Pankaj Mishra in Leipzig (March 2014)
|Born||1969 (age 47â€“48)
Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh, India
|Awards||2014 Windhamâ€“Campbell Prize for non fiction|
National independence, and the preceding political struggles, helped create the space for literary creation in many post-colonial countries. Much of modern Indian or Chinese literature is inconceivable without the political movement for freedom from foreign rule.
In a typically contradictory move, globalisation, while promoting economic integration among elites, has exacerbated sectarianism everywhere else.
After India and China, Indonesia was the biggest new nation-state to emerge in the mid-twentieth century.
Life in a Chinese village is much more organised because the Chinese Communist Party has a presence even in the remotest Chinese village – a presence of the kind that no governmental or non-governmental organisation has in Indian villages.
'Islamism' itself is such a broad and nearly meaningless word as used by the mainstream Western press, including everything from Turkey's AKP party to al Qaeda.
As an Indian, you feel easily connected with certain histories in places like Indonesia, where one sees, because of the presence of the Hindu-Buddhist past, Hindus still living there or Muslims performing rituals that are instantly familiar.
No Muslim country has ever done as much as Turkey to make itself over in the image of a European nation-state; the country's westernised elite brutally imposed secularism, among other things, on its devout population of peasants.
The Dalai Lama can claim the sanction of the Buddha, who is said to have altered his teachings in order to reach a diverse audience.
Many Indians and Israelis seem set to elect, with untroubled consciences, those who speak the language of torturers and terrorists. More disturbingly, these corrupted democracies may increasingly prove the norm rather than the exception.
Though there are laws against blasphemy and insult to religion in many European countries, France has institutionalised its anti-clerical past by proscribing religion from public life.
Gandhi's ideas were rooted in a wide experience of a freshly globalized world.
As the spiritual leader of six million people, the Dalai Lama can be credited with a significant renunciation of the authority of tradition – of the conventional politics of national self-interest as well as of religion.
The Arab Spring showed that people are not going to wait for an American president to make good on his big talk about democracy and human rights; they are going to fight for those rights themselves and overthrow pro-American dictators who stand in their way.
In December 2004, I travelled on the road from Uzbekistan across the Oxus River on which the first Soviet convoys had rolled into Afghanistan 25 years before.
It turns out that globalisation, while promising sameness through brand-name consumption, was fostering, through uneven economic growth, an intense feeling of difference.
The cultural decoding that many American writers require has become an even harder task in the age of globalisation. The experience they describe has grown more private; its essential background, the busy larger world, has receded.
Just as China achieved much more than India in the realm of public health and education under an austere Communist regime, so its economic growth under a capitalist-friendly government strikes a visitor from India as nothing less than spectacular.
As the 19th century progressed, Europe's innovations, norms and categories came to achieve a truly universal hegemony.
The clash of civilizations or the clash between Islam and the West may be cliches. But there is an even bigger cliche around: that this clash actually goes on within Islam, between reformists and fanatics.
The onslaught of new and complex information, the academic and thinktank cults of expertise, not to mention the impossibility of bohemia in the age of high rents, have conspired to assassinate the public intellectual.
Force-backed humanitarianism, which relies on rational influence over events in other countries, may have been a more feasible project in the bipolar era of the Cold War, with its relatively defined and stable web of alliances and proxies.
Many ethnic minorities chafed at the postcolonial nationalism of India and Pakistan, and some rebelled.
I am often struck by the anxious inferiority many well-educated British people display towards the U.S., particularly Londoners dazzled by New York, when many postcolonials are accustomed to regarding Britain's old imperial cosmopolis as the true capital of the western world.
Though blessed with many able administrators, the British found India just too large and diverse to handle. Many of their decisions stoked Hindu-Muslim tensions, imposing sharp new religious-political identities on Indians.
Democracy, loudly upheld as a cure for much of the ailing world, has proved no guarantor of political wisdom, even if it remains the least bad form of government.
Indonesia's diversity is formidable: some thirteen and a half thousand islands, two hundred and fifty million people, around three hundred and sixty ethnic groups, and more than seven hundred languages.
The French Revolution actualised the Enlightenment's greatest intellectual breakthrough: detaching the political from the theocratic.
Like the Britain of Beaverbrook and Kipling, Japan in the early twentieth century was a jingoistic nation, subduing weaker countries with the help of populist politicians and sensationalist journalism.
Policymakers can draw much from 'The Need for Roots': such clear prescriptions as that employers ought to provide an adequate vocational training for their employees, education should be compulsory and publicly funded, and include technical as well as elementary education.
Tiananmen Square in early 1989 attracted many dreamers like Ma Jian, who returned from Hong Kong to a one-room shack in Beijing in order to join the student protests.
Obama was expected to restore an ethical sheen to post-9/11 foreign policy, but he has intensified drone warfare in Yemen and Pakistan, pursued whistle-blowers, and failed to close down Guantanamo.
Shallowness and ignorance have been our lot in the mass consumer societies we inhabit, where we were too distracted to act politically, apart from periodically deputing political elites to take life-and-death decisions on our behalf.
German writers in the late 18th century were the first to uphold a prickly, literary nationalism, in reaction to the then dominance and prestige of French literature.
It's strange to recall that America animated none of my youthful daydreams. I did not see a Hollywood film until my late teens.
For boys like me, in north Indian railway towns in the '70s and '80s, where nothing much happened apart from the arrival and departure of trains from big cities, the Soviet Union alone appeared to promise an escape from our limited, dusty world.
For almost a century since 1918, the centralised nation-state has been the world's default political form. Its various experiments in industrialisation, urbanisation, mass literacy and consumerism have brought more people into public life.
So much of western self-perception and intellectual worldview has been shaped by the moral rhetoric of the Cold War, the discourse in which communism featured as a clear enemy, determined to rule the world.
I think there is no reason for us to bring to Islamism or political Islam the fear and ignorance of Western commentators and their hysterical vocabulary.
I grew up in small towns in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra – places like Akola, Betul, Wardha, Jhansi; I thought the rise of provincial India would be an interesting subject to tackle.
As a young man in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gandhi developed satyagraha, a mode of political activism based upon moral persuasion, while mobilizing South Africa's small Indian minority against racial discrimination.
Happily, financial capitalism and free trade have not done away with national languages and literatures, as Marx rather too blithely hoped.
Many writers from the suburbs of history, such as Ireland and Argentina, produced more original work than their counterparts in the United States; they still seem to.
The British Empire passed quickly and with less humiliation than its French and Dutch counterparts, but decades later, the vicious politics of partition still seems to define India and Pakistan.
Indonesia is hardly immune to catastrophic breakdowns, as the anti-Communist pogrom showed. But, like India, it has been relatively fortunate in evolving a mode of politics that can include many discontinuities – of class, region, ethnicity, and religion.
An enlarged global public society, with its many dissenting and corrective voices, can quickly call the bluff of lavishly credentialled and smug intellectual elites.
In 1980, shortly before my 11th birthday, I wrote my first essay in English.
Minorities within nation-states frayed by global capitalism are naturally more resentful of hollowed-out but still heavily centralised systems of political and economic domination.
The idea that modernisation makes for enhanced national power and rapid progress and helps everyone achieve greater happiness has its origins in the astonishing political, economic and military successes of western Europe in the 19th century.
Enlightenment values of individual freedom are manifested best in individual acts of criticism and defiance.
Britain's unique success as an industrialised nation-state prompted strong imitative endeavours not only across Europe, but also in Asia. Now many people, who were once humiliated into a sense of nationality by British rule, loom larger than their former masters.
Tenured professors are more prone than the rest of us to think that the university is the universe.
If you think of India in the 1980s, there weren't many writers in English around. The ones that were there, Amitav Ghosh or Vikram Seth, were living abroad or publishing from abroad.
A free and rooted society ought to consist of a web of moral obligations. We have the right to ignore them, but we ought to be actually obliged not to let other people starve or to let them lapse into destitution.
Political elites look increasingly interchangeable: Blair, Brown, and Cameron have all tried to provide cover for the surrender of sovereignty to foreign investors with invocations of 'British' values, and, more opportunistically, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
It should be no surprise that religion in the non-western world has failed to disappear under the juggernaut of industrial capitalism, or that liberal democracy finds its most dedicated saboteurs among the new middle classes.
Local markets for literary fiction remain underdeveloped; the metropolis often holds out the only real possibility of a professional writing career.
Economic disasters or foolish wars are hardly guaranteed to bring about large-scale individual self-examination or renew the appeal of truly participatory democracy.
I think subsuming political and economic conflicts into some grand 'clash of civilisations' theory or 'the West versus the rest' binary is a particularly insidious form of ideological deception.
My life was made easy – I lived in a village, and by writing for some newspapers and magazines, had enough to live on. I was happy to be there and write.
Gandhi, brought out of his semirural setting and given a Western-style education, initially attempted to become more English than the English.
In a democratic age, you can't buck demography – except through civil war.
In the 1950s and 60s, geopolitical intrigues did not much engage masses in Asia and Africa; it was something for elites to sort out.
Living in a cultural milieu where the foreign writers most widely available and admired were Russian, I came very late to postwar American writers, and I had great trouble with the canonically exalted white male writers I tried first.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption.
Since the end of the Cold War, metropolitan elites everywhere have identified progress and modernity with the cornucopia of global capitalism, the consolidation of liberal democratic regimes and the secular ethic of consumerism.
After the oil crisis of 1973, many European countries tightened restrictions on immigrants. By then, millions of Muslims had decided to settle in Europe, preferring the social segregation and racial discrimination they found in the West to political and economic turmoil at home.
The Korean War, which China entered on the side of North Korea, fixed Mao's image in the United States as another unappeasable Communist.
The advocates of retaliatory wars will continue to assume a much simpler reality with their hoary oppositions: Religious and secular, backward and enlightened, free and unfree. But if we are to admit how deeply and irrevocably interconnected our world is, then we must find new ways to break the cycle of counter-productive violence.
As the years passed in my village, I witnessed poorly educated young men leaving to seek the greater comforts and liberations of big cities. I would see them on my visits to Delhi.
Ordinary Muslims in Europe, who suffer from the demoralisation caused by living as perennial objects of suspicion and contempt, are far from thinking of themselves as a politically powerful, or even cohesive, community, not to speak of conquerors of Europe.
In 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, Japan had put forward a proposal to guarantee racial equality at the League of Nations, but Woodrow Wilson overturned it in the face of majority support.
Tanpinar presciently feared that to embrace the western conception of progress was to be mentally enslaved by a whole new epistemology, one that compartmentalised knowledge and concealed an instrumental view of human beings as no more than things to be manipulated.
The Sino-Indian War in 1962 has fundamentally shaped and distorted Indian attitudes towards China. It also obscured a great deal of what has happened in China since 1962.
If your writing collides with the conventional wisdom, there's going to be some kind of friction.
As in the early 20th century, the elemental forces of globalisation have unravelled broad solidarities and loyalties.
In 1853, American warships bullied Japan out of centuries of virtual isolation and into the modern world. The threat of force compelled Japan, like India and China before it, to accept trade agreements that were economically ruinous and eroded national sovereignty.
Countries that managed to rebuild commanding state structures after popular nationalist revolutions – such as China, Vietnam, and Iran – look stable and cohesive when compared with a traditional monarchy such as Thailand or wholly artificial nation-states like Iraq and Syria.
The Indonesian nationalists, mainly Javanese, who threw the Dutch out – in 1949, after a four-year struggle – were keen to preserve their inheritance and emulated the coercion, deceit, and bribery of the colonial rulers.
As a writer, I tend to be drawn to marginal people – writers, poet-prophets, seers, eccentrics – who embody the deeper ambivalences of their societies and bear deeper witness to their world than the famous figures we are used to celebrating, or demonizing, in our histories.
To Westerners, the students at Tiananmen may have given an impression of a solid and energetic consensus against dictatorship and for democracy, but they were an egotistical and fractious lot, riven by disagreements over tactics and money.
I started out as a novelist and wrote several novels before deciding to publish one, and I fully intend to go back to the form.
Thomas Friedman's 'The World is Flat' sold more copies in India than in the U.K. The market for go-getting business books or wonkish tomes by corporate moguls posing as philosopher kings has grown dramatically in modernising China and India.
Governments everywhere that are unable to guarantee equitable growth and social welfare have suffered a fatal decay of legitimacy.
The White House tapes, the recordings that Nixon made of his conversations in office, have long been recognized as a marvel of verbal incontinence.
I think the presence of caste in India, how the villages are geographically structured on caste lines, is very different from China. The presence of an egalitarian culture is striking in a Chinese village.
Ineptitude and negligence directed British policies in India more than any cynical desire to divide and rule, but the British were not above exploiting rivalries.
Devout Anatolian masses rising from poverty have transformed Turkey politically and economically.
The Turkish, Arab and Chinese nationalists who built new nation-states out of the ruins of old empires scorned their old, decrepit rulers as much as they did the foreign imperialists who imposed free trade through gunboats.
Decolonisation seems to have dented little the sense of superiority that since 1945 has made American leaders in particular consistently underestimate the intensity of nationalist feeling in Asia and Africa.
Basically, I think of fiction and non-fiction as different ways of engaging with the world. You reach a point where you feel you have said all you possibly can, in reportage or a review essay or a reflection on history, which 'From the Ruins of Empire' was.