Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pankaj Mishra's Tendentious Little Book

This was a rolling rant I wrote while reading Pankaj Bhayia's book in 2012. Edited version follows

After being told that everyone from Orhan Pamuk to Pakistani Ambassador (and liberal feminist Jinnahist icon) Sherry Rahman is in love with Pankaj Mishra’s new book I have finally started reading it.
I have only read 50 pages so far.So I have NOT yet reached the meat of the book. But the intro is starting to set a certain tone. And its not a very encouraging one.
I am not impressed. At all. So Far. 
Seeing how little time I am getting and likely to get in the next few days, I know I am not going to be a doing a review. But a blog permits other possibilities. One of them is a “rolling review” (basically a rant in real time). So here goes. As I go through the book, I will try whenever possible to get online and say a few words. Quotes from Pankaj Bhaiya are in italics.
On  page 18: the word Islam, describing the range of Muslim beliefs and practices, was not used before the 19th century. 

This is then negated on the very next page by Mishra himself.
The only explanation for this little nugget is that Pankaj knows his audience and will miss no opportunity to slide in some politically correct lines. There is a vague sense “out there” in liberal academia that Islam is unfairly maligned as monolithic. Pankaj will let people know that he has no such incorrect belief. It is a noble impulse and it recurs. A lot.

Pankaj’s summary of colonial history is boilerplate and unimaginative. He really has nothing new to say. But he does seem to think (and, somewhat surprisingly, most of his reviewers seem to think) that he is revealing new information and (to quote Hamid Dabbashi) jolting our historical imagination and placing it on the right though deeply repressed axis. 
This is very surprising. Are we to believe that a professor at Columbia did not know this very basic outline of colonial history and had "deeply repressed it"? Anyone with any genuine interest in history would know all this in much greater detail already. 
Muslim power.. had been the biggest losers as the British East India Company became the major power the subcontinent. 
This is standard and rather unoriginal and not really accurate. The Sikhs and Marhattas lost more to the British than the remaining Muslim-ruled states in India.  
And anyway, isnt this very un-poco pomo when you think about it? To label it as “Muslim power”?  I thought the pomo thing was to point out that this business of dividing Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods was a British colonial reading of Indian history? Did Pankaj not get the memo?
In actual fact Turko-Afghan power in North India was breaking up and weakening throughout the 18th century and large chunks of the country were in the hands of Hindu (Marhatta) and Sikh rulers, most of whom had Muslims in their service..and vice versa in the various principalities headed by Muslims. The British in some areas got rid of Turko-Afghan rulers, in a few (Mysore comes to mind) they defeated Muslim rulers who were of Indian-convert origin rather than Turko-Afghan origin; and in several  others they got rid of Hindu and Sikh rulers. And they were by no means as uniformly anti-Muslim as Pankaj implies. In fact, after 1857, a disproportionately large chunk of their army was Muslim. And Muslim feudals as well as a large coterie of officially approved ulama and mashaikh (clerics and saints) were dependable and loyal servants of the empire. Pankaj missed several memos.
He is also not above sliding in some facts that are less than accurate to make his story more convincing. Having got on the case of Muslim defeat at the hands of the British, he says “…finally subduing the great Muslim-majority lands of the Panjab in 1848″.  

It cannot be that PM is unaware of the fact that the “Muslim majority lands of Panjab” were under Sikh rule since 1800 or so and it was a Sikh kingdom and not a Muslim kingdom that the British conquered in 1848. Why not say Sikh kingdom instead of “Muslim-majority lands of Panjab”? Minor point, but its a pattern. The overall propaganda requirements generally take precedence over mere facts with Pankaj bhai.
Over-running parts of North-West India, the jihadists were finally suppressed in 1831 at the battle of Balakot in 1831, which was to assume a tragic aura in South Asian Islamic lore comparable to the martyrdom of Hussain at karbala in 680 AD. 
The context in which this is mentioned implies (without explicitly saying so) that this was all part of the Muslim resistance to British rule. Which is partly true but mostly untrue. Even Pankaj probably knows NO large areas of British India were liberated by jihadists. The areas “liberated” by Syed Ahmed were in what is now Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan and he did not liberate them from the British, he liberated them from the Sikh ruler of Panjab. And finally it was a Sikh army (an army that included a predominantly Muslim artillery corps) that destroyed the jihadists at Balakot, after they had already alienated many Muslims in Peshawar with their harsh rule. NO karbala like mythology attaches to these people though there has been some attempt to resurrect their memory in Pakistan after 1947. Its a very small detail, but its telling. Facts will not stand in Pankaj bhayia’s way. Be on guard.

P-40, para 2. Read it and marvel. Europeans thought Asian were in decline and stagnation while Asians were actually economically and culturally dynamic. And of course, PM puts “decline” and “stagnation” in scare quotes. Then he tells us how Asians really were well behind the Europeans in science, technology and organization and the Europeans, because of superior skills many crucial areas, mustered more power than the wealthiest empires in Asia. .a long list of examples of Europe’s extraordinary “pulling ahead” then follows.
You have to read the section to get the flavor of Pankaj’s problem here. He feels its not good to say decline and stagnation. But the whole book is about relative decline and stagnation and attempts to set that right.
What gives?

Even the unalloyed boon of modern medicine in the rising West turned into something darkly ambiguous in Asia when it helped increase populations in the absence of corresponding economic growth, compounding the problem of poverty. 

Read the above passage a few times. Think about it. Feel the love...

Al-Afghani is barely known in the West today, even though his influence exceeds that of Herzen and, at least in its longevity, almost matches Marx. 
“at least in longevity”? What does that even mean? I can tell you what it means. It means Pankaj is telling his fans that there are great Asian thinkers that they should know about but that they have missed because of their Eurocentric education. And Pankaj will set them right. He knows how popular this kind of thing is among his European and Europeanised Desi audience. He gets them, even if he does not get Afghani. 
For the Jamaluddin Afghani section, I suggest perusing these links to get an idea of how he is generally remembered in the region (and in particular in Islamist circles)> then compare with PM’s version.
p-53 he traveled to India in late 1850s to continue his education, and spent a considerable part of the next decade there, in among other places, Bombay, (which had a large community of Persians) and Calcutta. it was during this time of fierce Indian assaults on the British and the latter’s brutal backlash that his intellectual heritage of revolt from the babis began to turn from a local into a global ideology of resistance.

By now you know the drill; the “large community of Persians” in Bombay was Parsis (Zorastrians), themselves refugees from Islamist persecution, not people Afghani would especially associate with, and not people inclined to revolt against the British (or anyone else at that point in time). 
The "heritage of revolt from the Babis” is just plain bullshit. There is absolutely no evidence implicating the babis in anything Afghani did or thought and the babis in any case are not exactly the revolutionary anti-colonial movement of revolt PM is hinting at. See here for details and compare this information with PM’s casual insertion of babis into his narrative (here and earlier).  PM, in short, is relying on the ignorance of his Western readers (and Westoxicated Asian readers) to follow him along this path of anti-colonial struggle without too much concern for nuance or historical accuracy. (the Babis are the founders of the Bahais. The furthest thing from an anti-imperialist revolutionary movement (and currently maligned in the Islamic world as imperialist agents, not anti-imperialist revolutionaries).

OK, I read the next few pages and there is so much crap that I cannot bore you with it. Poets are quoted out of context. Events are selected to fit the story. Its not frankly untrue, its “not even wrong”. And throughout, the dominant feeling is of a writer who knows his audience and is carefully crafting his words to fit their preconceptions. This is not original history or analysis, but it does fit in perfectly with what his readers seem to expect.
Take these fairly typical sentences:
Afghani still lived in the old city where Muslims in turbans and flowing robes still study the Koran and the hadith. But elsewhere turks wore the Fez ….and an imperial degree issued in 1856 (“a day of weeping and mourning for the people of Islam” according to some Turkish Muslims) had permitted church bells to be rung in the city for the first time since the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Indeed, churches palaces hospitals, factories schools and public gardens were advancing relentlessly to the shores of the Golden Horn and the sea of Marmara, squeezing out traditional Muslim neighborhoods.
The passages practically drip with tears at the way “traditional life”, so beloved of truly modern people like PM, was being “squeezed out” by new fangled crap like allowing church bells to ring and building schools and factories. All the confusions of modern “large-carbon-footprint” intellectuals are visible in this and other passages. Modernization was terrible. Modernization was needed. Modernization was the aim. Modernization was a tragedy. Its all the fault of perfidious Albion (he uses the term, btw)…
Pankaj is providing red meat to his liberal, anti-colonial, postmodern, vaguely leftist readers. Up to a point, one can do this sort of thing AND provide interesting information and original insights, but beyond a point it is just propaganda with no value beyond rallying the troops. In PM’s case, it quickly degenerates into propaganda.

Oh Lord. The Ottoman section is so confused that I am surprised anyone gets past this drivel. The Ottoman empire is sick; its not sick at all; it has fallen behind; its not really behind; it needs reform; reform is killing it; The claims are contradictory and confused. That anyone read this and kept going and then wrote those laudatory reviews can only mean that “anyone” was just dying to have his or her prejudices massaged and paid no great attention to “mere details”.

OK, two things.
1. Some people love Mishra because they think colonialism and imperialism are bad and he is anti-colonial and anti-imperialist, so he must be good. Let me put on my revolutionary Marxist hat and say thats just bullshit. I think he is harmful EVEN to people who, for whatever reason, have made it their mission in life to destroy Western imperialism or the upper classes or any other target you think he is targeting standing on your side of “the struggle”. ….Lets take an extreme example, just to make the point…Everybody knows that Zaid Hamid (Paknationalist propagandist)  hates india and wants it defeated. But any sensible person should also know that Zaid Hamid is harmful to to any actual attempt to “defeat India” (forget about whether its even a good idea to “defeat India’, lets assume we want to do it). Here’s the thought experiment…what would happen if your strategy for defeating India is based on Zaid Hamid’s work? You would sink without a trace (or explode in your toilet) because your guide is an idiot and is frequently misinformed or working on false premises. Now Pankaj bhayia is certainly not in the Zaid Hamid class. But he and his ilk are objectively harmful to anyone who is trying to make an Asian country independent or powerful. If the workers of the world unite and follow him, 0.01% of them will end up making good money in western universities but the other 99.99% will find that the world has passed them by and their deep and moving arguments were “not even wrong”.

2. I am not saying colonialism was good (or bad, for that matter). I am just saying things were rather different in too many details and HIS framework is a 21st century liberal Westoxicated framework mixed with 10th grade Indian history textbooks, and its not worth the effort to try and fix it and use it for some useful argument. 
Which makes one wonder; whats with liberals? why are they so taken with this book? A friend on my FB page said its because “he tells us things we didnt know”. Well, some of them are wrong or out of context or just ever so slightly displaced from reality, but the parts that are true..why are they news? People didnt know colonialism involved taking over countries and trying (with varying success) to exploit them? or they didnt know that colonized countries had multiple strands of resistance to colonialism? Or that some countries managed to get pretty far in matching the Europeans in their own game? Whats the “new” revelation here? The few facts are pretty well known. the commentary is cliched and confused, the three exemplars chosen for the book were not very influential, and the tying together seems to be mostly imaginary. 
More thoughts on why this particular sophomoric book is being praised by so many people?

1. Because with 100 safe years between him and actual events, Pankaj can now play heroic anti-colonial crusader and his elite fans can play anti-colonial fanboys with absolutely NOTHING at stake. Win-win for everyone. Britain’s empire is long gone. So is the (frequently subtle, occasionally harsh) pressure special branch could apply on those misbehaving in the empire. Of course it was not always gentle, but ice-pick in Trotsky’s brain was not the usual special branch style…most of the time a couple of agent provocateurs, a few informants and the extreme likelihood that Maulana Shaukat Ali and Maulana Mohammed Ali will embezzle Hijaz funds was enough…that last vignette btw is mentioned in special branch dispatches…its somewhere in Francis Robinson’s book on Muslim separatism in North India. A junior functionary reassures his boss not to worry about the anjuman e khuddam e kaaba (society of servants of the holy Kaaba) because the Mohammeddans will inevitably have trouble with financial proprieties and that will take them down... Special branch knew what it was up against.

btw, Pankaj hasnnt yet mentioned the speculation (as poorly sourced as almost everything else about Afghani’s life) that Afghani himself was an agent of British intelligence.

2. Because it is clear that most reviewers have no detailed knowledge about those times. Tagore specialists may disagree with his Tagore section but find nothing objectionable about his Afghani stories and vice versa. And all of them know batshit about the Chinese guy.

some things Panjak forgot to mention in the Islam section:

1. Akbar Ilahabadi, the poet most often quoted in this section, was a traditionalist shocked by the appearance of women outside of purdah but not so shocked at being in British service (he spent his whole life in government service, retiring as a session judge and being given some minor honor as a reward for his services). His position of honor in PMs book remains dependent on carefully excluding aspects of his life that dont fit the anti-colonial guerrilla war Pankaj is waging a hundred years after the fact.

2. The Mahdi in Sudan. PM’s version “in the Sudan in the 1870s, a charismatic leader calling himself the Mahdi emerged at the head of a millenarian movement to beat back not only the Egyptian Khedive but also his British allies. Scoring one brilliant victory after another, he promised to Islamize the entire world”. 

Wikipedia, as usual, does a better job of describing the fanatical eruption and its disastrous results.
Afghani becomes an eager follower of the Mahdi. “he had clearly and vehemently turned against the kind of accommodation to Western power and tutelage that many Muslim elites had previously advocated. “
PM clearly approves. Even the craziest and most insane scheme against the British empire (or its puppets; a long list in which Akbar Ilahabadi would surely be included by Pankaj if he was not already being used as poster boy of anti-colonial heroism..Akbar being far more “accommodationist” than most of the Sudanese who tried to resist the rising millenarian tide) gets his fullest approval.

To sum up. Afghani opposed Sir Syed, declared himself, falsely, an acquaintance of the Mahdi, offered his services to Turkey, to Russia, to the British, to Iran, floated harebrained schemes that few people actually joined, opportunisticallysupported self-destructive fanatical Islamists, opportunistically invoked the Vedas in front of a Hindu audience, got carried away with blasphemous rationalism when debating Renan (and then hid it from his Muslim audience), and ended his life as an ineffectual guest of the Turkish Sultan. And has had NO impact on Islamic theology. And Pankaj has fallen in love with him. 

Thats the key to this book. Pankaj is living out an anti-colonial (mainly anti-British, he seems untroubled by the Russian empire in Asia, which is also very telling) fantasy and is following Afghani around from one half-baked idea to the next. Meanwhile, the actual 19th century world carried on, little affected by Afghani or the time-travelling Pankaj. Until we land again in the 21st century where this book is selling well and the British empire has moved on, never seriously threatened by either Afghani or his acolyte. Afghani's tomb in Kabul meanwhile is being repaired with American “war on terror” funds. 
Oh the humanity.

Read Pankaj bhaiya’s attempt to link his story/fantasy to current events on p-110 and enjoy. “It is impossible to imagine, for instance, that the recent protests and revolutions in the Arab world would have been possible without the intellectual and political foundations laid by Al-Afghani’s assimilation of Western ideas and his rethinking of Muslim tradition”. (what assimilation? what rethinking? I would like to hear about one Arab revolution of recent times that opted to give any credit to Afghani?  but to say so is enough for both Pankaj and his fans)

Dear Indians, I have good news for you. Pankaj has his hopes set on Islam as the virile tradition that is now “challenging empire” (in his 19th century dream avatar AND as he sits in London today). 
but do keep in mind, there is a Tagore section coming up after a detour through China (its Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist revolution and Hyper-capitalist industrialization surely forgiven as it prepares to do battle against “empire”..I can already feel PMs breast beginning to swell with Asian pride). So dear Indians, I may have spoken too soon. You may not be safe yet.

1. The Chinese and Tagore sections are even weaker than the Afghani section. The same confusion remains paramount. Thinkers in China and India are responding to Western dominance. Pankaj describes this domination in one paragraph and then tries to show it was never really that dominant in the next. He shows how weak China or India were in the face of Western invaders and then wants to insist that they were never as weak as portrayed in his favorite straw-man, “the dominant narrative”. He consistently underplays sectarian and religious fanaticism and their violent consequences in Asian countries, but pounces on every example of violence or duplicity in the Europeans. All of this is perfectly calibrated to suit the tastes of his eager (and forgiving) audience. As long as ALL their buttons are pressed, it seems they have no problem with button A being flatly contradictory to button B.
2. The weakest part of the book is its claim (made in large print on the cover and repeated in every interview and in every favorable review) that these were the intellectual who remade Asia. 

How so? Jamaluddin Afghani was a serial impostor who tried to sell his services to every empire of the day (British, Russian, Turkish, Persian, Egyptian, etc) and failed in every one of his harebrained schemes. His efforts had no detectable impact on the rise or fall of the British empire. His attempts at creating some sort of modern Islam, neither Shia nor Sunni and able to meet the Western challenge, 
have NOT become the dominant form of resistance in the Islamic world. The high-water mark of modern Islamism was around the end of colonial empires. Where is that synthesis now? Even if we imagine that such a synthesis is ABOUT TO EMERGE, how can that effort be said to have ALREADY created modern Asia?

Besides, it is a tremendous stretch to say that Afghani was somehow the prime mover of the Islamic revivalist trend. That trend existed (and still exists) because the Islamicate world retained a self-image of ideal unity and worldly power and reacted from day one to “objective conditions” that did not conform to their self-image. There is a long history of Ottoman attempts at “catching up”, leaping ahead or falling back on fundamentals in order to match the West. Mishra himself makes tangential mention of those attempts but seems to empathize mostly with those who completely rejected Western knowledge and insisted on an “authentic” response, one that would meet Mishra’s own apparent need for justification by faith. 
Similarly there were multiple Persian attempts at reform and re-invigoration. Afghani would approve of some of them. All of them would have gone ahead without him. Allama Iqbal attempted an “Islamization by stealthy Europeanization” by retroactively imposing modern philosophical categories on Islamic theological debates (with little substantive success…countless middle class fans in Pakistan think he did something very original and great, but NONE can ever tell you what his philosophy was in any concrete detail..try for yourself…ask any PTI supporter what Allama Iqbal’s vision of modern Islam really was…enjoy the silence), but his admiration of Afghani came AFTER his own work was well underway…i.e. this trend existed independent of Afghani and in any case has now petered out after Saudi money pumped up the more “authentic” return-to-purity version.

Modern China was built on traditional China and big influences include Sun Yat Sen’s nationalism (explicitly described as an opponent of Liang by Pankaj),  Mao’s revolution (its debt to Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism acknowledged by his followers and his detractors, his debt to Liang, imaginary) and Deng’s counter-revolution (his debt to America to be found in the 100,000 Chinese he sent there to study, his debt to Liang?).Again, If and when modern capitalism and nationalism fails in China and if and when some sort of Liang-ism (whatever that is, Pankaj has not yet enlightened us about the new faith that will replace “the dominant narrative”)  replaces it, maybe we will be forced to say something else. But for now, how is modern China in any way the creation of Liang Qichao? Pankaj fails to make that case and yet labels him one of his “intellectuals who remade Asia”. How so?

Modern India is the product of British empire building, an earlier Mughal empire, a somewhat mythologised Gupta Charter state, the efforts of people like Gandhi and Nehru, and modern political parties and modern political movements (albeit with skilful use of Indian cultural symbols by Gandhi in particular). How exactly can the last 100 years of Indian history be described as the fruit of Tagore’s intellectual labors? if Tagore had not even existed, would India look different? I am sure Tagore was a good man (and in his gentlemanly way, not even critical of Stalinism, not to speak of gentler Western models) but how did he “remake Asia”?

Pankaj himself describes the failure of Liang and Tagore to do much (and their disappointment at the end of their lives). Maybe in his own mind, he sees their achievement as the fact that they were not impressed with Western notions of progress and warned that these may include hidden disasters. These hidden dangers have become more manifest today so in retrospect they may seems somewhat prophetic, but they did not CAUSE the current rethinking. Their influence in their own time was not great, their detailed programs were either missing or included as many errors as prescient predictions (Tagore and Stalinism, for example). 

The response offered by all three thinkers to the supposed “dominant narrative” is different and it needs a lot of selective reading to make them part of the same trend in anything more substantial than “skeptical of Western civilization”, but PM’s audience knows even less than he does, so he gets away with it.

PM also feels that the demise of “Western” notions like the secular nation state is now imminent, so those intellectuals are about to be vindicated. Well, even a stuck clock is right once a day. Real vindication would involve being right in more detail than just some vague notion that “materialistic Western civilization” was doomed. It would also involve being at least partially right about what happens if “it” fails. In any case, with nation states and capitalism still very much alive (and no more unwell than they were in 1930 or 1960)  how can these brave intellectuals be said to have “created modern Asia”?? What is un-modern about modern Asia?

To get some idea of his thought process, take a look at these excerpts from a recent interview with fellow prophet Hamid Dabashi:

Comrade Hamid: “Postcolonialism is a mode of knowledge production. Colonialism happened, then postcolonial nation states emerged, and they become conducive to the production of ideologies – nationalism, third world socialism, Islamism, etc. These ideologies have exhausted themselves and postcolonialism has ceased to produce knowledge. This is what I call the end of postcolonialism and the result is postcolonial leaders running for their lives across North Africa and the Arab world.”

The world is rather large. Which parts exactly have moved beyond the ideologies of socialism, nationalism etc? (capitalism is not mentioned; perhaps sensibly enough).

China is no longer nationalist? India has dissolved the nation state? Japan is now a multicultural post-national melange of new social experiments? Sherry Rahman is no longer ambassador of the nation-state of Pakistan to the nation-state of the USA? WTF does this even mean? A few (VERY few) dictators in the Arab world, long since past their sell-by date, have been deposed (3 at last count, out of 30 or so Arab countries, ZERO in the rest of the world). They have been replaced by new regimes trying to stabilize their nation-states in ways completely predictable in the modern paradigm. What does this question even mean?

Here is PM’s humble response: “I would date my political awakening in many ways to that particular visit (to Kashmir), where I was confronted with the debris of the postcolonial ideology. I saw how a postcolonial ideology of secular nationalism had turned malign and had become extremely oppressive for the four million Muslims of Kashmir, who had embodied at some point – and they still do – a cosmopolitan idea of culture, a cosmopolitan idea of society. Here they were being asked to conform to a certain form of postcolonial polity which claimed to be secular but that actually concealed a very strong Hindu majoritarian element.”

I invite Indian friends to have a go at this one. Start with “postcolonial ideology of secular nationalism” (malign) versus the Kashmiri Muslim idea of  ” a cosmopolitan idea of culture, a cosmopolitan idea of society.”

IF Kashmir had thrown off the Indian yoke and become some sort of cosmopolitan alternative to the nation-state then we would have had to sit up and take notice. As it is, it was an armed revolt (one of many that have occurred in every part of the world before and after “modern” times. It now seems to be on the verge of failure but even if it had succeeded, it would have led to a modest enlargement in the size of nationalist Islamist Pakistan at the expense of nationalist-so-called-secular India. Or maybe it would have triggered a collapse of modern India (the one Pankaj doesnt like too much) and been followed by a violent free for all that would probably entail Pankaj spending much more time in London than in Mashobra. and how would that suddenly negate whatever it is that Pankaj thinks it negates? The straw-man of peaceful, perfectly secular, perfectly just, perfectly-formed nation states would go down in flames. The actually existing world of nation-states indulging in violence, territorial grabs, religious violence, etc. would remain unsurprised even as parts of it in the Indian subcontinent are violently rearranged.

Keep in mind that I am NOT saying secular nationalism etc cannot be malign. But actually existing A needs to be described accurately, then perhaps replaced by actually possible B. PM’s description of actually existing A is frequently overpowered by his intense desire to see a modern Western “materialist” civilizational catastrophe (in his interview: “The old paradigm of “the west” having reached the summit of human achievement – modernity – with everyone else catching up, lies exploded due to various crises not just within “the west” but also the sheer scale of environmental crises that are about to overwhelm large parts of India and China who have elected to follow that particular path of development and globalisation”)
Since this apocalyptic vision is already mainstream in the Western Left (now waiting for global warming to finally do what years of revolutionary intellectual effort has failed to accomplish), it is accepted without question by his audience. But out there in the real world, modern civilization is closer to what Marx predicted it would be:
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

This is not necessarily a happy state. Maybe “we” were better off without it. (thats a big maybe though, since it has to take into account that most of “us” were peasant serfs in the good old days). And maybe new ways of social and communal life will arise from the smoking ruins of the old (or, perhaps in a few luckier cases, will evolve relatively peacefully from the old). One can certainly make an Ashish Nandy type case against bourgeouise triumphalism. One can also make an Islamist case or a Hindutvadi case or one of a thousand other cases that have been made in the past and continue to be made today…many of them by people who are themselves willing or unwitting creators of exactly the revolutions they wish were not happening. But what is Pankaj Bhaiya’s B and how is it superior?  Where has it replaced the “dominant paradigm” and how did these three intellectuals create that alternative?

He doesnt have to bother with making that case because his audience is already eagerly waiting to be told that it is the case. This fact (the existence of such an audience in the Western and Westernized world elite) may indeed forewarn us that a huge disaster is about to happen…or it may tell us that he and his audience are entertaining each other while life goes on. I take the second view, but am still open to the possibility of the first. In both cases, these intellectuals did NOT remake Asia.

Btw, an example of how PM Bhaiya creates his straw men and shoots them down with his super-gun:  ”Someone like Mughal emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, nominally a Muslim emperor and yet incredibly syncretic. Someone who knew he was presiding over a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious reality. These are examples of suppressed histories that we don’t really talk about much or that don’t form part of the dominant narrative. “

First of all, the view of Akbar the Great as a great syncretic ruler has been around since the 19th century! British historians described him in exactly those terms, as did Nehru and many many Indian nationalists. What dominant narrative? what suppressed history?

PS: another interesting thing about Pankaj: his heroes OUTSIDE India tend to be the same kind of people he cannot stand INSIDE India. Afghani, with his pan-islamist dreams (with a reformed and modernized Islam in place in a Muslim empire that can match the West in scientific and military terms, not just in some airy-fairy spiritual realm) is good, but Savarkar, with similar nationalist-revivalist dreams about Hindu India is not? The same goes for Chinese and Japanese nationalists. It is something to think about...


  1. Is there a possibility that PM's weakness in History is owing to a lack of degree? His degrees are and a M.A. in English literature? He never took a course in History since tenth grade. He spent much of his career writing semi-fictional literature like Butter chicken, and travel, which, are not in any way related to history. I think a lack of grounding in history leads to elementary mistakes in history.

  2. Good analysis, but too long - matching the original wishy-washy, PM. Could have been split into several parts, each dealing with a limited scope of points being analysed.

    1. Did not have time to shorten it and make it systematic. This was a rant written as I read the book. Someday...

  3. Infact, right from 1848 till 1947 the Muslim elites of Punjab were the biggest supporters nd allies of British in the sub continent.

  4. All this wordy self-torture (and torture for anyone who could wade through the verbiage of this blog-post) because someone praised some book? The author of this blog has indeed too much time on his hand and some strange grudge (or envy?) that needs venting. I am sure this is not the end, and the venting will go on until the blogger's grudge tires plays itself out.

    1. You should check out his Outlook post. He has nothing to say other than to run both Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati down based on his impressions of them. IMO, having nothing to say is a whole lot worse than not having anything new to say, which is what he accuses PM and AR of. Indeed, this gentleman seems like someone with too much time of his hands and a grudge (envy?) that pricks him much.