‘This East versus West narrative is just a construction of Western elites, a pep talk’
What did you set out to do with this book?
This is my attempt to describe certain historical characters who were not covered in nationalist histories or imperial histories written in the West. The other intention was to describe a particular cosmopolitan moment in the history of Asia where these intellectuals and writers and activists confronted, in different contexts, the same challenge of Western imperialism. They talked to each other a great deal, travelled, and exchanged notes. I felt that this particular history of pre-nation-state Asia had not been written about, that these characters were somehow lost. We know about Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Gandhi, Nehru, Nasser, Ataturk, but we know less about the intellectual movements that preceded them.
But do those different ideas come together in any meaningful way? Did they offer a real counter to Western power?
They were still figuring out the peculiar nature of this Western power. They are very useful in providing diagnoses to this challenge, but it was too early for them to come up with an alternative, that's something we fail to do even today. They were opening up alternative ways of conceptualising, thinking about our past in a richer manner, where the nation-state is not an inevitable thing it may seem. There were many ideas up in the air, each of those had a pretty clear chance of triumphing, but history took a particular turn. The book describes these ideas and their movement through history, through a very fraught geopolitical context. It was very clear to them that this kind of urban-oriented consumer economy predicated on endless growth, the scramble for resources around the world, the subjugation of populations — this was unsustainable. Any talk of alternatives has to proceed from this strong critique. We cannot, three billion people, aspire to the lifestyles of a few hundred million Europeans and Americans.