One afternoon in the summer of 1992, I was talking to my landlord and found myself asking him what lay beyond the snow-capped mountains I could see from my veranda. “Tibbat,” Mr Sharma said, pronouncing Tibet the north Indian way. I was startled. Was it really that close? I had only recently moved to this small village in Himachal Pradesh to see if I could be a writer; the physical isolation seemed to constantly fuel my sense of inadequacy. Now, in my imagination, that vast territory stretching from Lhasa to Hokkaido and Surabaya, an Asia even then being imprinted by the politics and economy of China, suddenly reared up as an oppressive blank—another reminder of my ignorance about the world.
Mr Sharma, a scholar of Sanskrit, didn’t share this debility. He spoke naturally of Tibbat as another crossroads within an expansive Indian cultural sphere, in which Indian religions and philosophies had travelled across mainland Asia and deep into the Pacific. I envied him his Tibbat, part of his private idea of Asia, one that must have clarified the larger world, relieved the ache of incomprehension, and anchored him to the earth.
I had no such Tibbat. My own Asia was yet to be populated by specific cultures, histories and peoples. I had read the fiction of Lu Xun and some essays by Mao Zedong, but didn’t know much more about China apart from that it had betrayed India in 1962, hastening Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, and was, for this reason, not to be trusted. I knew of the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Japan was almost entirely embodied by Akio Morita, the purveyor of the Walkman as well as the blonde-wood encased Sony Trinitron (both much coveted in India’s still austere early 1990s). No political and intellectual movements animated the East or Asia in my mind as they did India and the West.
It is easy to sneer, in our intricately interdependent world today, at the quasi-orientalist concepts of the ‘East’ and ‘Asia’. Both came into the world conjoined with their domineering twin, the idea of Europe. Denoting the West’s barbaric or inferior ‘other’, they were originally meant to quicken western self-consciousness. In the late 19th century, however, a range of Chinese, Japanese and Indian thinkers put ‘East’ and ‘Asia’ at their service, infusing these categories with particular values and traits such as respect for nature, communitarianism, simple contentment and spiritual transcendence. This supposedly Asian tradition of anti-materialism was then counterposed to modern western ideologies of individualism, conquest and economic growth. The idea of Asia became an expression of cultural defensiveness against conceited westerners who claimed a monopoly on civilisation and regarded people without its manifest signs—the nation-state, industrial capitalism and mechanistic science—as inferior.
This proposed cultural unity of Asia acquired a geopolitical edge during early postcolonial struggles for national wealth and power—an endeavour in which Indian, Chinese and Indonesian leaders self-consciously invoked solidarity with each other. Thus, the experience of domination and racial humiliation and the claims to freedom and dignity that once bound Rabindranath Tagore to Liang Qichao and Tenshin Okakura came to link Jawaharlal Nehru to Mao Zedong and Sukarno. Contemplating the great turmoil and trauma of their societies, artists such as Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa came to share a troubled humanism.
Such imagined communities have now fragmented, both at home and abroad, replaced by pragmatic economic associations such as ASEAN and cross-border networks of manufacture, finance and trade. Authoritarian-minded leaders still invoke ‘Asian values’, positing Asia’s Confucius-sanctioned communal harmony against the west’s evidently amoral and fissiparous individualism. They are little more than a rhetorical cover for regimes that enjoy harmonious relationships with local plutocrats while denying political rights to the majority.
The idea of Asia has acquired a different coherence today. What connects geographically disparate experiences—of rural migrants in Jakarta, factory workers in Manesar, tribals in Chhattisgarh, nomads in Tibet as well as the gated communitarian patrons of Hermes and Jimmy Choo in Hangzhou and Gurgaon—is the late arrival of capitalism. The great shifts that convulsed 19th-century Europe can now be witnessed across Asia: the commodification of life and land, their valuation by supply and demand, the disintegration of communities into aggregates of self-seeking individuals, the scramble for personal wealth and status, the desperation and anxiety of the also-rans, and the resentful resistance and hectic improvisations of those left, or pushed, behind.
What gives Asia its provisional unity today, cutting across boundaries of ethnicity, religion, geography, class and nationality, is the experience of an often bitterly paradoxical modernity: the promise of self-transformation and growth that is frequently realised through the destruction of familiar landmarks, an atmosphere of agitation and contradiction in which the betrayal and disintegration of old bonds necessarily goes together with renewal.
It took me many years after that awakening to Tibbat’s proximity to see familiar faultlines, threats and possibilities in this new Asia—the setting of immense collective and individual strivings, violence, suffering, frustration, despair and optimism. My intellectual blindness was due largely to my intense desire to be a writer in English. To be born in an Anglophone culture was to not only be reflexively west-centric, and to reserve one’s profoundest attention for western literatures and philosophies. It was also to assume that the institutions (parliamentary democracy, nation-state), philosophical principles (secularism, liberalism), economic ideologies (socialism, followed by free-market capitalism) and aesthetic forms (the novel) introduced or adopted during the long decades of British rule belonged to the natural, indeed superior, order of things.
They would, one simply assumed, banish irrational religion, improve governance, expand private freedoms, enlarge our moral imagination and bring prosperity and contentment to hundreds of millions of our less-privileged compatriots. The national well-being once promised by socialism came to be linked in recent decades with another set of ideas imported from Anglo-America: privatisation, deregulation and minimal governments.
Few people today will argue that events have vindicated these assumptions. The Indian nation-state, which began its existence by extending adult franchise to an overwhelmingly poor and diverse population, is one of the world’s most audacious experiments in democracy and political pluralism. It can claim some successes, particularly the politicisation of long-underprivileged peoples. But this progress is far from being continuous and irreversible; it is accompanied by great losses, and, punctuated by points of stagnation; it generates powerful countervailing forces. It is easier to perceive the state of general crisis: insurgencies by ethnic and religious minorities in border states, which are now accompanied by more militant rebellions by the dispossessed in central Indian states; a slow-motion agrarian calamity signified by the suicides of hundreds of thousands of farmers; a rapidly enlarging urban population exposed to a dehumanised existence; and, finally, a fragmenting polity, presided over by men who, unrepentantly guilty of a staggering venality, seem further than ever from liberalism and secularism.
An increasingly Americanised Indian elite continues to look to its western counterparts for self-affirmation and support. But the old masters of the universe, struggling with multiple economic crises, rising inequality and political discontent, have lost sight of their own model of universal progress, and lack the confidence to export their cherished values to others. Like everyone else, European and American countries live—or survive—from day to day, sinisterly omniscient with their militaries and surveillance technologies, but no longer a vital source of redemptive moral and political ideas. Even the analytical guidance offered by Europe’s long intellectual and philosophical tradition seems less and less reliable in an age of dazzlingly heterogeneous political and cultural forms.
In this context, India’s obsession with the west, which radical Chinese and Japanese thinkers in the early 20th century regarded with appalled fascination and foreboding, seems much more debilitating than before. India doesn’t struggle alone with its intensifying conflicts between the demands of politicised masses and the imperatives of transnational capitalism. But we don’t know enough, outside of academia, about political and social experiments in other Asian societies: what they consist of, how things seem to be tending, let alone how they may turn out (and bien pensant opinion-mongering about ‘containing’ or ‘matching’ China is no substitute). We know even less about how the particular challenges and dilemmas of China and its neighbouring countries have been formulated in modes of governance, technologies, religions and art.
But then it is not always easy to look beyond the horizon defined by one’s upbringing and preoccupations. In late 1995, I travelled to Indonesia on my first trip abroad. I had just published a book about the arrival of neo-capitalist modernity in small-town India. Some of the political and cultural energies noisily unleashed by it, which radically redefined India, were also present in Indonesia, which had embraced the project of private wealth creation much earlier. But it was the 9th century temples of Prambanan and the stupas of Borobudur that induced the shock of recognition. And Bali, which Nehru had memorably and with uncharacteristically precise lyricism called the “morning of the world”, made me feel less clueless about the Sanskrit cosmopolis that Mr Sharma had spoken of.
Indeed, Bali, conquered late by the Dutch, and only patchily modernised, seemed to belong enchantingly to the old Hindu world with its household shrines, gamelan music, moss-adorned statues, shadow plays and rice fields. I had no idea that much of the island’s much-revered ‘ancient’ culture was of recent origin. Unexpectedly, in the northern Balinese city of Singaraja, there was an Arab quarter, evidence of the spiritual island’s long-standing maritime—and solidly materialist—links with the larger world. But I lingered in a touristic stupor. Java, with its smooth toll roads and skyscrapers, induced a primitive sense of wonder, but no curiosity.
Indonesia was then run by Suharto, a business-friendly despot with stalwart American and European allies; his crony capitalism had generated a small but loyal middle class and a compliant media. Did this axis prefigure the appeal of authoritarian capitalism in our own time? Did it look ahead, through the eras of Deng Xiaoping’s China and Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, to the age of Narendra Modi? My eyes—unschooled in East Asian histories and the stodgy but revealing facts of political economy—could not see much. Much experience and many reorientations of perspective were needed before I could return to Indonesia in 2011 with a writing commission.
During this long interregnum, my personal discovery of Asia proceeded through a series of accidents. Many of the intellectual journeys I took led to China. While researching a book on the Buddha, I learned about the transmission of his teachings to East Asia via Kashmir and Tibet, where they mingled with pre-existing belief systems and ethical philosophies such as Confucianism and Daoism. In this indirect way I began slowly to understand how China had been the Greece of Asia, imparting its Confucian cultures to its Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese neighbours. Its empires were at the centre of a trade and diplomatic web extending from Nepal to Java, and the Amur region to Burma. China’s economy was central to the region; overseas Chinese merchants and traders were later to become major players in the economies of Southeast Asia.
This history clarified how China, emerging in our own time from decades of economic autarky, had quickly become Asia’s preeminent country, eclipsing Taiwan, reviving Hong Kong and enriching Mongolia, and forcing an anxious Japan into an atavistic nationalism. Travelling in Malaysia and Indonesia, it became easier to see how their ethnic Chinese, part of the population of overseas Chinese, had become, despite institutionalised discrimination and neglect, the greatest economic power in Southeast Asia. As I read further, it became clear that to understand contemporary Asia as a whole, one had to understand China—now more than ever. And it was where my compass began to point.
Beginning in 2004, I began a regime of regular travel to China. Personal experience, of course, gives no special access to reality, even though it lends authority and glamour to two overrated figures of western bourgeois culture: the foreign correspondent and the travel writer. One still has to learn to see, and find the right intermediaries. It was Chinese writers and thinkers who exposed me to the great changes afoot in that country: how progress there, too, proceeded with leaps and bounds, creating new kinds of turbulence, and, often, more victims than beneficiaries.
Much of my early knowledge of China was acquired from the work of western Cold warriors and liberal internationalists, who reflexively counterposed its authoritarianism with ‘democratic’ India. And so it took me a while to see that the ideological dualisms that helped keep American think-tanks solvent—free versus unfree worlds, communist totalitarians versus Buddhistic Tibetans—were nearly useless in understanding, say, the rapidly changing situation in Tibet.
There is more religious freedom in Tibet than any time since the Cultural Revolution. It has also recorded higher GDP growth rates than any province in China. Still, economic development has not made for political passivity (as it has elsewhere in China). This is partly because the new economy, heavily favouring urban areas over rural ones, threatens to terminate age-old peasant and nomadic lifestyles. Following the incursions of modern capitalism everywhere, the ‘rationalisation’ of everyday life has also expedited ‘the development of underdevelopment’—the creation of modern poverty and inequality. Furthermore, like predominantly rural ethnic minorities elsewhere, Tibetans are turning out to lack the temperament or training needed for a fervent belief in the utopia of modernity—a consumer lifestyle in urban centres—promised by post-Mao China. Dragged into a comprehensive reorganisation of their public and private lives, Tibetans have been forced into sturdier affirmations of their cultural and religious identity—a commonplace phenomenon in Asian countries exposed to western-style modernisers in the 19th century.
The mobile capital, multinational enterprise and digital communications that create transnational networks of elites also help reconfigure ‘medieval’ and other apparently anachronistic identities. Indeed, the deepening and mutually reinforcing links between cosmopolitan globalism and the quasi-parochial mutinies by ethnic and religious minorities are deeply characteristic of our age.
Such were the ambiguities and contradictions of modernity which dissolved expedient ideological oppositions between democracy and authoritarianism. The Tibetans, I began to see, share their plight with farmers and tribal peoples in India, who, though inhabiting the world’s largest democracy, confront a murderous axis of politicians, businessmen and militias.
I had no institutional compasses, and my early guides, randomly chosen, were numerous, manifold and mostly erratic. China and its neighbours have hosted many dreamers, from the counter-culturalist Walter Spies in Bali to the easy riders on Rising Asia bandwagons today: they primarily describe their own fantasies of personal power and status, their desire to escape from or enlist in the apparently universalising and homogenising history of the West.
Even intellectually resourceful travel writers have been unable to break out of their casually inherited prejudices. Whether writing about yoga, Islam or the Japanese, both V.S. Naipaul and Arthur Koestler proclaimed, with varying literary power, that the west is best. Self-consciously rejecting all such naive westernism, Claude Levi-Strauss still recoiled fastidiously, in Tristes Tropiques, from Asia’s ostensibly Malthusian fate: a “vision of our own future which it is already experiencing”; and then succumbed to a simple- minded Japanphilia in his later years. Shrewdly perceptive on Japan, Roland Barthes produced only banalities on China. Rabindranath Tagore, Rahul Sankrityayan and Amitav Ghosh, who redeem a very weak Indian tradition of writing about East and Southeast Asia, have been much more stimulating. After decades of restriction, and brisk commerce in stale Cold War stereotypes, foreign journalism in China is enjoying a new golden age. Donald Richie, Ian Buruma and Pico Iyer have shrewdly decoded Japan’s ‘otherness’. East and Southeast Asia is also the realm where such giants of modern humanities scholarship as Jonathan Spence, Benedict Anderson, Clifford Geertz and James C. Scott have roamed. Still, broad overviews or granular histories by outsiders are good only for initial positioning.
It takes a different effort—chance conversations and random reading as well as patterned travel—to sense the inner life of a society. Few things turn out to be more important than eavesdropping on its debates—and quarrels—with itself about politics and culture—those not meant for foreign consumption. The writings of Indonesian thinkers and writers such as Soedjatmoko and Goenawan Mohamad, the Chinese Wang Hui, or the Japanese Yoshimi Takeuchi and Kojin Karatani opened up perspectives unavailable in accounts by outsiders. And in the literature and films of East Asia, a more exhilarating revelation awaited me.
For much of my adult life, I had been trained to see self and the world through a predominantly western and South Asian canon. To read the novels of Kenzaburo Oe or watch the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien was to discover fresh correspondences and resemblances. Modernising early, with much confusion of purpose, Japan’s experience of disorientation in the new world set the cultural template for many Asian writers, artists and thinkers. I found that the confusions and dilemmas of R.K. Narayan’s deracinated young men and women were prefigured more precisely in Natsume Soseki’s Sanshiro and Kokoro than in anything by Italo Svevo and Thomas Mann; that Mikio Naruse’s film When a Woman Ascends the Stairs spoke as directly to the dilemmas of lower-middle-class Indian women I knew as Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar; and that Calcutta had more in common with semi-colonial Shanghai and Tokyo in the 1920s and 1930s than with Dublin.
This discovery of new relationships of symmetry helped defamiliarise the country I have lived in and primarily written about for most of my life. Exposure to foreign countries tends to estrange us from the everyday; it relativises what we have held to be unique—political processes, cultural norms—about ourselves. But I was still surprised by how dramatically my travels broadened the frame of reference to which my thinking about India had been long confined. This book about some decisive stages in the story of contemporary East Asia is, above all, an attempt at bifocalism: an enquiry about China and its neighbours whose starting and end point is, inevitably, India.
It is why they contain more uncommon juxtapositions and contrasts than colourful description and inventories of exotic facts. A Great Clamour also tries to maintain a careful distance from the instrumentalist worldviews of foreign affairs pundits, security experts and financial analysts. It describes, after all, a world where grand, unilinear visions—according to which better technology, education, entrepreneurship and productivity are taking us all to convergence with western-style affluence and stability—look increasingly threadbare. Elections have not produced functional democracy or even political stability, free markets have not led to freedom, or higher literacy and better communications to greater tolerance and human rights. Rather, we have witnessed political chaos, corporate greed, climactic depredation, xenophobic nationalism and ethnocide on a greater scale. The allegedly universal laws of progress, lately amplified by smooth-tongued Davos Men, have proved yet again to be bogus.
But life goes on, as it always has, beyond the miscarried rationalities of science, market and the state, and in unexpected ways. This is attested diversely by the Japanese with their ‘post-growth’ economy, the Tibetans recoiling from ‘development’ to fresh faith in their reincarnated spiritual leader, or the growing Indonesian preference for ‘bottom-up’ governance. Any attempt to understand the new Asia must acknowledge such deep structures of difference that exist behind the superficial unity proclaimed by the vendors of nationalism or globalisation. Above the collision of inhuman ideologies with ordinary human lives looms the phantom of alternative histories, what has not but could have existed, and modes of living and thinking that may yet have a future. Such at least were the temptations of the East—its fabulously multifarious ways of being human, and the determination of many people to preserve them—as I set out to find my own private Tibbat.