IN HIS NUMEROUS nonfiction books, Pankaj Mishra has captured the defining spirit of our present moment. Over the last two decades he has written books that tell of the churn in India and the West; liberalism and democracy, race and empire are his pet themes. As a prolific essayist, he is best known for his books From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (2012) and Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017). His writings always reveal clarity (though historians like Niall Ferguson would beg to differ) and comprehension, which blames “modernity for our age of anger”. While Mishra might be known for his argumentative Indian persona, at heart he is a novelist. He enjoys tinkering with words as much as he likes Rubik’s Cube-ing ideas, he is as much at home in the realm of imagination as he is in the arena of politics. His debut novel The Romantics (1999) tells of Samar, the young narrator who in Banaras, hopes to lose himself in books and solitude. A March 2000 review of The Romantics in The New York Times noted that “Mishra has created an affecting Bildungsroman while at the same time exploring the clash of cultures in contemporary India.”
Run and Hide (Juggernaut; 336 pages; ₹ 599), Mishra’s most recent novel, after more than two decades, chronicles a similar clash of cultures played out through the lives of three young men. Aseem, Virendra and Arun meet at IIT, but from there, their lives take different tangents. Arun, the narrator becomes a translator of Hindi novels. Virendra reaches great heights in the banking sector in America, and Aseem becomes a media icon and literature festival organiser.
It is difficult to write about Run and Hide, without giving too much away. But while reading it, the characters always seem familiar and unfamiliar. A reader conversant with the Indian context will certainly spot the spirits of Tarun Tejpal, Rajat Gupta and Preet Bharara flitting through pages. In the margins of one page, I write ‘Succession meets Slumdog Millionaire’ because the book deals with the extremes of wealth and poverty. It is a novel of sharp observation but a bleak outlook, where one’s humiliations of the past determine the course of one’s life.
The book is at its strongest when Mishra, the novelist, shines through, it is on shakier ground when Mishra, the polemist, takes control. At those times the novel seems to be in the service of ideas rather than its characters. The reader might crave for an interlude of emotions rather than allegories. Through the lives of his characters, Mishra is telling the story of India’s rapid urbanisation and how this has led to the creation of “hollow men” or, in the words of his nonfiction, “a global crisis of masculinity”. The lives of the characters of Run and Hide illustrate liberalism’s many failures, where the elite are left baffled about the realities of ‘real’ India.
Speaking from the English countryside, which is “not so nice, and very cold, and very overcast,” Mishra discusses India’s “daring generation”, a separation from the past, and the various novels his book is in conversation with.
Excerpts from an interview:
If one was to identify a single theme of the novel it would be the global crisis of masculinity, a topic that you’ve dealt with in your nonfiction too. What is responsible for this crisis?
You have to look at it differently when you’re writing nonfiction, and when you’re writing fiction. The point of fiction is to get away from generality and generalisation to exploring the inner life. The judgemental mode that you fall into when you’re doing nonfiction, and when you’re talking about a crisis and are trying to determine what has led to this particular crisis—that’s a very different mode of operating. Whereas what fiction does, is to present human beings and individuals in their most exposed forms, without any kind of support from ideology or ideas or notions, it shows them as they are. My intention behind this book is to get away from generalities and to explore what it means for men of a certain generation, who have come from very modest backgrounds and who suddenly gain these incredible windfalls of wealth and power. How do their souls deal with this enormous fortune? What happens to them? I wanted to explore how they then cope with their empowerment in the wider world?
My intention behind this book is to get away from generalities and to explore what it means for men of a certain generation, who have come from very modest backgrounds and who suddenly gain these incredible windfalls of wealth and power
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Could you track your journey for us, from a novel to many years of nonfiction and now a novel again?
I started off actually as someone very much wanting to write novels. I published one novel that I’m still relatively happy with. And I was suddenly asked to do various long pieces of reportage. It allowed me to travel and it was quite enjoyable. It was also a way to make a living. And my own ability in it also grew. Before I knew it, 20 years had passed and I had only really written books of nonfiction, of reportage, of intellectual history, of travel and political history, and religious history. But all this time what I really wanted to do was to write fiction. Because I knew that the forms that I was working with—the essay or reportage or even the memoir, which is the most revealing, most autobiographical form of nonfiction—were not adequate. They were not somehow able to capture this very complex reality that I was talking about. So, at the end of every book, essay, or piece of long-form writing, I knew that there was a lot that had to be left out. Because that belongs to the realm of imagination, and also belongs to the realm of speculation. So, a whole lot of frustration really built up over the years and I did not cease wanting to go back to fiction. It was just a question of when exactly. Around 2018-2019, I felt ready to go back to it, I had a certain theme, some vaguely discerned characters that I could play with, and work them into my writing.
Which do you find more fulfilling?
Oh, definitely fiction. No question about it. I should also say challenging, and perhaps for that reason more fulfilling. Because with journalism, with any kind of nonfiction writing, you’re working with a set of facts that have been already arrived at, either arrived at by you or by someone else. So, you already have a head start.
With fiction, you’re just staring at a blank page. You just don’t know where to begin. But at the same time, it also gives you this enormous freedom to break free of these very heavy facts, and you can enter the world of the imagination where you can do just about anything you want to. Obviously, you still are working within certain protocols. But at the same time, you do have a lot of freedom to imagine the inner lives of people. You have the freedom to imagine landscapes. You have the freedom to resurrect certain memories of yours, deploy them, utilise them differently in your fictional narrative. And those freedoms make fiction writing incredibly liberating and an exhilarating business.
This novel is about the transition in the lives of the main characters. Towards the end, Arun says that he has a simple fear which is of having “lost a world”. Given the rural to urban migration we see in India, is it possible to belong to two worlds? Does one necessarily have to lose one to become part of the other one?
I’m glad you found that line to be saying something important, because I do think that’s one of the more important lines in the book. They sum up an experience that many of us have had. Especially belonging to societies like India where development, progress, growth, all of that have come to mean uprooting yourself to a large extent, moving physically from one place to another, into different modes of living, and so our relationship with the past is much more fragile. For many of us in places like India and China and large parts of Asia and Africa, the movement is always away, and it’s irrevocable, it’s moving away from the past and often renouncing the past because renouncing the past is almost a guarantee of arriving at the future, the much-promised future of modernity, of fulfilment of modern life. Many of us suffer from this longing for a past that once existed and no longer does.
With fiction, you’re just staring at a blank page. You just don’t know where to begin. But at the same time, it also gives you this enormous freedom and you can enter the world of the imagination where you can do just about anything you want to
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Building on that, the characters are seeking a “complete liberation from the life of their parents”. But having achieved that they are not any happier. By the end, Arun is in the throes of penance. Could we talk a bit about the risks of divorcing one’s parents?
That’s very sensitively put. There is this notion that we all—in some ways or some degree— subscribe to that you have to put the past behind you, and everything that belongs to the past, including friendships, relatives, parents. Because they don’t quite go with your aspirations to the modern, to the metropolitan. I saw this growing up around me, where so many people were actually deeply ashamed of their parents, of the way they spoke English, or sometimes even of the way they spoke Hindi. These men created a barrier between them and the generation of their parents. Because of this whole process—at least what we’ve been promised is progress—you are constantly betraying aspects of your personality, aspects of your past. And that makes you lonelier and lonelier, even without you realising it. I see this in a lot of people, for instance who moved to the West, who are physically very remote from where they grew up and the people that they grew up with. And although they’re living in splendid townhouses in Manhattan or in Los Angeles, there is something that is still gnawing away at them internally. It’s nevertheless there, the feeling that you’ve not been fair to the things you grew up with.
The novel mentions how those in Delhi drawing rooms speak about ‘rising India’, but how that “exaltation is delusion”. Is this divide just becoming more apparent with time?
Over the years—and this is something people like us in the media don’t talk about enough because we are very much complicit in this—is that a huge gap has opened up between the way in which people in the metropolis (and that includes people in the media obviously) conceive of themselves, conceive of their place in the world and the way ordinary people think of themselves in the world. So, the realities of smaller places, smaller cities, smaller towns, not to mention villages, they’ve become really obscure, they’ve become invisible because so much of public space was dominated by the concerns of people like you and I speaking in English, talking a language that is widely comprehended around the world, speaking not only between ourselves but speaking to foreign journalists, foreign reporters. And so, we all started to believe in this notion that India is rising and is doing well partly because we were also doing well. We were generalising from our own position, from the expanded opportunities we were all enjoying. But we’ve all seen—whether it’s in the UK, US or in India—that what is true for us, a minority in metropolitan areas, or indeed a minority in smaller cities is not true for a lot of people. And if you persist in these illusions that India is shining or India is rising, you’ll at some point be punished by people who don’t believe any of this, whose own experiences are not confirmed by your ideas and who will turn against you and they will often turn to some outsider who promises to come in and show the metropolitan elites their place. And take revenge for all the humiliations and insults they’ve heaped on people in rural areas or semi-rural or semi-urban areas.
If you persist in these illusions that India is shining or India is rising, you’ll at some point be punished by people who don’t believe any of this, whose own experiences are not confirmed by your ideas and who will turn against you
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Arun chooses to live in a Himalayan town called Ranipur. Which clearly seems inspired by Mashobra. A town you’ve lived in and written about. How central has Mashobra been to your imagination as an author?
Oh absolutely, central. To live in a village when India was embarking on this enormous experiment of economic liberalisation, my years exactly coincide with that. I moved there in ’91-92, so I was able to observe everything that was happening in the village. I knew all the people who were stakeholders there. And it’s really opened up a perspective that has proven to be extremely valuable in examining broader trends in India, and indeed the rest of the world. Everywhere we are now beginning to wake up to the fact that non-metropolitan areas, non-urban areas have become politically consequential because they were all for so long not taken into account by journalists, by economists. Wherever you look, whether it’s the United States or the United Kingdom, or Brexit, what you see is this fatal divide between the metropolitan areas and the relatively impoverished areas out in the countryside.
I feel in retrospect so much of my writing was made possible by this close experience of another reality, which made me think that we cannot really buy into or subscribe to these wildly optimistic scenarios of India becoming a major economic power by 2020, and so on, and so forth. There were these other realities we had to take into accounts, and those were being systematically neglected by the media.
It is interesting how Aseem says, “Maybe the difference between Hindu crazies is not so great after all, because ambition and vanity have probably made us more alike than we think so”. Could you elaborate on that? On the need to dissolve differences.
I’m delighted that you’re picking on some of the more potent lines in the book. The acknowledgement for someone like him comes late in the book, but it is definitely something that we should all be taking into account. The fact remains that the pursuits, especially the amoral and reckless pursuit of wealth and fame and ambition, creates a kind of mentality, a kind of greedy, reckless, amoral mentality that whether it’s secular or Hindu nationalist or liberal or pro [Donald] Trump or Boris Johnson causes enormous damage to other people and to society at large.
From the time Trump was elected, I was arguing that we should not see Trump as an aberration. This is a man very much a product of an era of a celebrity worship of fame, worship of wealth. He was essentially upheld as an embodiment of the successful American dream. Now we’ve all turned upon him and against him. But how can we forget the complicity of the media that is now criticising him, in building him up? A lot of us who have put ourselves in positions of so-called ‘resistance’ to these figures, whether Trump in America, Johnson in the UK or [Narendra] Modi in India, we also have to examine ourselves to what extent we were complicit in creating a culture that rewards people like these.
You write of the train station Deoli at night. How important was Ruskin Bond’s The Night Train at Deoli to you?
This book is full of tributes to various writers, and careful readers will find them everywhere. Ruskin Bond, who I met very briefly once in Missouri, was someone I read as a child. And his evocations of railway journeys or railway stations stayed with me for a long time. So yes, Deoli is one way of paying tribute to him. There are others sprinkled throughout. A Bend in the River is a book that this novel is very explicitly in conversation with. But there are others too. There are references to Thomas Mann, there’s [Alexander] Pushkin somewhere in there. Part of the fun of writing this book was to also deploy my reading. It’s another way of showing that books are obviously drawn from life, but they’re also drawn from other books. No writer should deny that, no writer should claim that it’s all coming out of his own imagination. The fact is, we also are dependent on what we read. Those are the books that feed our imagination and expand it. n