Novelist, journalist and commentator Pankaj Mishra’s latest novel, Run and Hide, offers, through the lives of three IIT students who go out into the world, “an India that has transformed itself in the last twenty years, both materially and morally”. The novel – besides writing from India, and the pressures of the publishing marketplace – was the subject of an exchange of emails over 12 consecutive days between Mishra and novelist, critic and musician Amit Chaudhuri. Here is the conversation in its entirety:
I’m beginning this email conversation with a short and somewhat predictable question. I’m curious about the answer, though, as I think others will be. What made you turn to the novel as a form after roughly two decades? (My arithmetic is based on guesswork, as I don’t really know when you began working on Run and Hide. The Romantics was published in 2000, I think.) The same question posed from another perspective would be: what kept you away from the novel during this period?
After many attempts, which began when I was in my teens, I had written a publishable first novel, The Romantics, but I did not have the experience back in 2000 to write another. Nor did anything suggest itself to me. What did come to me, in overwhelming quantity, after 9/11 were invitations to write non-fiction – reportage, commentary, intellectual history. You’ll remember that Western periodicals were shocked out of their end-of-history complacency by that atrocity, and by the series of earthquakes that followed – a calamitously failed war on terror, more terrorism in Western cities, a financial crisis coinciding with the rise of China, and then, finally, Modi, Brexit, and Trump.
I found myself in a role that I was unsuited for and indeed felt uncomfortable in, but it was not badly paid, and it did engage me intellectually; allowed me to read widely and travel to places like Tibet and Cuba and Java. During this time, I never ceased to read novels, or daydream about writing one. But no suitable window of opportunity opened up in what had become a professional career.
When it did, a few months before the pandemic. I found myself ready – and, unlike the period after The Romantics, I had a clear idea of what I could write about, the things that I felt non-fiction forms could not capture. My idea of the novel and its possibilities had expanded, too, and for this I would credit the fiction I read, including your own, particularly A New World, The Immortals, and Friend of My Youth, and some of the films that I saw during these two decades.
I found your account of your life as a commentator and journalist fascinating for its honesty. I’d like to come back to it later in our conversation.
I’d like to stay, for now, with the beginnings of Run and Hide. You started it relatively recently, then, if you began it a few months before the pandemic. And yet you cover a significant stretch of time in it, going back perhaps to the 1990s if not in terms of exact dates then in terms of portraying the emergence of a new order in India and elsewhere. It’s a moving and compelling – but not a strictly linear – account of this period, in which the narrator is, in a sense, looking back with a kind of astonishment and, almost, disbelief.
Was there something about 2019 that gave you, suddenly, a vantage-point to do with that period leading up to the present moment? Had changes occurred to the novel as a form that opened things up for you; or did you feel the novel, as a form, was closing down?
You mention cinema. Were you, by any chance, watching the – for the want of a better description – new regional cinema that was emerging within Hindi cinema? I’m curious if the energy of the latter may have pointed to new ways of representing aspiration and the small town.
I’m sorry – that’s a lot of questions. Feel free to reply at leisure.
Yes, the regionalisation of Hindi cinema by people like Tigmanshu Dhulia, Varun Grover and Anurag Kashyap – to take three explorers of Eastern UP and Bihar– – has been very welcome. But the inspiration to describe small town aspiration – and its ambiguous fulfilment – came from China, which I started visiting in the early 2000s with non-fiction commissions.
The work of writers, thinkers and filmmakers (and also people who were all three, like Jia Zhangke and Zhou Wen) was a revelation. Chinese artists had started to reckon earlier than their Indian counterparts with the sudden windfall of wealth and power among people who had suffered the deprivations and austerities of the first postcolonial decades.
Someone like Yu Hua, who is your exact contemporary, had lived through both the Cultural Revolution and the orgy of consumerism that began in the 1990s. Jia Zhangke’s films were particularly inspiring in their evocations of people who find themselves lost, and nostalgic for a brutally overthrown past, even as they prosper materially in post-liberalisation China.
Another filmmaker, not Chinese, whom I followed obsessively was Nuri Bilge Ceylan. His film Uzak (aka Distant), about a young provincial staying in the big city with his uncle, a member of Istanbul’s intelligentsia, was an eye-opening experience. The tensions between an intellectually spent member of a discredited secularist regime and his economically and socially insecure relative are wonderfully captured.
I had written about small town India, and the explosion of energy, ambition and Hindutva politics there in the 1990s, in my first book, but I had missed its confrontation with a metropolitan ruling class. By 2019, five years into Modi’s regime, I was convinced that the “resistance” to it mounted by self-declared liberals and secularists had failed, or could not succeed.
For, the elite supplanted by him was too implicated in the corruptions and social inequalities that had made many Indians turn to Modi. Also, this elite’s own grandiose fantasy of wealth and power had prepared the ground, psychologically and emotionally, for a delusional megalomaniac. At the same time, people climbing out of small-town deprivations, and whether savouring power and wealth for the first time or seeking them futilely, had known disappointment and disillusion.
By 2019 I was convinced that none of this churning could be described in my chosen non-fiction forms. The novel seemed much more capacious. But I still had to find the right form for my experience, unmanageably enlarged and complicated in the two decades that had passed since my first attempt at fiction. I could not see myself writing a long novel like A Suitable Boy or Sacred Games.
I think your novel Friend of My Youth helped me conceive of friendship as the sword cutting through the tangled knot of three tumultuous decades. And I found congenial an aesthetic that all the writers and artists I have mentioned above share – of combining a modernist technique, of experiencing everyday reality through a heightened consciousness, with an awareness of social and historical setting.
I remember you mentioning Ceylan to me. I went to Istanbul in 2014 and looked for DVDs of his films in one of the gentrified shopping avenues and couldn’t find any. I later found a couple in Oxford. About China – the first time I went there (to Beijing and Chengdu) was in 2010. In Beijing (a city that seemed to have been made alien by development), I was struck by the fact that there was possibly an artistic underground there that was far more disaffected by the nation than its counterpart in India.
In fact, in India, I found it difficult to think of a counterpart, because the Anglophone intelligentsia and writers appeared to be more concerned with taking custodianship of the nation -–and custodians have less freedom to experiment with life or art. I’m not bringing intelligentsias in the various Indian languages into this discussion because they were rendered so marginal by globalisation. (I wonder if that marginality has freed things up for them in some way that many of us may be unaware of, or simply robbed them of confidence.)
In 2019, you could easily have written a novel focussed either explicitly or implicitly on what the Right was doing to India: the subject-matter of much of your journalism. Instead, you chose, through the story of three friends (Arun, Aseem, and Alia), to explore your disquiet to do with the post-globalisation, postcolonial, in some ways neocolonial, elite who were to be – to use your word – ‘supplanted’ by Modi and his lot. Does this novel comprise, on your part, an overt break with this tribe, which you may or may not have long tried to make peace with; or might it, in fact, embrace this novel, refusing to see itself in it?
About friendship: Aseem and Arun are both post-globalisation provincials, propelled centre-stage (this is true at least of Aseem) by aspiration. Both perhaps fail in different ways. Is this failure different from Alia’s failure, the failure, in her case, of a class that inherited old money and its entitlements – a failure to go beyond somewhat apolitical expressions of social conscience and to truly enter Arun’s world? Or do you see these different kinds of failure true of such people only individually, or in the world of fiction? Is capitalism, whatever form it assumes, always going to bounce back and succeed?
I was made rudely aware of the Anglophone intelligentsia’s self-chosen role as chowkidar of Indian self-images when I published, early in my writing career, articles about the Indian state’s brutalities in Kashmir. I hadn’t known what to expect, having grown up with little contact with this class.
The hostility directed at me, and the contempt for Kashmiris, made me keenly aware of the way in which writers and intellectuals had chosen to enlist themselves in the postcolonial project, which long predates Modi and actually intensified during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, of amassing power and wealth, and making India an international khiladi in a process of globalisation led by consanguineous English-speaking elites in London and New York.
In China, most artists and writers were fed up with nationalist fantasies of self-aggrandisement by the time Mao died in 1976. They embraced experimental forms as soon as there was a degree of artistic freedom available in the early 1980s. Yu Hua, whom I mentioned earlier, started out as an avant-garde fictionist.
There is a revealing postscript to this phenomenon – many of the most adventurous writers, painters and filmmakers of the 1980s ended up running gaudy stalls in the neo-liberal marketplaces of art. You are of course right about capitalism’s infinite capacity to absorb and defuse through its irresistible offer of endless wealth, fame and sex.
By 2019 I could see this submission to the logic of capital among even many Indians who claimed to be left-wing / liberal (and, sometimes, even very literary). Fluent in English, they were better equipped than the Chinese to break into the metropolitan centres of globalisation. I was especially interested in those from non-metropolitan and non-elite backgrounds, who had made a hardscrabble journey to the West – the men running today the big tech companies and banks and hedge funds in the United States and Europe, whom I met at different stages in my life. It seemed more interesting to me to explore their inner transformations in my novel.
To answer your question – why not explore what the right was doing? – there were for me relatively fewer rewarding ambiguities in the position of the impoverished semi-rural young men who voted for Modi because he seemed to them their missing father, a reassuring figure of authority. I was even less stimulated by those who prefer Modi because he helps them take pitiless vengeance for the insults and humiliations heaped on vernacular-speakers by the “Lutyens elite” – I had known such exponents of ressentiment all my life, and had already written at length about their historical context in Age of Anger.
Likewise, I would have been in some danger of rewriting my journalism had I chosen to fictionalise the life of a persecuted lower-middle-class Muslim. Alia seemed more interesting, someone far removed from lynch mobs, a representative of the old tradition of noblesse oblige among the Congress’s Muslim elite. Theirs was an honourable position but rendered ineffectual at the best of times by these rich and genteel Muslims’ very partial knowledge of cruel class and caste hierarchies.
Today, like Alia, many of the inheritors of feudal and aristocratic privilege have taken their political lives online, and some have become stars in a global progressive constellation. But it is clear after more than a decade of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram that highlighting historical victims and demanding reparations from historical oppressors on social media is no substitute for political change on the ground – which has always required a critical mass of people on the streets.
Of course, there is a cruder version of this virtual activism. I am very struck by the racketeering in Britain and the US by black or brown people eager to seize cultural and political capital from white people who have monopolised them. I saw Alia, however, as representing the melancholy impasse that many sincere people personally indifferent to power find themselves at, as older modes of politics become defunct and a brutish right seems dominant on both the streets and on digital media.
In fact, as I wrote her into being on the page she became (and I realised this only later, such are the unfathomable alchemies of fiction writing), a means to auto-critique – of the person who writes journalism based on grim facts about global elites and is known for his unequivocal positions against oppression and injustice, but seems to himself to be drifting through a relatively privileged and protected life while haunted by feelings of inadequacy.
I see bits of myself in Arun and Aseem as well. I suppose this is also what the novel enables, a view of the always great gap between private and public lives, and, for its author, a kind of self-reckoning, a conversation with parts of the self – disowned, or never fully owned up to – which in even the most revealing non-fiction form, the memoir, might appear mawkish and self-indulgent.
Thank you for your illuminating reply.
Insightful though your journalism has been, I think the novel goes even deeper into the politics of the time. I have no special regard for the novel as a form – I mean that novels can be dull and that journalism (including work you’ve done) can often be enlivening. But by what means does a work of the imagination capture politics and history, I wonder? It has to be something other than adding narrative and story to fact.
Your own novel is more than a portrait of a class and a period, though it is also that. You mention anger; I should say that the novel is often very funny, too. But what struck me most – and this makes it more than a portrait – is the way in which it contains moments: not only to do with inhabiting different social milieus, but with the experience of inhabiting the world, momentary and fragmentary as that experience is.
Would you have any thoughts on this?
Yes, in an interview included in a paperback edition of Saraswati Park, the author Anjali Joseph says that she wrote it because she wanted to retrieve certain lost or not fully inhabited moments of experience during her years in Mumbai (I might be misremembering, but perhaps not too badly). They seemed to sum up perfectly, when I read these words, my central motivation behind Run and Hide.
The small-town milieu of intense boredom and intense excitement that in the 1970s and ’80s contained hundreds of millions of people has rarely been commemorated in fiction in English (one exception is the novel by Rohit Manchanda that we both admire). Much of the impulse behind Run and Hide was to do something I could never do in non-fiction, to recover some mysteriously resonant moments from my own life – the sound of the hand-pump that becomes audible after trains depart a railway platform, the first time I heard an electric kettle, or the time I travelled to monasteries in the higher Himalayas.
My own memory of the novels read decades ago is condensed into a few moments – like the insects in headlights during the visit the protagonist of A Strange and Sublime Address makes to relatives in the countryside (I might be misremembering again). There are insects in the headlights also in A Bend in the River, a novel that Run and Hide is partly in conversation with. And what I remember best from Afternoon Raag is the sound of a toilet flush.
I cannot explain why these moments when a novel holds its breath, so to speak, stay with me, or why I try to recreate certain fragmentary experiences as much as I do in my own novel, probably taxing the patience of some readers, but they do seem to me the most living things in any book – not the social and political background, but these true impressions of life, the fleeting experiences of surprise, awe and perplexity, and, perhaps, also the realisation that the self is privately incoherent and child-like even as it projects itself outward as a united, confident and adult entity.
You probably know that one of the earliest influences on me was the poetry of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra – those poems set in Allahabad that encouraged me, when I was a teenager in that city and dreaming of writing novels, to trust and value my own impressions of my modest surroundings. I would not want to praise the form of the novel too much, but there is something unique about its ability to combine both the poetic and abstract modes of apprehension.
I think that when the novel sacrifices moments of stillness and heightened receptivity to story-telling and narrative propulsion, it renounces a very strong claim on our deeper consciousness – the place where we recognise or resurrect certain essences that are common to all human life. This probably all sounds too mystical, but perhaps I am not wrong to say that narratives of every kind are available from journalism, cinema and Netflix and only the novel ushers us into a deeper state of attentiveness and, paradoxically, community.
I agree that the novel can usher in a deeper state of attentiveness – cinema can, too: I suppose both are forms that can even dispense with narrative in certain instances, allowing something else to create momentum.
You say in your last email that “the self” may be “privately incoherent and child-like even as it projects itself outward as a united, confident and adult entity”. In your novel, you refer to the self as “this nothing”: “there is no real escape,” says the narrator, “from that farrago of cravings, delusions and regrets we call the self and the trail of devastation this nothing leaves behind”. I was curious about your relationship with Buddhism and where it stands at the moment.
I have written at length about Buddhist history and thought but my own relationship with it is defined largely by wariness. It is too radical a critique of ordinary life, with its emphasis on seeing through the fabricated nature of the human self and identity, its insistence on connecting most human ills to trishna.
No doubt Nietzsche had this in mind when he declared Buddhism a nihilistic religion (of course, it is neither, and Nietzsche was also full of admiration for it), the opposite of the life-affirming worldview he was proposing. The Buddhist epistemology is always useful – especially its description of reality as interdependent, of the self as a perennially shifting aggregate of feeling and mental perceptions (a discovery that modernism makes for modern literature). Everything from climate change to the battles for and against identity in the West and the anti-Muslim mobs in India today can be clearly examined through its lens.
At times of personal crisis, such as the one the narrator of my novel finds himself in, its insights can seem incandescent, but a fuller embrace of them would mean renouncing too much of conventional existence, where the illusions of self and identity become necessary, even indispensable.
I have been rereading Borges in a bilingual edition in order to improve my Spanish, and I am struck by the way he is constantly negotiating his relationship with what was a fundamental discovery for him. Interestingly, he came to Buddhism through a similar route (and the route of many people, I think) – reading Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia as a child and then Schopenhauer as a young adult.
Lines like “I am no one”, “I am echo, emptiness, nothing” keep recurring in his poems. There is a remarkable prose-poem titled “Borges and I” in which he regards his public self, the writer known as Borges, the unease he feels with this figure, who “plays games with time and infinity,” but is not him. For practical reasons, he writes, “I must remain in Borges rather than in myself (if in fact I am a self)“. He concedes that a few of this Borges’s pages might be “worthwhile,” but then “good writing belongs to no one in particular, not even to my other, but rather to language and tradition” (this is a remarkably Buddhistic insight). The poem ends with a startling line: “I don’t know which of us wrote this.”
Coincidentally, I was rereading “Borges and I” the day before yesterday, in preparation of speaking to students yesterday about two other pieces by Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, a mock-essay about an invented writer and moment in literary history, and the essay “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”.
Which brings me to my final question (in a way that may be related to the above by nothing more than association) and to the body of work clumsily called Indian writing in English. It seems to be the one true “Indian” tradition we have, as all the other ones go by a different name – Sanskrit, Prakrit, Urdu, Marathi, Kannada etc.
Its beginnings might go back to the late eighteenth century, to Dean Mahomed and possibly William Jones, but when we use this clunky term we’re usually talking about Midnight’s Children and whatever was published after it appeared in 1981, and about one form, principally: the novel.
Alongside being the one “Indian” tradition, it – post-Midnight’s Children Indian writing – is also the only literary tradition in the world that is coterminous with, and belongs purely to, a world in which capitalism, and then globalisation, established a kind of sovereign reign, beginning with Reagan winning the elections in 1980 and assuming power in early 1981. Deregulation in India was then ten years away. So writers in this tradition have had to do what everyone, I suppose, in this time has had to: succeed in order to survive.
You have had a long relationship with this cultural microcosm, first as an editor and then as a writer. The world in your novel overlaps with its terrain. How do you see Indian writing in English today – its achievements and trajectory and where it is now?
(It’s been good to have this exchange.)
Your chronology is very suggestive. The early 1980s are interesting also because Western interest in Latin American writing peaked then with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Garcia Marquez. There was much boosterish talk, you’ll remember, of a similar “boom” in Indian writing in English after Midnight’s Children. The time had come, it seemed, to celebrate another flowering of novelistic talent in an exotic part of the world.
So it’s definitely worth asking today: what happened to this boom? I’ll not rehearse here the compelling arguments you and your fellow anthologist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra and Aijaz Ahmed have made about the peculiar nature of this beast called Indian writing in English. Perhaps a contrast with Latin American writing will reveal it more clearly as an epiphenomenon of globalisation, destined to fade in significance as both political cultures and cultural marketplaces turn insular, and humanities departments in the West mothball concepts of “diaspora” and “hybridity”.
The Latin American writing of the “boom” was always very different in its origins, impulses, nature and reception. It was written during some of the bleakest decades in postcolonial Latin America, when local despots aided and abetted the neo-imperialist onslaught from the North – unlike Indian writing in English, in which interest coincided with a widely shared and amplified expectation that globalised India was bringing its cultural, economic and military heft to the stage set for it by Western Europe and America.
Latin American writers came from many different class backgrounds – Garcia Marquez, a journalist from an obscure town in Colombia, was foraging in garbage cans in Paris a few years before he wrote his masterwork – and all shared an egalitarian ethos borne of shared struggles and sufferings. When resident outside their postcolonial countries, in Europe or America, almost all writers were precarious exiles (rather than expatriates ensconced at the heart of metropolitan cultures) – and living in Franco’s Spain, as many did, was especially treacherous.
Most importantly, while absorbing influences from the American South as well as Spain, they were intensely aware of writing within, and contributing to, a long artistic tradition in which no one genre – the novel or poetry – was upheld as truly representative or most prestigious. Poets were actually far more popular than novelists until Garcia Marquez appeared.
Literary and intellectual cosmopolitanism seemed a natural instinct among these writers. We just discussed Borges (one of whose early poems is about Benares). Paz wrote authoritatively about both the haiku and a seventeenth century writer in the golden age of Mexican literature. There were continuous conversations between poets, novelists, short-story writers and playwrights, and across different genres.
Garcia Marquez read Neruda, who read Lorca, who in turn was inspired by Persian and Arabic poetry. There were also strong disagreements – Garcia Marquez versus Llosa is a famous confrontation, but Neruda and Borges and many others also clashed, profitably for their readers, since a comfortable consensus always stifles creativity.
I think that there was much more political and artistic variety in the work of novelists in English who struggled to publish their works or get them noticed before 1982– – Anita Desai, Raja Rao, and of course Narayan come to mind. Politically, the Indian writing in English that was talked up after Rushdie’s novel rarely broke free of a specific consensus – writers were almost uniformly upper middle-class and upper caste from the metropolis, liberal in temperament, with close connections to the postcolonial state.
This limited what they could have seen and known of everyday cruelties and injustices of caste and class. (One of the many reasons why The God of Small Things made such a tremendous impression on me was its acute awareness of them. Interesting, too, that for all their errors of radicalism and right-wingery [in Llosa’s case], Asturias, Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa and others have given us unmatched accounts of the deformities of authoritarian regimes.)
Politically circumscribed by its social origins, Indian writing in English was artistically compromised by the market-fuelled urge to represent the bigness and chaos of the nation of India – the kind of novel that Aseem in Run and Hide writes, which has little place for the complexities of individual experience, but wants to uncover, with the help of extensive research, what he thinks is the “real” India.
There are some terrific exceptions, of course, and books and writers of great originality keep emerging – I am very struck, among others, by a recent novel by Amitabha Bagchi titled Half the Night is Gone, a collection of stories by Nisha Susan, a wonderfully unplaceable book by Sumana Roy – but these scattered achievements have not cohered into anything we can plausibly call a tradition. It’s hard to look too far into the darkening future, but, perhaps, extreme political adversity, and the withdrawal of external patronage, will revitalise and unify this body of work.
Thanks again for this very stimulating conversation.
A couple of last thoughts, as your email brought back memories.
When the Latin American boom was becoming a worldwide phenomenon in the late ’70s (creating a precursor of the global novel), poetry was still a force. It was just around then that I – barely aware of Garcia Marquez – was discovering a resurgence in Irish poetry: Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, and others, whose work brought renewed attention to older Irish poets like Louis MacNeice and Patrick Kavanagh.
Anglophone Indians soon claimed a kinship with what’s loosely called magic realism; but it was possible – especially if you saw literature through the lens of the provincial and the mundane that literatures in the Indian languages gave you – to feel an equal (if not a greater) kinship with what the Irish were doing: the last example of the intimacy and tactility of the provincial before the great privileging of migrancy took over.
This intimacy of the local meant a great deal to me then, when I was sixteen/ seventeen, as did the reassessment at the time of Elizabeth Bishop, whose celebration of the earthly gave me courage. I had also just read Kolatkar’s Jejuri: though I was very young, I recall reading it with a kind of recognition. All of this made the Latin American boom marginal to me, and allowed me to hold on, in the future, to the possibility of something other than the global novel. I suppose I’m saying that there may actually be multiple itineraries of that period, many of which have been forgotten.
About Indian writing in English: maybe it was never the unitary thing that words like “Indian” and “English” and a genre like prose fiction made it out to be. I, certainly, never felt part of the enterprise, though that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in, or didn’t admire, the work of my contemporaries. I suspect there are others like me. Perhaps once the enforced solidarity that has defined it wanes, we might be free to look at it in new ways – productive kinships and antagonisms, not between individuals, but ways of thinking.
I’m glad your new novel has given us an opportunity to have this conversation. I hope there will be more conversations, involving us and others.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, including his latest novel, Run and Hide.
Amit Chaudhuri is a writer and musician. His eighth novel, Sojourn, will be published in August, 2022.