forget, this is to denounce the horrifying shambling of anecdotes and for shining a new light. In core, the book has more focus on the personalities from Asia, who stood with their own independent thinking against the colonial will. The significant details on the works of Al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore give reasons for relooking on the history of intellectual resistance.

Here, Pankaj Mishra questions on the tailor made assertions of West towards Asian wisdom-the book accounts; Tagore was at some point more vocal critic to the West than it is commonly known. Also, he was highly detached with the Western materialism, and never taken his family’s connection with the Westerners in ‘pride’. His following action as a poet/artist and the institution makers was clearly a shift from the popular fashion, nourished by shrewd Western ideas. Not surprising, if Tagore was never easy with his grandfather/ Dwarkanath Tagore’s over entrepreneurial drive and liasoning with the Britishers.

Subsequently, in beat and pieces, movements spread with these new beliefs have covered well by the author. Astonishing scholarism in narration is an indelible quality of Pankaj Mishra, he exuded it with his fiction “Romantics”, less fictional travelogue “Chicken Butter in Ludhiana” and other works, this time too, he touches his own benchmarks while dealing with a wide range of geography and its complex history. He makes vociferous criticism on the Western notion of cultural supremacy and strongly points out on the instances that made the Victorian period, a time of breathless progress in the west but how maximization of its gain proved menacing for the Asians.

The perceptions in vogue, still has lesser emphasis on the intellectual side of tussle that begun with the advent of colonialism in Asia. Mostly it’s the economic reasons that sighted as the cause of inter-continental trade hunt, and later its continuation in varied amoral forms. “From the Ruins of Empire” is basically a remarkable book, as it rises above those stunted confirmations that discourage the practical look out on the most important phases of history.

Earlier, Asians overtly suffered those ugly treatments of western colonialism, but now the cultural discrimination is routing alternatively albeit creating not less frustration and anger among those sufferers. Against these backdrops, India and China have emerged as two strong powers, with impressive international acceptance of their might in different capacity. In the 21st century, this presents an interesting scenario, as no longer west has ability to sustain its conventional affluence over the world and new powers are unlikely to undermine its newly found edge for leading the history to a new end.

So, this is a balancing phase-book tells this but not before ruling out the misnomer that Asians (particularly India and China) could match the western lifestyle, in their flawed imagination. For knowing the history of divide better, Mishra enables the reader to travel to the events of two centuries. As the book progresses, reader can also get sufficient interface in ideas, which become possible through seeing the events from the eyes of others, such as the well travelled journalists, poet, and political radicals.

Among the many quotes used in the book, Akbar Illahabadi’s quote (page-14), which is more an apprehensive statement seems closer to the heart of this book. ..
They hold the throne in their hand. The whole realm is in their hand.
The country, the apportioning of men’s livelihood is in their hand…
The springs of hope and of fear are in their hand…In their hand is the power
To decide who shall be humbled and who exalted…Our people is in their hand,
Education is their hand…If the West continues to be what it is, and the East what
It is, we shall see the day when the whole world is in their hand.

Undoubtedly, here the poet is less reluctant in subscribing what went wrong in the inner construct of East that made it the subject of West’s selfish ideas.

Pankaj Mishra has reignited a very broad debate this time with “From the Ruins of Empire”, he has extended those orientation started with Edward Said’s “The Orientalism” in 1978 in controversial post-colonial studies. Again, the time has begins now to contempt the Western concept of “Orientalism” or the difference between East and West. This book makes the ‘artificial boundary’ made by the West into two parts, between East-west or the Occident-Orient or the civilised-non-civilised less acceptable.

This is a welcome development in the sense, world will have better chances of peaceful co-existence in the absence of any lurk for highest order confrontation in different arenas. Pankaj Mishra normally supplies less than his readers want from him, but he has to change now under the consistent demand he will face to write more on the post-colonial themes. Meanwhile, time is to wait and see how the Western world reorders itself!
Atul Kumar Thakur
September 29, 2012, Saturday

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