Dominique Nabokov

Pankaj Mishra, New York City, 2003

There was a time, some decades ago, when the works of Rabindranath Tagore were popular in Israel. They were translated by Pua Shalev-Toren (not from the original Bengali but from English) into a highly ornate, sentimental, purely Orientalist Hebrew and published in small pocket-size hardbacks that adolescents read surreptitiously during classes and soldiers would stick in their knapsacks.

Those were the happier days before the occupation when Hebrew nationalists could still think of themselves as benevolent idealists committed to refashioning the Jewish person in a healthier, modern mode in sharp contrast with the pallid, sexless model of the Jew from the European ghettos. Tagore was mildly erotic, exotically Asian, entirely unfamiliar (this was also long before young Israelis started flocking to India after their army service).

In retrospect, such innocence looks ludicrous, perhaps disingenuous; we know that the seeds of the occupation were sown before 1967 and that Israel’s decision to embark upon the last of the Western colonial ventures was solidly rooted in the prehistory of the state and its prevalent attitudes toward Palestinian Arabs. Here is a modernist irony—precolonial Israelis doting on the anti-imperalist guru Tagore—akin to others deftly described by Pankaj Mishra in his new book on Asian responses to the modern West.

There is a Tagore Street in Ramat Aviv, near Tel Aviv University, but to the best of my knowledge no Jamal al-Din al-Afghani Street or Liang Qichao Street anywhere in Israel. These three names provide the frame upon which Mishra’s book is woven. He has chosen three emblematic figures, whose appropriately grim photographs adorn the dust jacket, to enable him to propose a pan-Asian model of posttraumatic stress and partial recovery. “It is now clearer,” he says, “that the central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of Asian and European empires.”

There is a problem of balance in the choice of emblems. Of the three, the Chinese thinker Liang Qichao (1873–1929) was by far the most versatile and intellectually important (this is not, however, much of a compliment). Toward the end of his life, Liang also had a prominent, if rather ineffectual, part in postimperial politics, serving as minister of justice in the precarious republican moment led by the aged general Yuan Shikai.

Al-Afghani (1838–1897) was brought up as a Shia Muslim in Iran. As a student, I found him a fascinating, incongruous amalgam of fanatical anti-Western agitator, minor political schemer and conspirator, would-be revolutionary, and modernist reformer. He played bit parts in the Great Game, that is, the tug-of-war between England and Russia for control of large chunks of Asia. Like nearly all the Asian advocates of modernist reform, he was, in sheer intellectual terms, profoundly superficial, though he has been elevated posthumously to the role of spiritual forerunner of the Iranian Islamist revolution.

Much of Mishra’s book tells the story of al-Afghani’s largely fruitless wanderings from Iran to India, Cairo, London, St. Petersburg, and Istanbul, where he died under the wary gaze of the Ottoman sultan’s spies. By contrast, Tagore gets relatively short shrift; a chapter is devoted to his East Asian travels in 1916, three years after he received the Nobel Prize for literature. He is portrayed here mostly as expounding a form of Asian spiritualism as an answer to the crass and aggressive materialism of the West. I think he is better described as a romantic Bengali poet and musician, and I suggest we put the word “spiritual” aside. I have banned it in all my classes.

Are these men, then, among the major “intellectuals who remade Asia”? One thing is clear: all three are fully modern figures, their consciousness shaped primarily by the terms of the modernist crisis and debate. But can we even speak of a broad “Asian” response to the West and the newfangled technologies and concomitant power equations that the West brought to the East—“printing presses, steamships, railways and machine guns,” as Mishra lists them? Living in Jerusalem and traveling often to India, I find it hard to think of Asia as a cultural unit with any integrity. There is, however, one experience that was indeed shared by the Islamic world, India, China, and Japan in the nineteenth century—that of predatory intrusion and sustained economic violation by the Western powers. The forms this intrusion took varied from place to place, but its traumatic effects were common to all the great Asian states and cultures.

Mishra tells this part of the story well. It is, I think, necessary to remind ourselves today of the sheer dimensions of Western rapacity and greed active in huge parts of the planet throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries (not only in Asia, of course; Western colonialism in Africa produced even greater horrors, if that is possible). Occasionally one still hears voices justifying the colonial impulse (you can meet anachronistic throwbacks to the classical model of Western sahibs any day on the West Bank, in the guise of mildly racist Israeli officers and bureaucrats). Has any Western country truly come to terms with, or accepted responsibility for, the misery it inflicted, out of unadulterated, insatiable avarice, on peoples situated half a world away?


Mishra takes the shared trauma as his point of departure; he is fascinated by the range of attempts by intellectuals from Marrakesh to Kyoto to make sense of the military and economic disasters that overtook them with the arrival of the Europeans. As it happens, many of these attempts fall into a few fairly predictable, though locally inflected, patterns. Most of them are dominated, consciously or not, by a bottomless ressentiment. That, and the related hunger for revenge, may well be the true basis for a generalized “Asian” response to the West, if there was one.

We also find a widespread subtext lurking within this undying and entirely reasonable resentment: the pan-Asian celebration of Japan (and later, to some extent, post-Ottoman Turkey) as the one or two examples of Eastern nations that could meet the Western challenge on its own terms and, at least at times, come out on top. Thus Mishra begins his book with the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, when a small Japanese fleet destroyed the Russian navy. Japan, beloved of comparative sociologists no less than of envious Asian nationalists, seemed for a while to offer a model of radical modernization without cultural disintegration.

But in fact the modernist dilemma—by no means limited to Asian civilizations—should not be seen as primarily rooted in problems of power and exploitation. Much more than politics, however widely understood, is at stake. The worst damage, by far, took place in the minds of the colonized and has not yet been fully explored in Western languages. Mishra ends his book with an epilogue on what he calls “an ambiguous revenge”: in an era of fast-paced globalization, “the rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of 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.” Why ambiguous? Because, he says,

this success conceals an immense intellectual failure…. No convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though those seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

But why should we aspire to a universalist response? Something is wrong in the way the problem is formulated. Perhaps something interesting can be retrieved from intellectual failure after all.

One might begin by setting back the date of Asian modernizing in general and by distinguishing various meanings of the word “modern.” As Velcheru Narayana Rao has eloquently shown for southern India, a form of awareness that can be characterized as modern emerged naturally and organically in the Telugu- and Tamil-speaking parts of the subcontinent toward the end of the fifteenth century.1 It had nothing whatever to do with Western influence or the arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut in 1498. Highly original thinkers and poets, writing in all the languages of the south, discovered, or invented, a series of interlocking notions that together comprise a novel anthropology.

Thus we find, with particular prominence, the concept of an autonomous, subjective individual, responsible for his or her fate; a new theory of romantic love; the development of literary fiction as a privileged literary technique; a vogue for skepticism and realism, seen as informing the pragmatics of everyday life; the emergence of a cash economy and the conceptual revolution that rapid monetarization entails; the appearance of a bold, full-throated, unfettered female voice; and a new concept of nature as a rule-bound domain, separate from the human and amenable to disciplined observation and extrapolation. An innovative economic model of the mind, centered on the imaginative faculty, came to define the meaning of being human.2

With this shift in incorrigible assumptions there arose a new kind of state, which we call “Nayaka,” founded by a recently recruited elite of self-made men who had cut free from their ascriptive caste and family backgrounds and who saw themselves as free agents in a world of hitherto unknown opportunities.3 Such adventurers, as well as their wives and queens, were utterly remote from the long line of “bewildered Asians” whom Mishra describes early on in his book: “men accustomed to a divinely ordained dispensation, the mysterious workings of fate and the cyclical rise and fall of political fortunes.” For the record, I have to add that the cliché of the fatalistic Indian seems to me to have no basis in fact, not in the distant past and not today.


Narayana Rao, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, and I have written at some length about this dramatic shift in sensibility that reached its height in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; I won’t pursue it further here except to remark that it has nothing to do with the “colonial modernity” that emerged in India during the nineteenth century and that concentrated on reforming what its proponents saw as degenerate, obsolete practices of the Hindu religion (such as child marriage, the ban on widows’ remarriage, and the prevalent institution of courtesans). This colonial modernism first crystallized in the major British center of Calcutta; it is usually connected to the names of the polymath pundit Ram Mohan Roy and the modernist philosopher Debendranath Tagore, the poet’s father. In the south we find a very similar public intellectual, Kandukuri Veeresalingam (1848–1919), a mediocre character who has been canonized today as the man who invented modernism in Andhra. By the end of the nineteenth century there were already neo-Vedantists like Vivekananda, who sold a sanitized, largely Westernized version of classical Indian philosophy to a wildly enthusiastic audience at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893; and there had also emerged, of course, early nationalists bitterly engaged with a Western set of values that they secretly admired.

The Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, Nazareth, 1950s

Chinese and Japanese counterparts of all these trends turn up in Mishra’s detailed account of nineteenth-century East Asian intellectuals struggling collectively with the question of what to do and where to go. Possibly the most engaging moment in both historical and intellectual terms, discussed at length in the book, came in 1898 when Liang Qichao and two prominent colleagues, Tan Sitong and the mercurial, clear-sighted Kang Youwei, thought they were on the verge of masterminding radical liberal reforms with the aid of the dowager empress.

They were wrong. Tan paid for his liberal vision with his life; Liang fled to Japan, where he continued to wrestle with the quandaries China faced. Originally a Confucian scholar, he became a professed democrat, convinced now that the nation-state, not the old imperial structure and not the Chinese people, was the “essential unit” for survival in the new century. As far as China goes, he may have been proven right even if the rest of the world has had to suffer the ignominies of living with, and all too often dying for, the lethal chimera of the modern nation-state.

As one reads through Mishra’s detailed description of such ongoing intellectual experiments, one can disengage, grosso modo, five characteristic strategies that crystallized in much of Asia and Africa in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. First came the relatively mild reformers, like al-Afghani, who advocated dispensing with outmoded excrescences in the cultural order in order to generate some form of cultural rebirth. Al-Afghani may have been the first to use the metaphor of reawakening a dormant Islam; the metaphor, based on a completely false notion of a soporific precolonial culture, quickly spread throughout the continent, and soon Indians, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese were all vigorously attempting to wake themselves up.

Along with the modernizers we soon find ruthless Westernizers such as Fuad Pasha in Egypt and Fukuzawa Yukichi in Japan, who advocated dumping the old civilizational system and remaking their countries in the image of the Western nation-state. In this vein the Khedive Ismail, the Egyptian ruler who built the Suez Canal, proudly declared, “My country is no longer in Africa; it is in Europe.” Then there were the romantic atavists and village primitivists—a modern phenomenon through and through—who also tended to take pride in, forgive me, an imagined Eastern spirituality. Next came the violent resisters and fanatical nationalists all too eager to assimilate the weapons and methods of their oppressors.

In India at least, somewhat miraculously, Gandhi managed to bring the nationalist movement into a very different and ultimately more effective nonviolent mode; sadly, he had no prominent Chinese or Japanese counterparts. Finally, there are the fundamentalists like the eighteenth-century Wahhabis and their more recent Islamicist successors or the Hindutva fanatics of twenty-first-century India. These, too, are modern men and women with little genuine connection to the classical sources of the traditions they are so keen to impose on others by force. In recent decades the last two groups—demented nationalists and violent religious fundamentalists—have unfortunately joined forces in various parts of the world, not only Asia.

Of course, there were many improvised variations, twists, and inversions of these competing visions; restless individuals, struggling with a deeply internalized teleology of decline, sometimes managed to combine, over a lifetime, several of the strands into an individual synthesis. By and large, such colonial modernities—I deliberately use the plural, following the late S.N. Eisenstadt4—tend to remain impaled on irreconcilable antimonies. One is driven to choose between reaffirming tradition, in its alleged wholeness and perfection, or its total abandonment in favor of the dream of European power and politics; or between the supposedly humane, primordial order of the village and the brutal, deracinated life of the city; or between fighting back in a doomed attempt to salvage something of one’s national pride and a spineless submission to the new global order. Such antinomies are themselves a product of the insidious loss of cultural self-confidence that colonialism always engenders en passant.

It is probably this festering psychic wound that makes thinkers like the South Indian reformer Kandukuri Veeresalingam or the Egyptian modernist Muhammad Abduh or the fierce Vietnamese nationalist Phan Boi Chau so dreary to read. They often seem dissociated, blocked off from the deeper sources of their distress and thus utterly unable to articulate it in convincing ways. Where, we might ask ourselves after reading through Mishra’s long narrative of intellectual catastrophe, are the subtler sensibilities, the minds attuned to the mordant ironies and aching anomie of Cavafy or Pessoa? Where, in short, are the real modernists of modern Asia? If we are truly dealing with an emergent globalized cultural order, then such voices must be there.

As indeed they are, though they often inhabit a shadowy zone far from the public stage. They mostly shun strident rhetoric and the either-or choices of prevalent public discourse. Their analysis of the state of their own culture and language tends to the tragic. Look, for example, at someone like the late Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who pointedly summed up the agony of the dispossessed and the colonized (also, of course, of the colonizer, not to mention the ordinary person in the street): “My happiness bears no relation to happiness.”5 Or read the remarkable early-twentieth-century play Girls for Sale, by the versatile genius Gurajada Apparao from the dusty town of Vizianagaram in northern Andhra Pradesh, the real laboratory for creative modernist thought in South India; no one has revealed the psychic disaster of colonialism more lucidly or more fully.6 Here is one way he defined the Indian modernist dilemma, with the problem of personal and collective freedom at its core:

Western civilization does help us get rid of some superstitious beliefs, true, but the freedom it teaches is empty of social progress. It is not true freedom. It is only nominal. It doesn’t allow others into its fold.7

Interestingly, Apparao emerged out of the culture of the northern Andhra coast with its pronounced heterodox and maverick components, clearly present in his great play. He nicely confirms S.N. Eisenstadt’s insightful statement that modernist orthodoxies, beginning with the Jacobins, often reveal an intellectual genealogy leading back to premodern heresies.

The generation following Apparao produced the most complex and eloquent modern sensibility to appear in South India, that of the prolific poet and novelist Viswanatha Satyanarayana. Although hardly anyone knows of him outside the Telugu-speaking world, he was, to my mind, a far more incisive thinker than Tagore or any of the more famous Indian modernists who have been translated into English and other Western languages. Additional names come to mind, including that of the nineteenth-century Tamil poet Tiricirapuram Minatcicuntaram Pillai, who is classed today, wrongly, as a traditionalist stuck in the medieval forms. Anyone who reads his “Ode to an Armchair”—armchairs were new-fangled imports to South India in the nineteenth century—can’t miss the bitter yet lyrical irony of the colonized mind, here turned to a seemingly light or minor instance of cultural attrition. Those who read Chinese or Japanese can, I’m sure, offer other examples. A deeper history of Asian modernism, still unwritten, lies with artists and thinkers like these.

One would also like to flesh out the historical and intellectual setting of colonial modernism even in its classic sites such as early-nineteenth-century Calcutta. Kapil Raj has recently begun to describe the rich cultural debates, largely in Persian, that raged in late-eighteenth-century Calcutta and that often sketched out in startling ways the discoveries and opinions of the later Bengali reformers. Both the Sanskrit pandits famously clustered around the Kalighat Temple in Calcutta and the Persian-educated ‘ulama in the mosques were well versed in their respective versions of rapidly developing science, traditional in appearance but radically innovative in content (many of the monographs they wrote have not yet been studied). Some of these intellectuals, like the famous Ghulam Husain Khan Tabatabai of Murshidabad and Siraj al-Din Ali Khan Arzu, also wrote a new kind of history and toyed with comparative linguistics decades before William Jones announced at the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1786 his discovery of an Indo-European family of languages.

In short, Calcutta at the very start of its colonial trajectory was already at least partly modern in the organic, precolonial mode, as was Istanbul of the same period and well into the nineteenth century. A particularly interesting instance of subtle Asian modernism is that of the short-lived Istanbuli Armenian poet Bedros Tourian (1851–1872) and his confre res, brilliantly studied by the Harvard scholar James Russell.8 Like Cavafy, and to some extent like the Chinese liberal Hu Shi, Tourian largely invented a new language commensurate with modern feeling.

If we give such voices the weight they deserve, then the history of Asian modernism begins to ramify and exfoliate backward toward the emergent indigenous modernities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and away from the impoverished colonial modernities and their obsession with social reform. Given such a perspective, the ascent of Asia today would look less like an ambiguous revenge for the violent destruction of traditional worlds than a continuation and intensification of the vibrant intellectual currents active long before the gunboats arrived.