(Published in the Business Standard, 11 October, 2013)
Pankaj Mishra’s books, often debated, celebrated and contested, could be plotted on an atlas. Mishra chose to explore the small towns of India at a time when few, including the many who lived there, saw them as a proper subject; in his one work of fiction, The Romantics, he preferred Benares, not Delhi, Bombay or the other Indian metropolitan cities.
As he made a life for himself between Mashobra and London, with widening circles of travel across several continents, Mishra’s years in “the West” shunted him inexorably towards the East. In an essay about reading in India, he moved away from the easy nostalgia over Blyton, Wodehouse or Premchand. Instead, he wrote about the years of India’s friendship with the Soviet Union, a time when Indian children read about the exploits of Young Pioneers and the Baba Yaga.
His last two books, Temptations of the West and From The Ruins of Empire have been widely debated, but what makes Mishra interesting is his instincts, almost more than his actual arguments. In A Great Clamour: Encounters With China And Its Neighbours, he returns to a favourite obsession—the search for an intellectual and cultural history shaped by Asian thinkers, or non-Western thinkers.
Despite the often fierce resistance Mishra evokes in many readers, he mirrors the dilemma of many Indians (writers included) who want a narrative different from either the reductive and misleading simplicities of a great, glorious and ultimately mythical Hindu/ Indian past, or from the sharply Westernized viewpoints that accompanied an education at Delhi University, Harvard, the LSE or for that matter, the IITs and the IIMs.
“My intellectual blindness was due largely to my intense desire to be a writer in English,” he writes. “To be born in an Anglophone culture was to not only be reflexively West-centric, and to reserve one’s profoundest attention for Western literatures and philosophies. It was also to assume that the institutions, philosophical principles, economic ideologies and aesthetic forms introduced or adopted during the long decades of British rule belonged to the natural, indeed superior, order of things.”
To those, including me, who find this shift of perspective useful and refreshing, it is exasperating when Mishra undermines his work through careless readings of other people’s work. Mihir Sharma pounced upon a misleading quote in From The Ruins of Empire in the course of making a wider rebuttal of Mishra’s view of history; more recently, Philip Roth corrected a key error of assumption in Mishra’s A Great Clamour. (Mishra wrote that Roth “seemed almost envious” of writers in Communist Eastern Europe; Roth rebutted this by offering the entire quote, which included these lines: “This isn’t to say I wished to change places. I didn’t envy them their persecution and the way in which it heightens their social importance. I didn’t even envy them their seemingly more valuable and serious themes.”)
But one of the frustrations of reading about China, or about contemporary Asia, is that most books on the subject are written with an eye on the businessperson or for those interested chiefly in political history. A Great Clamour records a different “East”, as Mishra chronicles his impressions of China through the books of Ma Jian, encounters with professors such as Zhu Xueqin or the Tibetan poet, essayist and activist Woeser; quick sketches of Indonesia, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
Mishra is out of his depth with the intricacies of the Tibetan predicament; accounts by Tibetans in exile, such as Chope Paljor Tsering’s The Nature of All Things, would have given him a better sense of where the intensity of the contemporary Tibetan distrust of China comes from, and these short essays compress too much history, with questionable results.
But despite these evident shortcomings, A Great Clamour attempts a major and necessary shift of perspective. “To be an Indian in Shanghai is to know a sensation of familiarity, if tinged with unease,” he writes, making the connections and disconnections between the two port cities of Bombay and Shanghai. I wish there had been much more of these sections; more of his meetings with writers such as the bestselling author Yu Hua, or with the former editor of Dushu, “critical intellectual” Wang Hui.
In Japan, he meets neo-nationalists who sport an aggressive self-pity and sanctimoniousness, and whose revisionist energies remind him of the Hindutva-mongers he’d met in India of the 1980s. In KL, characteristically, he does not go up to see the Petronas Towers; instead, walking through the colourfully seedy entertainment hub at Bukit, Mishra savours a place that crackles “with all the languages I can recognize, and more: Bahasa Indonesia, Filipino, Urdu, Bengali, Arabic, and Persian, as well as English spoken with a variety of accents”.
Some years ago, an anthology edited by Tabish Khair, Other Routes: 1500 years of African and Asian Travel Writing, redrew the accepted map of travel writing, putting back the pilgrims, merchants, seekers, scholars and adventurers who travelled the Silk and other great Routes. The short essays in A Great Clamour, despite their flaws, point like a compass to a different direction, a True East rather than a True North. Even those who argue with Mishra might find themselves following in his wake, redrawing the maps he’s charted.