This is the premise of Pankaj Mishra’s newest book, a travelogue of the Far East. Mishra knows that while we take our lead from the West today, this was not always the case. His last book, From the Ruins of Empire, followed the journeys and ideas of various turn-of-the-century Asian intellectuals who were committed to finding alternatives to the Western systems of imperialism, capitalism, and nationalism. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, and Rabindranath Tagore, some of the protagonists of his last book, were all engaged in various experiments with pan-Asian and pan-Islamic movements. Today, however, those intellectual efforts at Asian solidarity have been supplanted by trade and business collaboration. The idea of Asia has lost its coherence.
The headlong rush into the arms of global capitalism and its attendant social and political dislocations are shaping lives across Asia of “rural migrants in Jakarta, factory workers in Manesar, tribals in Chhattisgarh, nomads in Tibet as well as the gated-communitarian patrons of Hermés and Jimmy Choo in Hangzhou and Gurgaon.” It is on this common experience of “the Asian scramble for capitalist modernity” that Mishra lays out new grounds for fraternity.
Mishra’s first and most important destination is China. It takes up two of the three parts of his book. The China found in these pages bears little resemblance to the China of Lonely Planet. Mishra’s tour is historically-informed, well-researched and gripping. Rather than ambling through the streets of Shanghai and Beijing, gleaning insights from glittering buildings and urban poverty, he strikes straight towards the heart of Chinese society with the help of its writers and thinkers. Qian Zhongshu’s 1940s novel Fortress Besieged and Dai Wei’s 2008 novel Beijing Coma disclose Chinese experiences across generations and historical moments. Mishra’s conversations with Chinese thinkers offer a view onto the range of intellectual responses — liberal, leftist, and Tibetan nationalist — to China’s current situation. In this instance, Mishra lives up to his promise of avoiding the pitfalls of the Western bourgeois genres of travel writing and foreign reporting. The China of his book is not determined by the tropes of the tourist or the policy concerns of the journalist. It feels closer to the lived realities of the country.
The final part of the book is a swift survey of five other Asian countries. What emerges is a family portrait of sorts. A rheumatic Japan, an isolated Taiwan, an impressionable Mongolia, a glamorous Malaysia, and a struggling Indonesia are all grouped around the rising star of China. This then is Mishra’s Asia: a family of countries grappling variously with the problems of modernity.
The result is oddly dissatisfying. Critical as Mishra is of capitalism and Western models of modernity through the book, he proffers no alternatives. The figures of his earlier book all embarked on voyages across Asia to cement new solidarities and work out new responses to the West. Al-Afghani and Liang were passionately political and actively committed to political and intellectual decolonisation. A century later, Mishra’s own journey is strangely staid. His account is unable to shake off scholarly concern for dispassion and journalistic anxieties about evenhandedness. We are left with a catalogue of different Asian experiences but little by way of suggestions for a common response or way forward.
The Asia Mishra sketches is also immediately swamped by questions about its borders and integrity. Are the common structural changes, and the experience of uneven development, that are transforming lives from Jakarta to Gurgaon, enough to breath new life into the idea of Asia? This is especially pertinent where painful structural transformations have not left the cities of the West — Paris, London, Detroit — unscathed either. Then there is the matter of the other Asia, that of al-Afghani, which has fallen out of view in Mishra’s latest book. Why is Mishra’s Asia limited to that of Liang and confined only to the east of India rather than also including the west?
But most disheartening is Mishra’s tendency, in his final and weakest section, towards easy comparisons between various countries. Perhaps unconsciously, this section becomes a ranking system of various Asian modernities: Japan’s “aged modernity” compared with Shanghai’s “garish newness”; Hong Kong’s heady modernity bereft of culture versus Taiwan’s mature modernity of literary bookstores and counterculture movements, and so on. This placement on the path of progress (cultural and material) arranges these countries into a mutually competitive battle of national aspirations, which is exactly how the modern capitalist world system has already ordered Asia.
What Mishra’s final assessment of India’s neighbours to the east might be is an open question, since the book’s conclusion remains unwritten. However, the picture that emerges is of an Asia populated by rival siblings. Those ahead of India best serve as cautionary tales in her own experiment with liberalisation. The more ambitious project of a common response to the challenges of modernity or the even more daunting task of charting out alternatives remains to be taken up. However, by orienting attention away from an increasingly stagnant West to the great din in the East, Mishra has taken the first step towards formulating an intellectual response to the new world condition.
Shayan Rajani is a PhD student in History
A Great Clamour: Encounters with China and Its Neighbours
By Pankaj Mishra
Penguin Books, India