Turning the Mirror: A View From the East
A conversation with Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra’s most recent book, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia provocatively opens by declaring that, for many people, the modern world began in 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima when the Japanese navy annihilated the Russian.

For most of us, the notion that a parti...

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About Pankaj Mishra:
Mishra

Pankaj Mishra was born in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, India. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in commerce from Allahabad University before earning his Master of Arts degree in English literature at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

His literary and political essays have appeared in...

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Some Additional Resources:
From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia

By Pankaj Mishra

A little more than a century ago, as the Japanese navy annihilated the giant Russian one at the Battle of Tsushima, original thinkers across Asia, working independently, sought to frame a distinctly Asian intellectual tradition that would inform and inspire the continent’s anticipated rise to dominance. Asian dominance did not come to pass, and those thinkers —Tagore, Gandhi, and later Nehru in India; Liang Qichao and Sun Yatsen in China; Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim in the ruins of the Ottoman Empire— are seen as outriders from the main anti-colonial tradition. But Pankaj Mishra shows that it was otherwise in this stereotype-shattering book.

Righteous Republic - The Political Foundations of Modern India

By Ananya Vajpeyi

What India's founders derived from Western political traditions as they struggled to free their country from colonial rule is widely understood. Less well-known is how India's own rich knowledge traditions of two and a half thousand years influenced these men as they set about constructing a nation in the wake of the Raj. In Righteous Republic, Ananya Vajpeyi furnishes this missing account, a ground-breaking assessment of modern Indian political thought.

Orientalism

By Edward Said

This is a foundational text for Post-colonial Studies, wherein the denotations and connotations of the term “Orientalism” are expanded to describe what Said sees as the false cultural assumptions of the “Western World”, facilitating the cultural misrepresentation of “The Orient”. For Said, the term Orientalism describes the subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Asian and Arabo–Islamic peoples and their culture; cultural prejudices that are derived from a long tradition of romanticized images of Asia and of the Middle East, and which, in practice, functioned as implicit justifications for the colonial and the imperial ambitions of the European powers.

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World

By Pankaj Mishra

In this book Pankaj Mishra relates his search to understand the Buddha's relevance in today's world, where religious violence, poverty and terrorism prevail. As he travels among Islamists and the emerging Hindu Muslim class in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Mishra explores the myths and places of the Buddha's life, the West's "discovery" of Buddhism, and the impact of Buddhist ideas on such modern politicians as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Mishra ultimately reaches an enlightenment of his own by discovering the living meaning of the Buddha's teaching, in this unusually discerning, beautifully written, and deeply affecting reflection on Buddhism.


From The Ruins of History (Commentary Excerpt)

Sometime shortly before my tenth birthday, I had my first personal taste of the legacy of history. I was visiting Mont Ste. Anne, just outside of Quebec City, and suddenly encountered someone who went out of his way to make me feel inadequate because I didn’t speak French. To him, clearly, I was yet another in a centuries-long line of imperialist anglophones plaguing their land.

Of course I was nothing of the sort: I was just a middle-class kid from Toronto on a family ski holiday. But the whole experience produced two particularly vivid emotions in me:

1. Shame at not being able to properly communicate with these people in their own language (which was, after all, an official language of my country).

2. A sense of indignation of being somehow held responsible for historical events that I wasn’t even loosely associated with. What, I can remember thinking defensively, had any of this history business to do with me?

It all seemed monstrously unfair. After all, it wasn’t as if I was even indirectly responsible, a proud descendant of British military veterans who had served on the Plains of Abraham. As it happened, when the Battle of Quebec was going on, my ancestors didn’t speak English either. Or French. And yet, irritatingly, none of that seemed to matter. To my tormentor that day, I might have been General Wolfe himself.

Mind you, there is oppression and there is oppression. If the Québecois are justified in putting Je me souviens on their license plates, it does rather make one wonder what sort of appropriate response the Chinese might be entitled to after having suffered the unrelenting series of imperialistic subjugations from the Opium Wars to the Rape of Nanking.

There are no hard and fast rules here, no well-established scale of history’s burdens. But one thing is abundantly clear: it is not enough to protest “I wasn’t there!” or “This had nothing to do with me!” Not having been there is not the point. What matters is to both remember and actively seek some understanding of what has occurred: the careful, studied reflection of what has gone before is the primary way we can elevate our present circumstances beyond that of a seemingly random series of disconnected events. It is not just “context”, although of course it is that too. It is an opportunity to experience a real sense of perspective, real empathy, real understanding.

In From the Ruins of Empire, The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, celebrated writer Pankaj Mishra, provides us with just such an opportunity. By closely examining the work and impact of a small number of highly influential Asian thinkers of the mid to late 19th and early 20th century, Mishra does more than simply shatter trite stereotypes of “East vs. West”, or the angry faith-driven terrorist, he gives us a real sense of empathy of what it was like to be living at that place and time.

“One of the impulses behind the creation of the book,” Mishra told me, “was to excavate certain ideas, certain ways of life, certain worldviews that we have tended to neglect if not suppress or ignore altogether: to look at what, say, a Chinese intellectual in the late 19th century or early 20th century, was thinking when confronting this enormous challenge of Western imperialism or Western capitalism. That kind of challenge was really existential, and my book is really about individuals at particular stages in history, looking at the world around them, seeing existential challenges everywhere.

“How can we hold on to the society we’ve had and its traditions – particularly literary traditions, cultural traditions – that have been around for a very long time? How can we hold on to those, while also living with dignity in the wider world?"...

For the full Commentary, purchase this issue from our site, or buy the eBook from Amazon.com or iBookstore, or download our app off Apple Newsstand. Each issue comes with the commentary, the full conversation, a biography of our guest, as well as references for further exploration.