I picked up Pankaj Mishra’s latest book “A great clamour: Encounters with China
and its neighbours” at the Raipur airport, on my way back to Bangalore from a short consultation on tribal health. I have discovered a deep interest in China, after my month-long stay in Beijing and my conversations with several public health researchers from China. Initial conversations were around trying to understand the politics and governance. Apart from the more development or politics oriented discussions in Amartya Sen’s works, I began to be more interested in contemporary and recent history of Chinese people. A recent book on Tibet (the book named after the country) by Patrick French and William Darlymple’s classic In Xanadu (the first of Dalrymple I think from his student days, as much a travelogue as a historical essay) had both tickled my curiosity of contemporary Chinese society. Beijing was as much a cross-section of Chinese society as Delhi or Mumbai are of Indian, or perhaps representing China much lesser than Indian metros.
The book offers travelogue-like but richer stories weaved into curious diversions on recent history of various countries. Miishra offers appetisers of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Japan are presented, albeit after a substantive portion focusing on China. He starts off with a quick introduction on why he looked east, and gets into the business of describing encounters with various Chinese city and especially a variety of people he meets. The introduction keeps the Indo-Chinese connection “real”; discussing the great interest and several historical exchanges, but at the same time, the relatively distant relationship with our neighbour. A large initial chapter focuses on Shanghai and its particular unique cultural milieu affected strongly by European presence. Well-chosen excerpts from Chinese works expose an uncanny similarity (to India) in how middle-class China developed a fascination for a Western pretence as a high class act. He traces the similarities of some of the characters described in contemporary Chinese works (for example, the character Fang from Fortress besieged by Qian Zhongshu) to Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English August. Mishra goes on to explore various political themes travelogue-style, through descriptions of meetings with dissidents and academics. In reading about these encounters, one begins to appreciate the several events in Chinese history (the revolutions included) through more local perspectives and often varying ones. Mishra finds an interesting form that dissent takes, where it manifests as intellectuals holding the regime to account without necessarily becoming individually known for dissenting voices, but rather introducing powerful narratives often in literature, theatre or in academia; narratives that create a counter-culture and become the regime’s conscience. He brings these out through review of various books of the Mao era.
With that, he abruptly shifts gears into Mongolia, and then jerkily flitting about south-east Asia, stopping over episodically in Hong Kong, Tapipei and Kuala Lumpur. These read much more as short travel essays in their own merit and are not well woven into the larger “encounters with China” narrative. Indonesia chapter is quite well developed though and possibly very interesting to many Indians of my generation wherein current ties political or cultural are nearly non-existent. To discover an ancient fascination that Indonesia had for Nehruvian India and what the political developments thereafter, which push the country further and further away from its initial moorings in good governance. The chapter on Japan is also somewhat better than the other small ones in between; again exploring Japan through authors and books and starting off post-WWII. All in all, a nice easy read for those looking for a politico-cultural appetiser to China and its neighbours. Shayan Rajani sums up the book rather well (and perhaps a bit hyperbolically) in this Dawn review:
What Mishra’s final assessment of India’s neighbours to the east might be is an open question, since the book’s conclusion remains unwritten. However, the picture that emerges is of an Asia populated by rival siblings. Those ahead of India best serve as cautionary tales in her own experiment with liberalisation. The more ambitious project of a common response to the challenges of modernity or the even more daunting task of charting out alternatives remains to be taken up. However, by orienting attention away from an increasingly stagnant West to the great din in the East, Mishra has taken the first step towards formulating an intellectual response to the new world condition.