What did you set out to do with this book?
This is my attempt to describe certain historical characters who were not covered in nationalist histories or imperial histories written in the West. The other intention was to describe a particular cosmopolitan moment in the history of Asia where these intellectuals and writers and activists confronted,in different contexts,the same challenge of Western imperialism. They talked to each other a great deal,travelled,and exchanged notes. I felt that this particular history of pre-nation-state Asia had not been written about,that these characters were somehow lost. We know about Mao,Ho Chi Minh,Gandhi,Nehru,Nasser,Ataturk,but we know less about the intellectual movements that preceded them.
But do those different ideas come together in any meaningful way? Did they offer a real counter to Western power?
They were still figuring out the peculiar nature of this Western power. They are very useful in providing diagnoses to this challenge,but it was too early for them to come up with an alternative,thats something we fail to do even today. They were opening up alternative ways of conceptualising,thinking about our past in a richer manner,where the nation-state is not an inevitable thing it may seem. There were many ideas up in the air,each of those had a pretty clear chance of triumphing,but history took a particular turn. The book describes these ideas and their movement through history,through a very fraught geopolitical context. It was very clear to them that this kind of urban-oriented consumer economy predicated on endless growth,the scramble for resources around the world,the subjugation of populations this was unsustainable. Any talk of alternatives has to proceed from this strong critique. We cannot,three billion people,aspire to the lifestyles of a few hundred million Europeans and Americans.
So youre trying to reorient the narrative,the assumptions of standard Western histories?
Any book in the Western context today that presents the voices of Asian thinkers and intellectuals,is already,without trying too hard,reorienting history. Histories written in the West do not feature these people,do not feature any significant Asian voices. Even major figures like Gandhi are dealt with in passing. So obviously for a Western reader,a lot of these people and ideas will be new. They have no idea that there was this intellectual ferment going on in these countries. Histories written about the West do not accommodate these figures. Our national histories accommodate some of them,selectively,but not those who fall outside the bounds of the nation-state.
Where does this book fit in with your own passage as a writer?
Its part of a preoccupation thats taken different forms. The first travel book I did (Butter Chicken in Ludhiana) was about the early days of post-liberalisation India,how small towns were being transformed by the new culture of material aspiration. The novel (The Romantics) also manifested those ideas. Then my book on the Buddha more directly addressed the idea of him as a figure of someone who interrogated certain notions of human desire. When fulfilment doesnt coincide with happiness,what does material prosperity mean in that context?
Your career is pretty interesting,studying commerce in Allahabad University while avidly reading Edmund Wilson and Flaubert,then that period of seclusion and self-directed study and writing in Mashobra. You must have been a very self-possessed young person.
I just wanted to read,and find a way of being that would sustain that habit. With that kind of single-minded aspiration,I was lucky enough to find ways of fulfilling it. Even today I feel it was an extraordinary privilege. But if you curtail your aspirations somewhat,decide that a social life is not all that important,that life is still available to anyone who wants it. It was pure happiness,waking up,having all day to read and think. I moved to London only in 2005,after I got married. And once you professionalise your life,a lot of what you read is related to what youre writing. You cant read randomly. Im actually trying to deprofessionalise,I want more time to just read and daydream properly.
Back to your book,is it really productive to talk of Western values and Eastern responses?
Im wary of East-West binaries at various levels. You have to look at particular forms of governance,economy that originated in western Europe and were either exported or imposed upon other parts of the world,which Asia then adopted. Whether its Japanese imperialism in Asia,or the Indian and Chinese race for resources in Africa. The intentions are not very different,theyre looking for cheap labour,producers of raw material for their hungry economies. So this East versus West clash of civilisations and all that are a construction of Western elites,ideological formulations to explain the world to themselves in a way that conceals its realities. We made the world,we ruled the world,now were falling behind the East,so lets get strong again,or the East will rule its a pep talk. Were declining,theyre rising,so we should invest in arming ourselves. Its so insidious,this stuff. Its a product of this whole military-intellectual complex that arose in America during the Cold War.
You have written a lot about that…
Yes,again you see that happening here in India,in China. Look at the number of hawkish commentators in the press,practically every day theres some stuff on China,strategic encirclement,how we need to prepare…Look at the number of think tanks that have proliferated,all focused on exaggerating these threats. If you go to Kashmir,you see how many of the journalists there are funded by Indian intelligence agencies. Cultural propaganda of that kind is built into the DNA of vast nation-states. We have not reached the scale of the Americans,but we are reproducing some of the same old pathologies,and that includes intellectual pathologies.
In India too,those who resist have been marginalised,the favourite adjective is left-wing. You attach that adjective to the names and there they are,taken care of,discredited.
Youre saying India is like that?
It happens all the time. Look at the way jholawala is used as a word of abuse. Its saying this guy is a loser,this guy is a Commie,with completely antiquated ideas. People call me left-wing all the time. What does that mean? Communism doesnt exist,and I was always opposed to it as an unacceptable system of political control,not to mention an inefficient economic system. In what way am I a left-winger? Such are the prevailing ideological prejudices of the time that its okay to be a right-winger. To describe someone as Left,is to basically mock them.
You dont see anything exciting in this new India,new energies,a kind of hopefulness that was missing before?
The question is,to what extent can those opportunities be realised,and by how many people? I look at my own village where I lived for 20 years people take courses in computer software,hoping to get into that side of the economy,leave Mashobra,go to bigger cities. But they realise quite soon that all the dreams of urban life personal freedom,metropolitan enjoyment come at a huge price. They come with a salary that can only allow you a small little room in the outskirts,travelling in buses to work,breathing heavily polluted air. And I know quite a few people who didnt like that lifestyle. When you talk of opportunities,of freedom,you have to see that freedom is not suitable for everyone. If you dont have the skills to avail these opportunities,you might just lose a lot and not end up gaining much. For instance,some of these people have perfectly productive farmland. Yet,they moved away,sold it to realestate developers. The money in the bank disappears. So now theyre stuck. They get temporary jobs,as drivers,with no possibilities of a better future. So we talk of these things in the abstract,its much more complex when you look at peoples experiences.
What would we be without the culture of aspiration? But you also need a culture of reasonable expectation,and we seem to have less of that. This is my problem with books that present India as inexorably rising,they fail to take into account these sorts of experiences. In places you travel through,in Punjab,UP,you see all these English-medium institutions,technical institutes,private universities. Theyre completely fraudulent outfits,realestate scams,essentially in 15 years theyll all be turned into flats.
But people still flock to them…
This is the thing,theyve been told theres this marvellous Utopia you can all enter. And yet,its not for everyone,its for people who are already substantially privileged. Of course,theres always a figure or two who will break out from a small place,and he will be upheld as this example of what everyone else can so. That becomes this delusory narrative,and inspires all these ambitions but that person is the exception,not the norm.