'From The Ruins of The Empire': Interrogating The New Asia

I have now finished reading Pankaj Mishra's From The Ruins of the Empire, a fascinating tale of the idea of Asia in the time of European conquests. This is a colonial history in the reverse, a sensitive, balanced tale of interactions, tensions and ideas around the lives of men who made it.

The story is structured around the lives of two central figures, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838 - 97) and Liang Qichao (1873 - 1929), and their many contemporaries who debated and developed the idea of the new Asia in the face of the advances and adventures of the newly industrialised Europe. Other prominent Asians, men like Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Rashid Rida, Sun Yet Sen, Lu Xun, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, leading men of Japan leading the Meiji restoration and imperial Japan, the young Ottomans and European Socialists all make an appearance, all in stark contrast with the old world colonialists such Lord Elgin, the Czar, David Lloyd George etc alongside a rhetoric-obsessed, duplicitous Woodrow Wilson. It is a fascinating rubric of ideas, with surprising contemporary relevance for Asians of all hues still trying to figure out what they stand for.

Jamal al-Din, a man born in Iran, was the sort of cosmopolitan Asian whose sort has become extremely rare: Jamal al-Din lived in Kabul, Calcutta, Delhi, Istanbul, Cairo, London, Paris, Moscow and Tehran, had fledgling political careers in all those cities (he managed to get thrown out from most of those countries), had ardent followers and students among the first generation Asian nationalists across the continent (including Japan). I followed with fascination his ideas of Pan-Islamism, which shaped, at various times and in different forms, world views and politics of the makers of modern Egypt and secular Turkey, Iqbal and his visions of Pakistan, Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Queda. This was a lot for a man who lived for only fifty-nine years, and despite some brief sojourns in Ottoman Turkey and Imperial Iran, and a Professorships in Al-Azhar University in Cairo, mostly worked as a private citizen and pamphleteer. 

In contrast, Liang Qichao, who had a similar life and was similarly cosmopolitan (Liang lived in China, Japan, America and Europe), had his time in the Chinese High politics, and was even a central figure in the brief bout of reform in China under the Guangxu emperor in 1898 (before the counter-revolution led by the Dowager Empress Cixi which reversed the reforms, murdered the emperor and made Liang and others to flee to Japan). Liang will continue to play a role in the Chinese politics, holding positions of influence in the Chinese republic, and leave a legacy that will influence a generation of Chines leaders including Chiang, Mao, Zhou En Lai and Deng, and indeed many in Japan.

So, what is the central narrative that involves all these illustrious men (and some women) together? This is indeed the formation of various 'Pan-' identities, which emerged in the background of the breaking of civilisations in Asia. As the Europeans looted cities, destroyed palaces and subjugated once proud people in Egypt, India, Java and China, and forced others, in Turkey and Iran, into unquestioning concessions, these very able men tried to answer two questions. While they marveled at the industrial progress of Europe, and wished their societies educate itself, instill the discipline and active lifestyle of the Europeans and imbibe the spirit of scientific inquiry, they, at the same time, looked at the materialism and barbarism of their oppressors and did not want to create anything like the European civilisations in their midst. In short, they looked around for an Asian identity in the midst of general ruin, and dreamt of principles and ideas which can remake Asia. Pan-Islamism of al-Afghani, which he somewhat reluctantly came to, and Pan-Asianism, originally a Japanese idea which Liang bought into rather defensively, are two such attempts to discover the 'spirit of the East'. Tagore's Cosmopolitan Humanism, Gandhi's rejection of the Western Age of Machines, stood alongside these ideas, as did the Westernisation of Imperial Japan and committed Secularism of Ataturk's Turkey, though in a different vein.

In the end, Asia was remade. The old Colonialism fell apart. A new generation of Asian leaders, Nehru, Sukarno, Mao, Ho, Naser among them, took these formative ideas forward. Their work is unfortunately somewhat maligned, projected with the prism of Cold War politics in the Western media. This book, therefore, is an important attempt to explore the world from a different view point, a very different view point from the patronising and utterly partisan views of the Western media. 

After making the effort, I know this was a must-read for people like me. This is because I am aware of and continuously struggling to come out of the English language bubble that envelop my thoughts and worldviews, and yet would not want to give up the hard-earned values of social equality and scientific reasoning that we have in our countries: In short, a definitive guide for my quest for a cosmopolitan nation that I seek in India.


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