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Asia

Asia needs 'a new historical perspective'

Indian author Pankaj Mishra is the 2014 winner of the "Leipzig Book Prize for European Understanding." In a DW interview, Mishra talks about his book and the impact of colonialism on current Asian-European ties.

DW: What inspired you to write this book?

Pankaj Mishra: The inspiration was partly the realization that countries in our part of the world, like India, are deeply connected to histories of other countries, other societies and yet we don't know enough about that aspect.

For instance, someone like Rabindranath Tagore, we know him as the author of our national anthem, we know of his intellectual companionship with Gandhi and Nehru, but we know nothing about his friendship with people in China, Java, Cairo, Teheran, not to mention Latin America and the degree to which he engaged with the culture and societies of these countries. I wanted to write a book which brings to light our connected histories and get away from the framework of nationalist histories.

And is that why you brought all of Asia under one umbrella?

Yes, to bring together all these experiences, not to assert that there is only one Asia, but to say that there were many Asian responses to western power in the late nineteenth century.

You're basically Indian, you stay in London and you're getting a prize for European understanding, What kind of a role does a rising Asia play in your life? I think it's part of our rising connectedness that someone like me who grew up in India, whose first language is Hindi and who came to English actually quite late in life.

When did you start with English?

I think I started speaking it very late, in my late teens, when I went to Delhi to study at Jawaharlal Nehru University where I had to speak it to make myself comprehensible to people from Kerala or Andhra or Tamil Nadu.

So, someone like myself with that kind of a background, to be writing an English book in Asian history and for that book to be translated in German and for it to win a German prize and for me to be sitting talking to you is one sign among many today that we live today in an interconnected world where identities are multi-layered, our children are growing up in a diverse society and I think we need histories, we need books that match our experience.

So is this why you think Asia needs a new historical perspective?

Absolutely, not just Asia, Europe too. In fact, you could argue that Europe needs it much more than Asia. For many people in Europe, Asia does not really feature much in their historical imagination. For many young people in Britain today, they're not aware of the extent to which Britain was a part of India, they were there for more than 200 years.

What kind of impact does colonialism in the past have on Asian-European relations now?

I think it's a very potent memory for many people and I think this is something that people here in the west need to keep in mind. The reason why they (Asian countries) want to be strong and powerful is not to go through that experience again, is not to be humiliated again. So if Iran is building a nuclear capacity, I don't believe that they're building nuclear bombs, but if they do want nuclear energy, it is because they were assaulted in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein, who was supported by all western powers at that time.

Do we remember that in Europe today? But the Iranians do remember. So one has to understand this history of interference, of humiliation, intervention to understand why countries behave the way they do today.

You talk about a certain kind of regret when you say that western ideas are being implemented in the east. Could you explain?

I think I regret our inability to find a way of being, politically and economically, that takes into account the very different reality of our Indian situation, the fact that we have a very large population, a majority of which is still in rural areas and is still dependent upon agriculture. Many people like Tagore saw it early on that we need a new way of being modern, that we cannot adopt the methods of a tiny minority of people in the world, which is Western Europe.

We cannot adopt their methods because they developed from a very different historical experience. They were the first ones to go out and conquer and occupy all these territories in Asia and Africa and Latin America. They had a great advantage over everyone else when they started to build their industrial economies. We don't have that...

...but Asia is doing exactly the same!

We are doing exactly the same. We are sleepwalking through this whole process, not really thinking how India can become a major industrial power. We cannot produce anymore goods, China is producing too many goods already, we cannot employ that many people in manufacturing, our import bill is massive. So how are we going to get to the same level as the United States and Britain? What is this fantasy anyway of catching up with the West?

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