Of course the boom-bust — or dupe-dust — cycle of American prosperity, where the morning’s hangover is never enough to chasten the next evening’s scam-party, would all be very cute and picturesque in a small town Mississippian sort of way if charlatanism wasn’t unrestrained by borders (and if America wasn’t the most powerful country on earth).
Empires are about enlisting subjects; and trickery likes to travel. In the 19th century, vast dominions of dupes were just a train ride away from savvy swindlers and their top hats. And for the patron of Calcutta’s coffee houses, London must have felt as near, yet as remote and powerful, as today’s Wall Street feels to the McDonald’s cashiers in Nebraska. Railways, steamships, the printing press, the telegraph – these at once compressed the world geographically (with the wonders of Cairo no farther from Trafalgar Square than a Thomas Cook ticket and a travel guide) while at the same time expanding the terrain of daily thought. Foreign realms and ideas not only influenced explorers and travelling merchants, but they started to permeate the brains of people who never left their hometowns.
In Moby Dick, as Ishmael prepares to set sail on his whaling voyage from Manhattan (December, 1840), the local newspapers are talking about the US presidential election between William Harrison and Walter Van Buren. But they are also proclaiming, in enormous typeface according to Ishmael, “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.” Such is the prophetic quality of great art. Afghanistan was never very far away from New York. America, as only Melville might have foreseen, would eventually take over those bloody battles, after the British and the Russians, and the relationship between Kabul and New York would become more intimate and more dangerous. The first Anglo-Afghan war left only one British survivor, or two if you count his beleaguered pony – the pair limping out of the Afghan desert and into the famous painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler (recently ekphrasticized in William Dalrymple’s book, The Return of the King). From that moment on, Afghanistan would become a kind a mysterious White Whale that would forever madden whichever foreign power was most obsessed with conquering it.
There were other moments in those years of colonial expansion when the bow of Empire would feel the shuddering ram of the White Whale’s head. The Sepoy Mutiny in India. Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905. But military engagement, the harpooning, the spilling of blood, was merely the culmination of a much bigger story. Military victories offered more of a confidence boost than any actual resolution. What mattered – what always matters in Empire – had more to do with communications, with culture, language, education, wealth and status; and perhaps most of all, according to Pankaj Misha in From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals who Remade Asia, the ideas of writers and thinkers, many of whom would experience some pained epiphanies of their own.
“Was the successful business-man the grand culmination of manhood toward which evolution was striving?” chided one such intellectual, the Bengali poet and philosopher, Aurobindo Ghosh. “The British aristocrat, the American capitalist…these, I believe, are the chief triumphs of the European enlightenment to which we bow our heads.”
Ghosh’s sarcasm might sound more humorous today if it hadn’t solidified into the ordinary; that is, if we didn’t find the same apotheosis, Homo businessmanius, in the modern worship of Zuckerberg and Tata; if a generation of Indian smart-phone programmers weren’t still bowing their heads to the Tony Starks of their imagination. But in Ghosh’s time, an alternative life, the life of the intellectual, of spiritual contemplation, of old world tradition, a life free of stock market theology was something entire populations were not only willing to consider, but to rally behind, even to die for. What would modernity make of us, they wondered? Should we live the noisy material life of British broughams and brandy; or can we choose a simpler, more contemplative lifestyle of dhotis and yoga in a Pondicherry ashram?
Ghosh is just one of a large supporting cast of poets, philosophers, novelists, political leaders and thinkers who provide the intellectual chorus behind the three main sopranos in Mishra’s book: The Iranian born Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, China’s Liang Quichao, and the Bengali Indian, Rabindranath Tagore. Together their voices, rarely harmonious, provide an intellectual score for the drawn-out, colonial fin de siècle that occurred in the 19th and early 20th century across the region of earth that spreads between the Red Sea and the Pacific Ocean – a landmass which the ancient, eastward-gazing Greeks lumped together under the toponym of “Asia.”
Mishra uses this term “Asia,” along with its typical East vs. West connotations, as a kind of balancing pole to steady his delicate crossing of ideological divides. But he’d be fine without it. The vigour and vastness of his reading allows him to travel on firm ground, and any themes which unify his subjects have little to do with geography. On the contrary, what al-Afghani, Liang and Tagore have in common – to say nothing of Mishra himself – is not a sharing of culture or place, but rather it’s the seeking of greater understanding through experiences abroad.
For such is the nuance, contradiction, wealth of insight gleaned from a life away from home that well-known Imbibers of its active ingredient (often mixed with poverty and lost love) would quickly fill an A-Z list of brilliant artists and visionaries. Only in 1880ss Paris would the Persian-born al-Afghani awake to the shortcomings of both Islam and science; with Islam needing a reformation (himself as Martin Luther), and science unable “to satisfy humanity’s thirst for the ideal.” Only through his journey to San Francisco and New York in the 1903 did the Canton native, Liang Qichao, begin to see Americans themselves as victims of subjugation. “How strange, how bizarre!” he writes in the tone that would harmonize perfectly with Packer’s Unwinding. “The entire national wealth of America is in the hands of 200,000 rich people.” And Tagore, the winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature – more an artist than a theorist – would find a far more brotherly reception in his long-distant journey to Carnegie Hall than in his much closer travels to Hankou or Beijing.
For all their anguish over foreign influences, the three great intellects in From the Ruins also shared a common frustration: The way their fellow countrymen, like today’s low-income Americans who support tax cuts for the rich, would often prefer to mimic their masters’ behavior than to challenge their authority. “The British rule in India is the most wonderful phenomenon the world has seen,” declared Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, an Indian Muslim working for the East India Company at the time of the Indian Mutiny. But this mimicry of European ways, argued al-Afghani, would only expose them to European rule; and Gandhi, Liang Qichao and just about every other intellectual in From the Ruins of Empire would concur. “We have for over a century been dragged by the prosperous West behind its chariot,” wrote Tagore, adding with a similar sense of self-blame: “We agreed to acknowledge that this chariot drive was progress, and that progress was civilization.”
Tagore, by the way, seems eloquent; his metaphors mostly creative, organic, trustworthy. Mishra is generous with sources and historical context, but without access to the original languages, it can be hard to know which thinkers to trust. Vulgarity can evaporate in translation (oh the liberation one feels residing in a country where one can’t understand the language!). Intellectualism, too, has its share of shysters; and in the early 20th century, millions of people would fall victim to cheap social metaphors: Chains and shackles. Foreign influences were weeds to be rooted out. Enemies were always cancers “metastasizing,” with unwelcome lifestyles becoming tumours in need of surgical extraction. In presenting these dull ideas as worth our consideration, From the Ruins of Empire can sometimes feel like a quaint relic from a bygone era.
But the book — vast, plodding, often magnificent – is written with the intensity of labour and undying sense of purpose we find in Korea’s impoverished General Pak, who, unable to afford the train fare, must trudge alongside the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway, hoping to represent his country at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (arriving too late, alas). An arresting image, this journey of Pak’s, especially as the railway became such a symbol of the colonial enterprise. “The railway, the life-giver,” wrote India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, “has always seemed to me like iron bands confirming and imprisoning India.”
Liberating to some; bondage to others. A gourmet dining car filled with merry travellers hurtling from Paris to the exotic Orient; while a destitute General Pak is walking the other direction. This trudge against the prevailing English flow of expansion, wealth and conquest – this is the arduous journey on which Mishra sets himself and his subjects: Men poor in material possession (Afghani, writes Mishra, “surprised his Ottoman hosts with his meagre luggage”); men largely unrecognized in the English world; but men who are rich and powerful in intellect. In other words, neglected men, disrespected men, and yet men who, despite extreme hunger and the wise advice of female co-travelers, still refuse to stop and ask for directions.
The counter-forces, meanwhile — racism, greed, the might of the English language — are relentless. They need to be. Mishra’s “Asia,” after all, is home to sixty percent of the earth’s population. The imperial powers never had the numbers for a fair exchange of ideas. They required shiftier, more persuasive means to control the multitudes. Take, for example, the German-born entrepreneur, Paul Julius Reuter (Baron de Reuter). It wasn’t enough, we’re told, that in 1872 the Baron finagled a complete monopoly over the construction of Iran’s railways, roads, factories, dams and mines. Reuters news agency would carry on propagating what Mishra mildly calls a “filtered view” of Asia throughout the next century, amplifying its global chauvinism over local, more considered voices (Reuters was al-Afghani’s “bug-bear,” writes Mishra) and becoming a kind of Fox News commentator for the protection of European business interests.
Behind this “filtered view” that started in Europe and morphed, in the late 19th century, into the yellow journalism of Hearst and Pulitzer in America, the beast of Empire would evolve, shape-shift, consolidate. If the intellectuals in From the Ruins of Empire really did “remake” Asia, it’s hard to see their handiwork now. If they helped describe the Imperial leviathan of their times, they may also have made it more difficult for future generations to recognize its mutations. Fifty-six years after India’s independence, the country’s top graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi was quoted in The Hindu newspaper as relishing the opportunity to work (where else?) for Google or Facebook – the emerging Reuters of the modern world. A century ago it was “British rule is wonderful.” Today it’s “all hail the iPad.”*
While From the Ruins of Empire sustains itself on the concept of East vs. West, the dichotomy appears to have run its course, and was never very accurate or interesting to begin with. Perhaps New World vs. Old World is more apropos. Or spiritualism vs. materialism. But even these dualities seem antiquated in this age of Zen-themed shopping malls and yoga-oriented in-flight services (while some of the world’s greatest spiritualists, from Wordsworth to Whitman to Blake, are products of a hemisphere which Mishra broadly paints “materialist”).
What’s far more interesting – and largely absent in From the Ruins — is the realization, be it through travel or introspection or the onset of crises, that one has crossed a divide without realizing it. Or that the divide is not as clear as one supposed. Indeed, the moment we apply the trickery vs. innocence filter of Twain’s (or of India’s equivalent, let’s say, the novelist R. K. Narayan), the boundary between East and West is quick to blur. Dukes and Kings in Mississippi. Swamis and Godmen in Tamil Nadu. Bernie Madoff and Glen Beck. Sai Baba and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
Supreme fraudsters have never cared a jot for where or when they were born.
*I recall a private conversation some years ago with a journalist in Hyderabad who expressed concern about the influence of Google in India. “But I can’t write about it,” he said, “because nobody wants to hear anything negative about Google.”