A Q & A with Pankaj Mishra
by Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Pankaj Mishra, whose latest book Drew Calver reviewed for this periodical, has surely been a familiar name to many Los Angeles Review of Books readers for some time now. They may have first become familiar with him via one of the many pieces he has done for periodicals such as the New Yorker, through one of his earlier nonfiction books, such as An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, or by reading the profile Jennifer Schuessler did of him for the New York Times. In my case, I first encountered his name while looking for something on his native India to assign in a survey of the world in the twentieth century. Browsing in a bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was teaching at the time, I stumbled on The Romantics, his first and so far only novel. I found it a wonderfully engaging read (and very teachable).
I was delighted to learn a bit later on that China, the main country I teach and write about for a living, was one that he had long been interested in and had begun to visit and periodically ruminate on in print. We struck up a correspondence and went on to become friends, and now are even collaborators of a sort, since he was good enough to write the “Foreword” to Angilee Shah and my co-edited volume, Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land.
I caught up with Pankaj by email earlier this month to put some questions to him. The LARB had previously done a video interview with him, which Angilee conducted in Los Angeles when his book tour was in its early phase, but a follow up seemed justified, since he had gone on to give talks on Ruins in widely varied places, including China, India and Japan. He got my questions just before setting off for Australia, where he is now, and answered them on the long plane ride there:
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: You’ve given talks on your book now in many parts of the world, including the U.K. and the U.S. and several Asian cities, most recently Tokyo. Let’s start with that metropolis, since From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectual Who Remade Asia begins with Japan, looking at the shock waves that the country’s defeat of Russia in 1905 sent around the globe. What was distinctive, if anything, about the kinds of questions you got about the book when you spoke in Tokyo?
Pankaj Mishra: In Tokyo, I was both intrigued and disconcerted by the nationalists who thoroughly approved of the parts of the book that fit their view of Japan as a great and sadly neglected power in history. (They obviously did not mention Tagore’s revulsion from Japanese militarism and imperialism) There were also other people who said there was a new conversation to be had in Japan about pan-Asianism, and more generally the country’s links with China and the rest of mainland Asia, and the book helped advance it.
JW: What about India? Was there, for example, particular interest there or perhaps some criticism of the way you brought Tagore into the book?
PM: There was some bemusement over my treatment of Tagore as a serious, if not systematic, thinker of many modern political and economic tendencies. Gandhi is usually allotted that role in India. There was also some criticism, of course, and valid points made. But then I think India, like Japan and China, has its own recessive political and intellectual histories, and if a book can help highlight them, or make them available for discussion, then it has succeeded. A book like mine can only be a modest link in a chain. Hopefully other books will deepen its research, and refine its themes.
JW: I was fortunate enough to be present for three of your book events, sitting in the audience for the L.A. one, taking part in a Beijing podcast with you, and serving as your onstage interlocutor in Shanghai. I’ve got my own thoughts here, but anything you want to say about similarities and differences between those events?
PM: The podcast in Beijing was great fun. In Kaiser and Jeremy we had two very acute observers and commentators, and we could quickly cover much ground in Chinese intellectual history, and confine ourselves to it fruitfully. The conversations in LA and elsewhere in the U.S. and U.K. tend to be more general and broad-ranging. One can’t assume much prior knowledge of people like Liang Qichao—-major figures though they are in China itself. So much of the conversation has to be devoted to introducing them, and replaying their greatest hits.
JW: One thing that was a particular hit in L.A. was you reading a section of the book about the Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao’s misgivings about American democracy after visiting the U.S. in the early 1900s. I think you brought that up to good effect in Shanghai as well. Was that something you did in all settings, or just a part that seemed particularly relevant to dwell on in China and the U.S.?
PM: I did it in many places—primarily for the shock effect. I think many people in the West are strangely bemused by the idea of a reversed gaze—the possibility that highly intelligent men and women from the non-West had travelled through their part of the world and made their own assessments of the political and economic arrangements prevailing there. They are so accustomed to judging non-western societies that the idea of someone from them judging their own societies is a bit disconcerting.
JW: Turning to your recent commentaries, but with an eye on the book, in an interview with the Boston Review you talked about the timidity of contemporary intellectuals and your worries about the place for free-ranging criticism in the public sphere. Did you have intellectuals or intellectual debates of roughly a century ago in your mind when talking about this? If so, which intellectuals and which debates?
PM: Well, the example that comes immediately to mind is the debates provoked by New Youth, the articles by Chen Duxiu and Hu Shih and others. These weren’t professional intellectuals. People wrote out of experience and conviction, and a passionate belief in the power of ideas to change the world. Some of this faith was misplaced, as we know, but at least there was no danger of a vapid consensus.
JW: I’ll refrain from asking you to comment on the latest issues that have brought Niall Ferguson (one person you’ve had a, shall we say, “heated” exchange with) back into the news, I do want to ask a Salman Rushdie question. You’ve sparred with him in the Guardian over Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize award, so I wonder if you have any thoughts on his latest expressions of opinion on China and freedom of speech in this Atlantic piece?
PM: I don’t fundamentally disagree with Rushdie’s criticism of the Chinese state for its repressive measures. I do think, however, that the situation in China is too complicated to be clarified through a cold-war lens or the pre-digital age assumption that the Chinese state monopolizes all discourses and stories and everyone else is just passive and apathetic, if not a patsy of the regime. There is a lot more freedom today to speak your mind—it takes only a few seconds to check out Weibo for proof of that. And look at Yu Hua’s writings in recent years. Rushdie himself acknowledges that this boldness and vibrancy came as news to him. For me the most important part of this interview is about India, where long-guranteed democratic rights are under threat, where non-state actors threaten artists and writers and intellectuals, and the state largely acquiesces. I don’t think we have found a way to make external pressure more effective there.
JW: Have you come across any book—or perhaps just article—that you now wish you’d read before writing Ruins, either because it gave specific information it would have been useful to know earlier or because it has arguments with which you would have wanted to engage?
PM: No one book, but bits and pieces of information and analysis that I wish I had included. Such as Tagore’s visit to Cairo and his exchange with Saad Zaghlul or the influence of pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism in Java—-I wish I had more on Indonesia generally. I am reading more on Japan these days and learning about how their writers and intellectuals perceived China—fascinating stuff. But, as I said, hopefully other books will fill up the gaps in this one.
Tonight at the New School: Dissent Magazine presents China’s 99%. A panel discussion featuring Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, and Megan Shank. Get more info here.