Friday, December 3, 2010

Asia As It Is

This appeared in the latest issue of Forbes India


There have been, of late, many books that claim to explain “the Asian century”. Numbers are crunched, technology is analysed, currencies are compared. Economists and business leaders are quoted. Generalisations based on alleged Asian ways of thinking are held together by catchy – if inaccurate – metaphors, some revolving around the world being flat.

Patrick Smith’s Somebody Else’s Century does none of these things. These three linked essays are inside-out rather than outside-in, discussing the “post-Western world” with a focus on China, India and Japan. As such, it is more ruminative than ratiocinative, providing a deeper and more insightful exploration of the subject.

Smith’s credentials for the task are apt, having been a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly thirty years. He writes: “These essays are about perspective – or just as much its opposite, which is not precisely blindness so much as a failure to overcome received assumptions.” He compares his method to that of Raghu Rai, aspiring for both great depth as well as breadth of field.  In this manner he tries to capture AAII,“Asia As It Is”, speaking to entrepreneurs, professors, architects, screenplay writers and village workers, from Somnath and Calicut to Kitakyushu and Quixia.

Each essay revolves around a pertinent question. What does it mean to be modern? What versions of history do we embrace and why? Can Asia understand itself without reference to the West? “After 150 years with the modern,” he says, “the modern has lost its strangeness for Asians. Neither is the modern understood any longer to be Western.” There are no easy answers, and Smith puts his views in the context of nostalgia, anxiety, identity and ressentiment, words that define the current concerns of the three countries.

Given this framework, there is much speculation, some of it abstract, such as when he applies notions of an ideal and material world to a country’s development. He muses that now, more than ever, Japan will create an identity not based on an uneasy cohabitation of tradition and Westernisation but one that’s more uniquely Asian -- with consequent lessons for other countries. In China, he discusses the many versions of the past that prevail, depending on which decade you were born in. And in India, he analyses the concept of heterogeneous time, and the tradition of the eccentric -- along the way touching upon the erosion of Hinduism’s syncretic tradition as well as the notion of jugaad, the country’s indigenous method of innovation.

It was Kipling who once wrote: “Asia is not going to be civilized after the methods of the West. There is too much Asia and she is too old”. Though much slimmer than other works on the subject, Smith’s book goes much further in unpacking this sentiment. 

No comments: