Book Review: From The Ruins Of Empire - The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking Of Asia



From The Ruins Of Empire
The Revolt Against The West And The Remaking Of Asia
Pankaj Mishra

The sense of humiliation that burdened... Asians has greatly diminished; The rise of Asia and the assertiveness of the Asian Peoples consummates their revolt against the West that began more than a century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East. Yet this success contains an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future. It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy...

The war on terror has already blighted the first decade. In retrospect, however, it may seem a prelude to greater and bloodier conflicts over precious resources and commodities that modernising as well as already modern economies need. The hope that fuels the endless economic growth - that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans - is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by Al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots - the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly pyrrhic...



The concluding section of the book provides the jolt that I was looking for to introduce the reader to this book; a truly one-of-its-kind book, one which is in a genre of its own. . a book that defies description and forces you to think, taking you deep into the quagmire of the past and then pulling you out into the present with a shocking force; enabling you to see with startling clarity the central point of the book! Pankaj Mishra has awesome skills of presentation and tremendous depth of vision, as is evident in the short excerpt I have given above.

"From The Ruins Of Empire" is a book that focuses on Asia as a whole, and takes the reader through the exploitation and brutal rape of  the entire continent by the Europeans. However, unlike other books which deal with such topics, this story is not told through facts, figures and history lessons; it is instead told through some seminal characters that formed the core set of thinkers that defined the age they lived in. Jamal-Al-Din-Al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, Rabindranath Tagore, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kemal Ataturk etc. Principally, the book focuses on the tumults and struggles of the first three named people... intuitively, without knowing who they are, one can see that the three together account for a large majority of Asia today...




Pankaj Mishra takes us through the lives of these three, their struggles to come to terms with the brutal reality of the colonial exploitation of their countries, and their internal tumult as they tried to reconcile themselves and understand what was happening even as they tried to formulate a response to this reality. This is shown through their experiences as well as through the speeches and writings, and make for powerful reading. You can literally see Islamic thought take modern shape through Al-Afghani and gain an insight into the modern reality; you actually visualise the revolution in China gathering force in the life and writings of Liang Qichao... 

The ultimate take-away is a deepened understanding of the entire landscape of Asia from Turkey to Japan and from India to the Middle East. The rise, fall and rise of Japan, the adjustments of Turkey and its role in the modern Islamic thought formulation contain deep lessons as well as learnings for the discerning reader; the efforts of the Chinese to recreate the past magic in the face of the European onslaught has powerful commonalities with the happenings in the Middle East and India; their juxtaposition gives the reader an insight into the modern world.

We are seeing an increasing advent of fundamentalism and hardline views in China, India as well as the Islamic countries. It may be the slowest and the mildest in India, but it is present. The present scenario has been successfully traced back to a century ago as a demoralised and conquered people tried to adjust to the new brutal reality that the Europeans put on us. The people - at least the intelligentsia - at first blamed the outmoded thoughts and practices among the people and advocated a convert to a total westernised approach in an attempt to gain acceptance and equality; when this did not happen - indeed when this created a class of educated slaves - the pendulum swung the other way, as people tried to return to their roots in order to find solace, strength and peace - all in an effort to gain self-confidence and good self-image. This turmoil has been brought out very well in the book; and the logic is sound, as we can see for ourselves!

The steadily increasing disillusionment with the west went hand-in-hand with a steady questioning of the self, of asking continuous questions as to the how and the why of the current reality. The experiments continued; with  results as far reaching as terror in Islamic nations and hardline communism in China as each society tried to find models that suited it... some succeeded through one way - like China, some through another- like Turkey, whose modernisation and westernisation attempts led to great and seminal changes that had a tremendous impact on all Asia. The return of Turkey to the fold of Islamism in the face of Western reluctance accept it as an equal partner has important questions and ramifications; for Turkey was the earliest to adjust and adopt Westernism; yet its failure in obtaining acceptance needs to be kept in mind.

Asian countries - who once used to cower before the west - are now facing them with confidence, and indeed have created a situation when once again the West is back where it was 500 years ago - asking for trade links with a resurgent Asia. People who were once rejected and brutalised have now gone on to start dictating terms on an equal basis as seen in the meteoric rise of India and particularly China; this is the revenge of the East; as western economies flounder in a quagmire of their own making, the East is once again showing the way. The west, having already paid a heavy price in the form of 2 destructive wars that destroyed 2 entire generations of Americans and Europeans, are now no longer in a position of primacy. This is truly the revenge of the East...

But this revenge has a small caveat, a ticking time bomb that needs to be defused - the rampant inequalities that western style economics and politics is creating across the world, and the race for resources, which seems to have started again. For example India is worried about the proposed damming of the Brahmaputra by China which would have disastrous consequences for India. There are many such examples; the problem is that as of now, there is no answer to western-style economic policy...

Or is there? Is there a way where we can marry our Eastern sensibilities with Western Capitalism to create a more equal world? Perhaps through focussing on basic indices like health, education and population control while continuing to drive economic goals? This questioning mirrors the questions and attempts of the 19th century as thinkers and societies looked at their brilliant past for cues - Islam, Confuciansim etc in order to make their nations a better place... further strengthening the statement with which we began this review...

An excellent book that forces you to think of the direction we are taking and its sustainability!

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