• Mon
  • Jul 14, 2014
  • Updated: 4:45pm
My Take
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 12:34am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 October, 2013, 12:13pm

Non-violent encounter with leading literary thinker Pankaj Mishra

Meeting Pankaj Mishra face to face was for me like my daughter going backstage to see Katy Perry. So a recent dinner with the great man was certainly worth it, though it didn't come cheap. We both arrived at about the same time - late. Other guests were already congregating and deep in conversations. So I had a short time with arguably Asia's leading literary thinker today, all to myself.

He was unfortunately rather taciturn, and we ended up talking about the weather and a bit about Hong Kong's democratisation and "mainlandisation" before he was duly returned to the other guests.

"I am not surprised at all about Hong Kong's reactions to the mainland," he said. Well, that's the thing about having an awesome intellect; you already have the conceptual repertoire in hand before you familiarise yourself with the specifics about a new place.

The rest of the evening was provocative, as Mishra spoke to the group, with topics ranging over much of the contemporary social and political landscape in our globalised world: modernisation vs westernisation; East vs West; corruption in China, India and the US; the public intellectuals whom he despises and visionary artists whom he admires; and the meaning of life and happiness.

He doesn't like what "serious readers" read: the historian Niall Ferguson for whom the West is the best; or the "global novelist", writers he named in a recent Financial Times article like Haruki Murakami, Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie. There is a long list of non-Western writers he likes; I have never heard of a single one of them. His erudition is frightening.

Is there a common theme to all this? I think it is that every non-Western society, and certainly China, became modernised through violent encounters with the West. This has meant alternating between "liberation and repression, fulfilment and loss," Mishra once wrote. We have become richer, and more powerful and independent as modern nations, but we never got over the traumas of those encounters.

Many countries achieved modernity only by treating their people like cogs in a machine, as means to an end, their happiness forever deferred by one great national project after another to catch up with the West. That has been our tragic inheritance.


For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

I do not believe this is merely "our (Asian) tragic inheritance". I believe this is a world-wide, trans-historical human inheritance, to which the Europeans and Americans were hardly immune in their particular eras.
Setting aside the essential synonymity of modernization and westernization in our time, I am skeptical that "people's happiness" were not similarly deferred in, for instance, 19th-century United States, where a most bloody civil war was waged in the name of "preserving the Union." Out of the ashes of this great war emerged a supreme and unchallengeable federal government, towering over any individual state or even collectivities of states. This is a great nationalising (Americanizing) project, hardly much different from the giant Sinocising projects past or present.
From this very short narrative of Pankaj Mishra and his work, I hasten to stand on his side. I have been using modern and not western as an idea to describe Hong Kong’s state of affair in all my posts in SCMP so far. Obviously, Hong Kong is imbued with western culture but it is not a modern society. As I still insist to describe Hong Kong in substance it is still a colony -- primitive and backward.
I must spend more time with Mishra or his work at least.


SCMP.com Account