If you've been following along for a while, you've probably figured out that I like books that look at familiar history from another point of view. (For example, here, and here, and here.) Pankaj Mishra's From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia, is an excellent example.*
Misra begins with the statement that the intellectual and political awakening of Asia was the central event of the twentieth century for a majority of the world's population. That event came about as a result of a new class of western-educated Asian elites. As a group, they typically rejected their traditional heritage in favor of western modes of thought, then later re-embraced their native traditions, transforming those traditions in the process.
Instead of concentrating on well-known Asian historical figures, Mishra centers his book on the intellectual journeys of three men who are important historical figures in their own cultures but largely unfamiliar to most Westerners. Journalist and political activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) was a founder of Islamic modernism. Chinese intellectual Liang Qichao (1873-1929) inspired a generation of young Chinese activists with his calls for reform. Indian poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a leader of the Bengal Renaissance.
Over the course of the book, Misra shows how his characters are shaped by and respond to the familiar events of European imperialism in Asia, giving those events a new perspective for the Western reader. His stated goal is not to replace a Euro-centric view with an "equally problematic Asia-centric one", but to look at both the past and the present from multiple viewpoints. For the most part, he succeeds.
* I previously reviewed From The Ruins of Empire when it first came out in October, 2012. Now it's being released in paperback and I have a lovely new copy to share. If you'd like to have a chance to win, tell me your favorite non-Western thinker or historical figure in the comments on the blog. If you don't have a favorite,** tell me who you'd like to know more about.
**Really? Not even one?
This review appeared originally in Shelf Awareness for Readers
Allow me to introduce Emily Eden--aristocratic spinster, political hostess, accomplished painter, and talented novelist.
I first discovered Emily Eden through her connection to India. Her brother George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland, was appointed Governor-General of India in 1835. Emily accompanied him to India and served as his Burra Lady Sahib (the rough equivalent of an American First Lady) for the six years of his tenure.*
For the first twenty months of their stay, the Edens stayed in Calcutta, then the capital of British India. Emily was miserable. She didn't like India--or more accurately, she didn't like Anglo-Indian society in Calcutta, which she viewed with all the snobbery of an aristocrat accustomed to moving in the highest political circles. She felt herself exiled in what she described as a "second-rate society".
Things got better when Emily accompanied her brother on a two-year-long tour of the country, though her first response to their extravagant camps was "I thought I had never seen such squalid, melancholy discomfort." Her diary and letters, published in 1866 as Up The Country, offer a witty and carefully observed account of a specific moment in Indian history as seen from a very specific viewpoint. I read Up The Country for work, but found it an absolute pleasure.
Several years later, I was delighted to stumble across two novels by Eden in which she observes her own society with the same sharp-eyed wit that she brought to India: The Semi-Attached Couple and The Semi-Detached House.** Although Eden's experience of the world was much broader than Austen's, their novels are similar in scale. Instead of writing about her experience of India or political London, Eden wrote comedies of manners that drew on the same social mores and concerns as Austen's novels. Both Eden and her characters live higher up the social ladder than Austen, but they too are concerned with the intersection between money, manners, and marriage.
I don't claim that Eden is Austen's equal. (No one who writes the kind of thing Austen writes comes even close.) Her novels are a good read in the same general vein by an author with a distinctive voice. Her writing on India is even better.
* Lord Auckland doesn't fare well in history He is best remembered for the paranoid decisions that resulted in the debacle of the First Anglo-Afghan War.
**Amazon is convenient, but there is no replacement for browsing with serendipity at a real life bookstore. Use them or lose them.
I will tell you with no apology (and only a slight wiggle of nerdy embarrassment) that I love maps. I suppose it is theoretically possible to love history and not love maps. I just can't imagine how that would work.* After all, history happens in both time and space. A quick look at the right map can illustrate a culture's cosmography, the relationship between a region's topography and its political history, or how trade in a single commodity** can drive history.
Pulling books off the shelf nearest to hand, I find maps of:
- Possible Stone Age migrations through the Middle East based on the dispersal of blade tool technology
- Changes in the course of the Missouri River
- Railroads in India in 1857
- The movement of capital throughout the world between 1875 and 1914***
- The relationship between opera and nationalism in the same period
- Pilgrimage routes and shrines in the medieval Islamic world
Each of them adds a new layer of understanding to an historical moment. (Well, maybe not the relationship between opera and nationalism.)
Given my penchant for maps, I was delighted to find this blog post on the curatorial site Twisted Sifter: 40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense Of The World . Each map conveys information clearly. Some are merely curious. A couple made me sad. Many gave me an "aha" moment.
* If you're a map-hating history lover, could you please share your experience with the group? I'd love to get a little point-counterpoint going here.
** Tin, salt, gold, silk, pepper, petroleum--to name a few
*** For those worried about the influx of Asian capital into the United States today, it's worth pointing out that the US was an importer of capital prior to WWI.
Image credit: miluxian / 123RF Stock Photo