Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Height of Clamour

Book Review: Non-fiction/ A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its Neighbours by Pankaj Mishra, Penguin, p.325; Rs499 (Hardback)
Pankaj Mishra’s A Great Clamour comprises a significant commentary on contemporary China, an examination of the contradictions and potency that shape and define the country

In the earlier work titled From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra had conducted an effective analysis of the western model and presented reasons why he believes Asia has a better chance in the new world, set free as it is from the complex constructs of its colonial past. Mishra’s latest book, A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and its Neighbours, once more, and just as winningly, challenges the burden of western influence on Asia.

In the course of writing these two books, the author has traced the journeys and ideas that contributed to the building of Asian solidarity—first through intellectual engagements and later via trade collaborations. But in the wake of decolonisation and emergence of modern states, based on western political ideas, that solidarity, he believes, has become somewhat incoherent.

Mishra, who calls Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh his home, has intermittently spent over two decades there. Living in such proximity to the mountains, on the other side of which lies Tibet, meant that it was natural that China would figure a big part of his research, a country he deems as complex and possessing a comparable degree of civilisational attributes as his own.

Another factor that threads India and China together, in Mishra’s view, is the role they play in global capitalism. The upward mobilisation from rural areas to big cities is a visible trend in both, with varied internal effects, of course, including the springing forth of a new kind of politics which necessarily focuses on issues related to unequal access to resources and lack of accountability in governance.

But beyond borders, as Mishra puts it, the common experience of modern capitalism offers new grounds for fraternity. Then again, the author does express reasonable concern towards the impediments that continue to exist on the path of solidarity—as in the case of China and India, the contradiction within their respective political systems and economic interests.

The book attempts a frontal attack on capitalism and western notions of modernity; the last part of the volume, for instance, takes into account five other Asian countries—Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Malaysia and Indonesia—as sufferers of these very forces.

In doing so, Mishra often seems to be penning a report cart of sorts on these nations, with taglines like “Japan’s aged modernity” and “Shanghai’s garish newness”, among others. As interesting as these are, however, given the fact that he doesn’t list any viable alternatives to replace the western model, they prove a bit aimless in the end.

A Great Clamour can be considered, for the most part, a significant commentary on contemporary China, supported by fine observations on crucial antecedents. Though very briefly, the book also explores the controversial issue of Tibet, as well as the dismal state of Nepali migrants in the booming towns of a “very aggressive China”.

This isn’t, of course, the first time Mishra has touched upon Nepal in his works; his Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India has a detailed chapter on the country, wherein he captures the sense of disillusionment among the masses incited by both the monarchy and Maoist rule, at a time when royals and radicals were the biggest players in national politics and the path ahead was still murky.

As for the subject of Tibet, it is appreciable that Mishra has chosen to write on it, given how under-covered it still remains in the mainstream press, in terms of real, qualitative research that is built on anything other than a western perspective. Although commentaries and books can be found, there are very few works among these that are able to evade personal judgment to offer a more objective view, something Mishra is clearly hoping to remedy.

The author, who has emerged a major thinker in recent times, further demonstrates his competence with this latest release. In the last few years, Mishra has spent a considerable amount of time in the West, and he’s used the experiences gained therein to challenge the ‘western wisdom’ in circulation around the world, a stance already made crystal clear in his much-hyped spat with Niall Ferguson and Patrick French, during which he accused the first of being racist and the second for overlooking elitism in India.

Mishra’s last two books had aimed to highlight the apathy of Asians towards their own history, and investigate why it is that the western model—ridden with crises of idea and direction—is still being religiously adhered to in Asia. Most likely, he argues, this is because the world has now a more or less undivided economic vision—beyond symbolism, even a country like China is afflicted with the consumerist agenda. The weakening of radical political ideologies and failure of existing leftists to find an alternate route regarding ‘intelligent economics’ has turned the scene dangerously idle, he says.

A Great Clamour largely shows the double-wheeling of the Chinese regime, sans democratic provisions like fundamental rights and transparency. The surging cities, unprecedented aggression on Tibet and calmness of citizens—it’s a country that is expanding with countless contradictions within its belly. But China is a world unto itself; other worlds on the outside have no clear access to this land. And over the decades, it has placed itself in the unique position to be able to play strategic ‘hide and seek’ with entities within and beyond its physical fortress.

India has a rich tradition of wandering scholars, and Mishra appears to be next in line, behind the likes of Rahul Sankrityayan ,Nagarjun, Nirmal Verma, travelling and writing on alien lands. The man, who loves isolation and working outside of the public glare, is greatly suited to unravel the realities of unexplored terrains. Throughout his career, he has been promising with his chosen themes, and this new book too is certain to be read and liked widely.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on February1,2014)

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