The following is an excerpt from my interview with award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra on his new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. The interview was published at Al Jazeera.
Belen Fernandez: You explain at the start of From the Ruins of Empire:
The form of this book – part historical essay and part intellectual biography – is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual lives, even though the latter have their own shape and momentum. The early men of modern Asia it describes travelled and wrote prolifically, restlessly assessing their own and other societies, pondering the corruption of power, the decay of community, the loss of political legitimacy and the temptations of the West. Their passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning.”
You’ve discussed your own intellectual formation and travels in previous writings, such as your book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. What convergence of events and experiences compelled you to embark on From the Ruins of Empire?
Pankaj Mishra: Many things over the last decade. I’ll speak only about two here. The first was surely my visit to the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir in 2000, where I witnessed a military occupation by a nation-state, India, that claimed the moral prestige of secularism but was actually oppressively Hindu majoritarian in all significant ways – that’s how it was perceived by Kashmiris who had long belonged to a cosmopolitan and syncretic culture.
That’s when I began to wonder why many Asian nation-states had turned out to be often more violent than the European empires in Asia they had replaced. And that was when I began to wonder – and this is a major theme in the book – if the political and economic models Asians had adopted from the West in their struggle for self-determination and dignity were disastrously unsuitable.
I realised too that the post-colonial version of history I had grown up with – one that celebrated the nation-state’s emergence from foreign rule – was deeply defective and left out a lot of things.
The other thing that influenced me was the post-9/11 political climate in the West. How such a wide range of politicians, policymakers, journalists and columnists could re-embrace the delusions of empire – those you thought had been effectively shattered by decolonisation 50-60 years ago; how they could bring themselves to believe that the Afghans and the Iraqis were just longing to suck on the big sticks proffered to them by American soldiers, as [decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman inimitably recommended…