Author Q&A: Pankaj Mishra
Run and Hide (Hutchinson Heinemann)
Run and Hide (Hutchinson Heinemann)
Arun leaves his small Indian railway town to enrol in the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, where he meets Aseem, who goes on to be writer and publisher, and Virendra, destined to become a wealthy banker in India. They ride the wave of a new India from the 1980s onwards, a country gaining new riches and freedoms and a global outlook. Arun also meets Alia, a beautiful liberal Muslim writer and influencer. Pankaj Mishra, better known for his political and literary non-fiction, turns to fiction for the first time in 20 years. Arun, Aseem and Alia tell the same overlapping story but in very different ways – of their lives, their determination to succeed and their past transgressions, in Delhi, New York and London.
You wrote recently about fiction in a “post-truth age [that] has dawned murkily in a chasm”, and you emphasise at the end of the novel that all the events and characters portrayed are fictional. Do you see the novel then as a better way to navigate the world at the moment, both for yourself and for readers?
Definitely. That’s the reason really why I went back to fiction after having forged a career for myself in writing non-fiction. We can see right now in front of our eyes the way the propaganda machineries of the US, Britain and Russia are working overtime to persuade us about what it actually happening now. I think it’s becoming extraordinarily difficult for citizens – and people who do this for a living, people like myself – to analyse situations like these, to step back and process the facts that are being thrown at you.
What we can still understand – and we’ve always been able to understand – is how the human soul responds to the various experiences that it goes through in the course of a lifetime, by which I mean the experience of growing up, the experience of love, the experience of abuse, the experience of being misled by your own desires, the experience of disillusionment. These are human experiences that we can verify through our own lives. These are not facts in the public domain that have to be constantly contested, and for that reason fiction has a universality, fiction speaks of a truth that we can all recognise right away. That I felt to be extremely liberating – returning to fiction after so many years dealing with these very contested and fraught facts.
I saw New India emerge in various contexts, including Britain and the US, because New India is a phenomenon of globalisation
This is your first novel in 20 years. How did you derive the idea for it? Is it something you’ve been carrying round since the dawn of the New India, as you call it?
No, it developed over the course of several encounters and experiences in the last two decades. I travelled around quite a bit, saw New India emerge in various contexts, including Britain and the US, because New India is a phenomenon of globalisation – it’s not something confined to India alone. It’s something you see in the UK when Indian companies come along and buy up Jaguar, and it’s something you see in the US where they buy up their flagship hotels like the Pierre or the Plaza. It’s really a global phenomenon and it’s hard to avoid for someone like myself.
It felt when I was encountering manifestations of this phenomenon everywhere that I wasn’t really doing justice to this massive event in my non-fiction – that I had to talk about the characters I was witnessing, that I had to go into their inner lives, and you’re not allowed to do that in non-fiction. That would be an act of impunity and will be immediately challenged, of course, and quite rightly ,if you do that in non-fiction – guessing at or speculating about the contents of someone’s mind – whereas you can do that in fiction. That’s the reason why I felt all of this unused and probably unusable material in non-fiction, I had to find some way of mining it and fiction seemed the only way.
There’s a social realist aspect to the novel – and you’ve written about your admiration for social realist novels going back to Balzac and people like that – but there’s also in your novel, with three people writing books – or two writing books and Arun writing a letter – overlapping versions of the same story. You’ve got two devices going on there – what did that allow you to achieve?
First of all there are different ways of rendering this reality that we experience every day. There’s the journalistic one, the book that Alia is writing – the person to whom the narrative is addressed. Then there is the novelist Aseem, who wants to write the big novel of India, and then of course there’s the narrator, who is writing his own very personal narrative. So there are different ways – obviously I wanted to indicate that. But at the same time, the novel is about this particular society in the world that we’ve come to inhabit in the last two, three decades and I certainly aimed it as a description of this intensely ideological period we’ve lived through. The novel must aim to capture the ways in which these ideologies affect inner lives. The novel must not give up that ambition.
The novel is capable of doing all kinds of things. You can turn it into auto fiction. You can turn it into a series of formal experiments with language – we’ve seen the limits of that in Joyce and Beckett and other people. But the novel can also do what it really started out to in the 19th century, which is talk about society, talk about individuals in a given society, talk about the pressures that society puts on the individual’s mind and soul. That’s something I’ve never really dissented from. That is the novel’s primary function.
I’ve really been struck by how a certain kind of racial politics, a kind of identity politics has come to replace the old preoccupation with class division, and I feel like there is a loss there
You stress that Arun isn’t from the absolutely poorest part of Indian society, even though he is poor. They’re almost lower middle class in a way. Is class more important than identity politics in your novel?
Definitely. Spending as much time as I do in London and the west in general, I’ve really been struck by how a certain kind of racial politics, a kind of identity politics has come to replace the old preoccupation with class division, and I feel like there is a loss there. We can talk about all these things but we don’t have to minimise the role that class relations and unequal hierarchies of income and opportunity play in shaping inner lives. The novel talks about people who are extremely rich but are deeply invested in racial identity politics, who are unaware of their own complicity in unequal class structures. So I think it’s really important, especially because class has become, as we know, politically so much more explosive an issue in the last few years, so much more toxic an issue, that we deal with it it, we reckon with it and not escape from it into discussions of the historical injuries of racial discrimination and all that. Those are also extremely important but they should not be allowed to obscure this very important central fact of class divisions and class inequality.
Related to that you write about the characters being the first to experience what you describe as the “ruthless individualism” of the Reagan-Thatcher era and there’s an interesting passage where you describe a growing sexual freedom “during a period of national aggrandisement”. Do you believe that the personal aspects of the New India have been less explored then than the structural or political or economic aspects?
That was exactly my intention. We talk about these ideologies arriving in India – and you have to remember India was really quite a secluded, isolated place in the late 1980s. It had a peculiar culture of its own that was conservative, that emphasised austerity, that emphasised renunciation, so it was very new for us. The Thatcherism or Reaganism arriving, its imperatives to consume, to earn, to expand yourself, to embrace individualism – this was all heady stuff for many people in India and one thing I wanted to emphasise was that we haven’t quite reckoned with the moral and emotional revolution that was unleashed by the arrival of these ideologies in India. Thatcherism in Britain itself was a radical break with the British past but in India it constituted a truly dramatic transformation.
And within that, Aseem the intellectual entrepreneur is the perfect embodiment?
Absolutely – embodiment and also someone who thinks that sexual freedom is part of this world of endless opportunity and personal aggrandisement and in a way sexual opportunity also becomes conflated with this idea of individual expansion. That in the case of Aseem and others has become a very dangerous and explosive combination.
The writer VS Naipaul looms quite large in the novel. Were you exploring your changing relationship with him and his writings?
Naipaul is a very important figure for all kinds of reasons. He’s a very important figure for writers like myself because he was an example of how you can aspire to write without being born in a rich and powerful country or having the right skin colour or the right education and so forth. At the same time, he had many complicated aspects to his personality. He had many unacceptable views and at the same time he was a great artist.
It’s a very complicated legacy. If you have been inspired by him, you also struggle with the legacy because he’s not a cuddly figure that you can easily embrace and hold close to you. You have to distance yourself from him and this is something the novel tries to do. It honours him as a great artist, as a great novelist who has to be seen separately from the outlandish public pronouncements all the time about women, about gay people, about all kinds of things he would spout, and his ignorant opinions. But that’s one side of him. There’s the artist, the novelist who has a very profound insight into damaged men, in particular. I think it’s partly because he was a damaged man himself…
His advocacy of India as a great power whose time had arrived, that was fascinating to me because it seemed like he was translating his own experiences. Coming out of nowhere and becoming this very well known writer he was seeing that particular upward trajectory in India, coming out of a past of backwardness and poverty and becoming an international superpower. Aseem’s adoration of him is very much based on this particular conflation. That’s also what I wanted to explore – how he became this mascot of the self-aggrandisement of India.
Nationalism comes to depend too much on an idea of some sort of malign other
Going back to the Scottish referendum, there was a lot of talk of the possibility of a civic or progressive nationalism. Do you think that’s ever possible? Was that possible in India, or was nationalism always destined to be ultimately reactionary?
There have been instances of nationalism obviously becoming something that promotes a civic sense, a sense of community, but that’s really been possible in small countries – Scandinavian countries, for instance, countries that are relatively homogenous in all kinds of ways, not just racially or homogeneously but income wise. You don’t have massive inequalities there. Once you have massive inequalities, nationalism occurs that channels lots of frustration and disappointment into some sort of hyper-nationalism.
I think on the whole, nationalism has proved an unsatisfactory way of organising societies or giving societies a shared nationalism. Nationalism comes to depend too much on an idea of some sort of malign other. It can be the EU, in the case of English nationalism, it can be foreigners or immigrants, or it can be Scotland. But anyway, Scottish nationalism is definitely an interesting variant of nationalism. It has had its excesses but it has also promoted some kind of civic unity, so it will be interesting to see what going forward what shape it takes.
In Run and Hide, Arun is at a very important juncture in his life and everything’s changed. Would you see him as a vehicle for a further novel?
Yes, well, novels ideally don’t ever end. The questions they raise are never really answered. What they try to do is phrase the questions or raise the correct questions, so I don’t think the set of questions I raised by Arun’s foray into the outside world, outside his little village, are answered, and even at his temporary retreat it’s clear at some point he has to leave and who knows what will happen to him next. I don’t know. He might go back to his village or he might meet Alia again. There could be another life there. It’s hard to tell but definitely the kind of perplexity that haunts him is not going to leave him. I don’t think there can be any solutions to that kind of bewilderment or bafflement.
India is two years away from a general election and Trump is gone. Is it possible to speculate on politics in India after Modi?
Even if Modi’s gone – you could argue similarly about the US if Trump has gone – something worse might take its place. There’s still no guarantee that the Republicans won’t win in the next elections, and likewise in India our fear, the fear of many Indians, is that someone much much more to the far right will take his place. We know there are a couple of candidates there who are doing exceptionally well electorally in other states, so I don’t think we’ve come to the end of this particular nightmare yet. It’s got an energy, it’s got plenty of fuel right now.
It’s hard to see alternatives, too. In politics, you need alternatives – a party that’s capable of getting elected. In Britain, too, you could argue that the Conservatives are in a bad way, but is the Labour Party ready to be elected to take its place? No, is the answer, and we still can’t rule out the Conservatives coming back in 2024. That’s where we are really.
Is Congress irredeemable now?
It’s in terminal decline. It’s very hard for parties to recover once that process has started. You can see that also in France. The old socialist parties of Europe are all in terminal decline because they have lost all their grassroots networks; they don’t connect to the working classes anymore; they don’t connect to the vast majority of people who once voted for them. They’ve been taken over by technocrats of various sorts who led them to the centre, and once you’re at the centre it’s the centre right and the right wing that’s going to win. That’s what happened with Congress too.
Remember Chechnya: there were many moments when the war was going extremely badly for Russia but it emerged from it
The last question, inevitably, is about Putin and his imperial adventures in Ukraine. Putin’s popularity has grown when he’s done things like this before, but is this the moment of over-reach for him?
It’s hard to tell. From a hopeful perspective, we are witness to Putin’s depredations in Ukraine and some part of our outrage is obviously shared by the Russian peoples, but if you look at the situation not just of people in Russia or India but say Turkey, all the places that are run by autocrats who have very strict controls over their media, then we are looking at a population that is constantly being fed lies and more lies. So you’re being told that the world is conspiring against you, that the westerners are out to get you, and Russia is being humiliated but is now finally striking back – that was the propaganda when Putin annexed Crimea. It was every effective; he had a big boost in popularity.
Even with Ukraine, which is obviously a disastrous war for Putin, remember Chechnya: there were many moments when the war was going extremely badly for Russia but it emerged from it. It’s too early to say that it’s going to have some sort of negative consequences for Putin because with those sorts of strictly controlled media ecosystems you can float your version of the truth or you can float any number of falsehoods. You can get large numbers of people to believe in them.
If you have that domestic audience on your side then your local legitimacy is intact and in the end that’s what most of these people are fighting for. We’ve sanctioned Iran up to the gills, but what the Iranian regime needs is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, and that they’ve got. You can isolate people, but apart from bombing them or bringing about regime change, which is more or less impossible – it’s impossible in the case of Iran, it’s completely impossible in the case of Russia – what are you going to do?
Non-fiction may not be quite sufficient to explain Vladimir Putin’s state of mind, and whether and how that’s changed over the years, with age and with the pandemic, his changing view of his legacy.
If you want to understand Putin today, one should read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch, Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, Asturias’s novel El Señor Presidente, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State. These are books about the authoritarian mentality and how someone like Putin looks at the world, how he conceives of the world. That would be far more enriching and rewarding than any number of analyses in The Guardian today.