Reflections on ‘Pankaj Mishra in Conversation’

Coming back from southern California to Oxford, one is, erm, struck at first perhaps by the things that one didn’t miss so much in six months away from the United Kingdom. Separate hot and cold taps; the sense of helplessness and giving up that permeates service culture in the country; balkanization of university library systems that makes Bosnia-Herzegovina look like North Korea; and the country’s annual habit of being shocked that it might, possibly, be cold or even snow in the month of January. More than that, with a change of leadership at Rhodes House, many of the old social institutions in the Rhodes communities have been dramatically scaled back: gone are the six-hour bibulous, serve-yourself cocktail parties, now replaced by a tamer, shorter three-hour version. Coming back from even colder, snowier Moscow, the weather really doesn’t shock me, and I have enough work on my plate – revising the D.Phil., a seminar paper, getting stuff together for language courses – that any institutionally-organized social life is just a nice plus rather than essential … but still, on some evenings in Oxford, having made the hike from somewhere in Jericho or Summertown back to my dwelling in the Cowley Road area, it’s easy to look back to daily walks in temperate California weather (less to half-hour snowy hikes to the Metro in Moscow) and lose oneself in melancholy.

But only sometimes. Oxford may have its quirks, but one of the great joys of the place is the extent to which it draws such a wide range of thinkers, academics, and interesting people in general. As the former Warden of Rhodes House, Don Markwell (himself a long-time tutor at the University), said when someone asked him who his favorite outside speaker at Oxford had been, it was hard to choose, since, eventually, it seems, everyone comes by here. It’s true. So, I was hardly surprised, if still delighted, to see that the Indian writer and (though he might resist the term) public intellectual Pankaj Mishra was coming to Wolfson College (more trudging across cold Oxford, as Wolfson is practically suburban) this week. Showing up to the College, I was even more surprised to see how intimate the setting was: the College’s piano room, a tutor told me, cleared out to create a more collegial setting rather than seating Mishra behind a podium for a more pretentious lecture.

Oxford in the snow: beautiful, but also grounds for a national emergency in the UK

Taking place in a conversational format rather than a conventional lecture, the evening covered a wide range of topics. Mishra began discussing his early journey to being a writer: rather than going to university, as many Western students might, with the explicit purpose of getting the intellectual training or contacts to become a serious writer, his main objective, as he put it, in coming to Allahabad University, was the cheap, subsidized housing and food. He had terrible marks as a young student, foreclosing him from studying something relevant to any writerly ambitions, and so an undergraduate degree at Allahabad in Commerce was largely just marking time while reading more, trying to get a sense of style, and figuring out what could be a possible route to find the time, space, and resources to write more full-time. It sounded confusing, but as a young, ambitious writer in India then, the one upshot was that there were no orthodox paths for someone who wanted to become a writer: no parental networks among Manhattan’s creative class, no MFA programs, few really developed literary networks that could accord seamless transition from student publications into urban or international journals.

Somewhat on a whim, he moved to Mashobra, a village in Himachal Pradesh, in northern India, where he could base himself cheaply while writing reviews, traveling around small-town India (eventually the basis for Butter Chicken in Ludhiana), and – as he admitted – cribbing heavily from Thorstein Veblen as a stylist while trying, as a 23-year-old, to figure out what his voice was. The book was well-received, according him opportunities to continue to develop eclectically, moving between memoir, philosophy, and, most recently, history, in his delightful From the Ruins of Empire, a group biography / intellectual history of Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Liang Chiao, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and Abdurreshi al Ibrahim that examines how early 20th century Asian intellectuals thought, in the wake of the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a decade and a half later, of how Asia or the Muslim World could be dramatically reformed and re-ordered. These have all marked interesting inflections in a peripatetic intellectual journey, although readers less nerdy than your humble narrator might know Mishra best for his semi-recent takedown of the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson in a hard-hitting LRB review in November 2011.

The groovy UK cover to Mishra’s ‘From the Ruins of Empire’

Like Mishra’s work, I’m sure that my notes from the event will reward re-reading, but reflecting on the event, I am left with two lasting themes that stood out in the conversation. One, perhaps, has to do with American perspectives on the Indian state, media, and middle class. As Mishra pointed out, there has been something of a growth industry in recent years in both Western and Indian media of promoting the image of India as a Washington-friendly rising giant, a fellow democracy, and a crucial ally in Asia as Americans grow nervous about the rise of China. Unlike Japan or Korea, this phantasmagoric India was multi-ethnic, multi-confessional, young, and, while it would never become the offshore military base that those East Asian countries would, it had the bulk (the biggest population of any country in the world by mid-century) and the independent military heft (nuclear weapons) that those old partners did not. Since economic liberalization, moreover, the idea of India as a multi-ethnic liberal democracy that had finally gotten over the ghost of statism made Delhi seem all the more attractive to outsiders, but Americans in particular. Eager to be seen with the right pundits and interviewed by Western papers as ‘global statesmen’, Mishra emphasized, both policymakers in Delhi as well as the Western journalists eager for access had an interest in buying into, and then promoting, this story.

One hopes that there is still some truth left in this vision of India. But as many of Mishra’s musings struck home, India since the early 1990s is far from the unambiguous success story of an economically dynamic, cohesive, multi-ethnic and multi-confessional democracy that some American commentators might wish for. The rise of the Indian middle class, Mishra emphasized, while an improvement over the crushing poverty of villagers in (for example) Western Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, was fostering not the civic philanthropic or neighborhood improvement culture of, say, America in the late 19th or early 20th century, but rather a gated community culture in which the Indian poor are viewed as a dangerous nuisance that have to be managed and kept out of middle-class enclaves. This, he emphasized, is part of the backstory of the horrific Delhi rape case: on display here is not just a general outrage toward the heinous crime, but a real anxiety about an exploding Delhi as an unmanageable megacity that has become too dangerous, feeding into the flight of the newly wealthy to gated suburbs on the outskirts of the capital as well as the prestige of religiously conservative parties who demand more gender segregation in the Indian city. Importantly, moreover, the proper framework here really isn’t one of simple persecution against ‘religious minorities’ or an animosity towards ‘the poor.’

Narendra Modi, BJP rising star and Chief Minister of Gujarat

As Mishra seems to view it, instead, the spectre is a political outlook of Hindu chauvinism wedded to a business-speak of ‘efficiency’ and the depoliticization of intensely political issues into management questions. Look, he noted, at the state of Gujarat, whose chief minister, Narendra Modi might serve as one of the best examples of this outlook. Even in this state, where horrific riots in 2002 and the alleged involvement of Modi’s BJP government in fostering the events (which led to inter-confessional riots, predominantly targeted against Muslims), the issue is not so much that the Modi government seeks to disenfranchise or actively dislocate Gujarati Muslims; as one audience member mentioned, Muslims in Gujarat had proven quite successful in prospering economically in the state since liberalization. Instead, the broader problem is a dynamic in which, gradually, through the language of ‘efficiency’ and ‘public management’, land is confiscated from villagers, social welfare systems are dismantled, and, gradually, favoritism is extended to insiders over minorities, while even the entrepreneurial from those minority communities are gradually marginalized. Perhaps this is all too pessimistic: I don’t know. But it does make me think that American audiences and policymakers could benefit quite a bit from greater skepticism towards the ‘rise of India’ narrative, and more to the ways in which – as Mishra suggests – the fusion of economic liberalization, the rise of Hindu nationalism, and nationalist pride in the Indian nation-state (expressed in disputes over Kashmir, the rivalry with Pakistan, and pride in militarization) creates a more complex, and perhaps darker, India, than what we’d wish for.

Yet another reflection has to do with my own perspective as a historian, and some of the tenor of the discussion surrounding From the Ruins of Empire. While I’m impressed by Mishra’s intellectual maneuverability, I worry sometimes about the extent to which a preoccupation among scholars and mainstream intellectual journals today with ‘imperialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ (in its pre-1945, say) variant impoverishes our understanding of the 20th century. While Mishra himself isn’t guilty of the following, one doesn’t have to look far in much of Western academia for scholars who have built careers on citing Edward Saïd, combing through the (numerous) instances of hare-brained Western (usually British or French) scholars misunderstanding ‘exotic’ Asian cultures, or of Western colonial interventions in Africa or Asia. ‘Taking a position’ on imperialist events from a century ago, however, eventually starts to substitute for serious reading into more granular breaks in Asian or African countries’ histories, the question of whether and how socialist countries like the USSR, Yugoslavia, or China could be ‘imperialist’, and – most problematically – what the pejorative of ‘imperialist’ even meant in a … post-imperial world (that is to say, a world in which formal empire was largely finished with by about 1960). The temptation of taking a rubric of cocky British imperialists versus hapless subalterns, and applying it to everything is great indeed, but it obscures dramatic structural changes in world history and relations between the ‘North’ and ‘South’, the ‘East’ and ‘West’, or capital and labor since the end of formal empire.

Tito, Nasser, and Nehru: influencing not only men’s fashion but also anti-imperialist politics in a post-imperial world since 1961. More attention to what ‘imperialism’ meant during this era might lend heft to what has become an often meaningless concept.

My worry – if that’s the right word – from the event has to do, then, with a tone, or historical outlook, that I saw in some of the questions during the conversation. That’s a historical outlook in which there’s the age of empire, the West plunders and destroys Asia and Africa, then (as we know from Mishra’s account) Asian intellectuals formulate an alternative order … (silence) … (silence) … (silence) … then it’s the 1990s and the threat of Western neoliberal capitalism is as great as ever. Missing, in short, is an account of international history from the late 1950s through the 1980s, about the visions that Asian leaders and Westerners had for relations between ‘the West’ and Asia. True, there are plenty of good reasons why we haven’t heard so much about this story as much yet. The post-imperial world was more complicated, with more states and more independence on the part of national leaders. For those interested in writing a 1960s version of From the Ruins of Empire, the logistical demands are great – one thinks of making trips to Ghana, Belgrade, Cairo, Dar es-Salaam and Delhi to write a group biography of Nehru, Tito, Nkrumah, Nasser, and Nyerere. Most problematically, however, many of these post-1945 ‘anti-imperial’ leaders didn’t necessarily think of themselves as embroiled in the permanent conflict between ‘the West’ and ‘Asia’ that some professors would like to believe in, and which the mini-media circus surrounding Mishra’s review of Niall Ferguson centered, too. We need an international history that speaks to both ‘the West and the rest’, to take the title of Ferguson’s latest book, but also one which relishes in contradictions and disagreement even within the Third World. More attention to a world in which formal empire didn’t exist might help.

Even as Oxford is now in the grips of the typically English mid-winter hysteria (since three inches of snow on the ground constitutes a national crisis), the evening was a nice reminder of what’s special about Oxford. I’ll be headed to Paris this coming week to visit with friends and change my writing-up scene a bit (goodbye Corpus MCR, hello chic Parisian cafés?), but I hope to continue with some blog posts while there.


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