Some years ago, a precocious writer arrived on the Indian literary scene. His book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana was charming, fresh and funny, a little like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana announced the advent of a new, major talent, at least for this reviewer.
Strangely, however, its author Pankaj Mishra later dismissed his own work, virtually disowning it, and was seemingly embarrassed by it. One suspects that he did not think it “serious” enough and did not want to be branded essentially as a comic writer, like Amis (who after that never reached the heights of Lucky Jim). But in Mishra’s case a series of well-received “serious” books followed, and Age of Anger is the latest.
Its main theme, outlined in a 35-page “Prologue”, is an interesting one: With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the virtual demise of communism in 1989, along with the formation of the European Union (EU) and the promise of a globalised free-market economy, how come that everything has unravelled in the past two or three decades?
Why did Brexit take place and why is the EU failing, even threatening to break up altogether? How could Donald Trump, with no political experience, triumph over Hilary Clinton, and why have “Hindu supremacists” come to power in India? What explains the rise of the Islamic State (IS), and its attraction for educated youngsters in Western democracies? How have the forces of globalisation given way to protectionism and xenophobia?
These are the leading questions of the day. They have been perplexing most thinking people. It is to the credit of Mishra that he attempts to answer them by looking back into history, to the main thinkers and philosophers of the 18th and 19th century. He feels that a deep study of the past is necessary to make sense of the present and that a thread links those thinkers and philosophers with what is now happening around us.
“In the late 20th century, the old dream of economic internationalism was revived on a much grander scale after Communism, the illegitimate child of Enlightenment rationalism, suffered a shattering loss of state power and legitimacy in Russia and Eastern Europe,” writes Mishra.
“The financialisation of capitalism seemed to realise Voltaire’s dream of the stock exchange as the embodiment of humanity…and the universalist religion of human rights seemed to be replacing the old language of justice and equality within sovereign nation states….
The magic of the market seemed to be bringing about the homogenisation of all human societies…. As Louis Vuitton opened in Borneo, and the Chinese turned into the biggest consumers of French wines, it seemed only a matter of time before the love of luxury was followed by the rule of law, the enhanced use of critical reason, and the expansion of individual freedom.” That’s well and eloquently put.
Almost 25 pages of bibliographies at the end is an indication of how much research has gone into the book. Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Bakunin, Tocqueville, Spencer, Hegel, Wagner, of course, Marx and Engels, are a few writers who are extensively quoted.
However, this reviewer found the profound influence that the Italian Mazzini exerted on not just the Indian independence movement but the Arabs and Jews as well.
Both Mahatma Gandhi and Veer Savarkar imbibed the works of the Italian (he was also the main architect of Italian unity) but to different purposes, one for non-violence and the other for the very opposite of ahimsa. Mishra also shows that Savarkar not only offered to abjectly collaborate with the British after he was sent to jail in the Andamans, but was also part of the conspiracy to assassinate the Mahatma.
Though learning seems to sit heavily on the shoulders of Mishra, rather than lightly, this is essential reading for anybody who wants to make sense of the bewildering and confusing present-day world.