Book Recommendation: From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj MishraWhether it makes you feel rambunctious, resigned or resentful, the reality is that in the modern world the only perspective on history, political discourse as well as moral imperatives that commands legitimacy has been the western one. The reason for that is not profound or surprising. It is the old story of history being written by the victors. And despite the decolonization in the 20th century and waxing and waning fortunes of individual nations, the West, as a whole, has managed to remain powerful in the world order. So has their perspective.

The resentful attempts at reverting this intellectual domination shoot themselves in the foot by failing to distinguish between the message, the messenger, and the method (of arriving at that message). They disparage the message, because it came from the western messenger, and as far as the method is concerned, who cares? At least in India, we have known everything since Vedic times. These attempts also tend to be very narrow in their outlook. Their wet dream would be to replace the western domination of ideas with their own. It isn’t aimed at exploring and accepting multiple different perspectives before trying to come up with a universal theory if one is at all possible. At their core, these attempts are defensive and expose deep-seated insecurity and inferiority complex.

In this context From the Ruins of Empire is an important book.

It is Important because it challenges the western perspective by using the methods that have legitimacy in the modern world (you can call them “western” if you will). The result is a book that isn’t marred by defensiveness or any kind of inferiority or superiority complex. It doesn’t feel the need to achieve an outright victory for an alternate perspective, but it goes out and states the perspective boldly.

As far as the content is concerned, the book follows the history of Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which first saw its subjugation by Europe and then independence in one form or the other. But more importantly, it traces the evolution of Asian thought through the period. Here we see the birth, evolution, struggles, contradictions, adaptations, appropriations and suppression of ideas like Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, value of Confucianism or ancient Indian thoughts, Islamic Revival and others which played an important role in resistance to the West. Many of these don’t get enough attention in the conventional narratives. Even in the Asian countries themselves. In India, for example, the desperate need of nation-building after independence has led to a flattening of the history – the creation of a simplified story starring bad foreigners and good freedom fighters. The inconvenient and nuanced thoughts, even when native, are suppressed or completely removed. We sing Tagore’s national anthem but do not know the apprehensions he had about nation states. The West has, of course, done its own whitewashing. By bringing all that out this books gives the various non-western perspective of history strong legs to stand on. Western intellect has not given us all the answers we need. At the same time, bravely, this book recognizes that the alternate perspective doesn’t really give all the answers the modern world needs either. The following quote is an important one:

The rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.

Yet this success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future.

It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

We need more books like these, covering more aspects of history, politics, economy, and morality of it all.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

Viewed in the West as a time of self-confident progress, the Victorian period was experienced by Asians as a catastrophe. As the British gunned down the last heirs to the Mughal Empire or burned down the Summer Palace in Beijing, it was clear that for Asia to recover a new way of thinking was needed. Pankaj Mishra re-tells the history of the past two centuries, showing how a remarkable, disparate group of thinkers, journalists, radicals and charismatics emerged from the ruins of empire to create an unstoppable Asian renaissance, one whose ideas lie behind everything from the Chinese Communist Party to the Muslim Brotherhood, and have made our world what it is today.

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Other Books by the Author

I haven’t read any other books by the author, but here is a list on his wikipedia page. Many of them have received great acclaim.

 

 

Book Recommendation: The Illicit Happiness of Other People by Manu Joseph

The Illicit Happiness Of Other PeopleThe Illicit Happiness of Other People is melancholy, humorous and philosophical, all at the same time.  When I first read the book a few weeks ago, I found the first few chapters a drag. I was, perhaps, wondering why I am being presented with bits and pieces of a decently smart, but an intellectually megalomaniacal teen’s philosophy, which, in its entirety, would most likely be borrowed wisdom that sounds profound, but means nothing. I held on because the writing was good and the dig at the typical middle-class Madrasi’s life* humorous. I am glad I did. I read the initial chapters again recently to see if there were other reasons for finding them such a drag. Surprisingly, I no longer found them so, perhaps because by the time the novel ends, the author ties up many of the threads he introduces in these chapters. So I was discovering a purpose in them now.

The philosophy of Unni Chacko, the dead teenager around whom the plot revolves, won’t help you find the ultimate truth, but it will make you smile, or think or wonder if there is any difference between wisdom and mental illness and what really defines normal vs. delusional.

Ruminate over the following, if you like.

It is the misanthrope alone who has clarity.

Or this.

Truth usually shows humanity in a poor light.

And here is the delusion explained.

The fundamental quality of a delusion is that it is contagious. The very purpose of every delusion is to transmit itself to other brains. This is how a delusion survives. On the other hand, truth can never be transmitted, truth can never travel from one brain to another. Movement is a quality of delusion alone.

In case you are wondering why?

Truth is not consistent. It changes from brain to brain. The truth of every neurological system in unique and it cannot be transmitted. It cannot be told, it cannot be conveyed, it cannot be searched for and found.

And sainthood deflated.

The distinction between a delusion and a lie is the very difference between a successful saint and a fraud.

And if you thought language was the best thing that happened to humankind.

Language was created by nature to guard its secrets, not to reveal them. We are trapped in language. Even thought has become language.

The reference to a wife plotting to kill her blissfully unaware anarchist husband (overstated) in the book description, a cartoon for the cover and the publisher calling it a ‘darkly comic’ story gives an impression of a very different kind of book. You might go in expecting a satire. But that’s not the case. There a dry, dark humor in the book, but it is very different from satire. The overall tone, in fact, in rather pessimistic despite the humor and wit. It is possible to get depressed with the wise pessimism. But you will survive it. Do read the book.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

Seventeen-year-old Unni Chacko has done something terrible. The only clue to his action lies in a comic strip he has drawn, which has fallen into the hands of his father Ousep, an anarchist. Ousep begins investigating the extraordinary life of his son, blissfully unaware that his long-suffering wife is plotting to kill him. Set in Madras in 1990, this is a darkly comic story involving the relentless pursuit of a failed writer who has found purpose, an adolescent cartoonist’s dangerous interpretation of truth, the plots of a brilliant housewife, and the pure love of a twelve-year-old boy for a beautiful girl.

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Other Books by the Author

Manu Joseph’s first book Serious Men was widely praised and won multiple awards. I have not read it, but by all indications, it is a satire worth reading.

  • It could have been a dig at the typical middle-class life pretty much anywhere in India, except perhaps Karnataka, where the JEE craze was not there, at least until a decade ago.

Book Recommendation: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell JarI recommend this book with some trepidations and a trigger warning. If you are prone to depression this book may hit close to home. It is not surprising that the novel is partly autobiographical. The picture Sylvia Plath paints of the world inside a depressed young girl’s head is so vivid that only someone who has experienced it first hand could know it. And her talent with words ensures that what words express is faithful to what really goes on in the head.

The book was published in 1963 and one has to be thankful that the understanding of mental health issues are much better today and somebody with an issue like Esther Greenwood’s in the novel might get a better treatment.  But the universal interest I have in mind in recommending this book is that it can help the reader understand the situation depression puts someone in. If you find yourself shaking your head at the fatalistic way in which the protagonist behaves and just can’t get a head or tail of her motivations, then know that she can’t either. And that’s how depression works. It can help you cope and help better if, God forbid, someone close to you is suffering from depression. It should also be treated as a warning against stigmatizing mental health problems, which is far too common in our society. Reaching out for treatment and help if one is depressed is nothing to be ashamed about.

Apart from all these, the work is eminently read-worthy for the beautiful writing too.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

When Esther Greenwood wins an internship on a New York fashion magazine in 1953, she is elated, believing she will finally realise her dream to become a writer. But in between the cocktail parties and piles of manuscripts, Esther’s life begins to slide out of control. She finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s only novel, was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The novel is partially based on Plath’s own life and descent into mental illness, and has become a modern classic. The Bell Jar has been celebrated for its darkly funny and razor sharp portrait of 1950s society and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

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