I became intrigued by Pankaj Mishra himself (not just his fiction or nonfiction) when I learned that shortly after finishing undergrad studies in India, he moved to a Himalayan village, when he’d started being known. Not Delhi or Mumbai, or London or New York for that matter. It suggested he wished not just to trace the changes in Asian societies, but do it in relation to their “long agrarian” pasts.
As if he wished to live out various interactions — east/west, Asia/Europe, old/new — to the extent possible. He was well on the way to being a significant writer — he’s been named one of the top 100 global thinkers, whatever that’s worth — and perhaps also wanted to test what this type of heady global success might mean set within a traditional Indian context. (Salman Rushdie gets a swift ironic mention in “Run and Hide,” Mishra’s new novel: “Salman might be there.”)
The first book of his I read, “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” starts with a tectonic shock that ran across Asia when Japan actually defeated Russia in their 1905 war, which at most rippled in Europe. The book was less about Asia’s rise than its return to the power it had long held. In that way, it reminded westerners how brief their own global dominance has been. His “Age of Anger” offers stunning insights into populist rage everywhere today.
The new novel is a hefty page-turner and notably current; it even includes #MeToo and COVID. But it also has a lengthy, naturalistic, almost Dickensian or Balzacian section on the poverty and humiliation Mishra’s cohort faced when “hazed” at tech “institutes.” It focused on sexualized cruelty (Hockey Canada is not alone), included an early life with “lumps of excrement” everywhere, and those hideous train rides. (My only pathetic analogue would be the “Overnight Luxury Bus” to Arusha, in Tanzania).
The squalor and humiliation — a central word in the novel — motivated a craving to break totally from them into Narendra Modi’s New India, with its titans of industry and literature and their “brassy ethos” so alien to historical Indian piety and modesty. It’s dismal yet so understandable.
The novel form gives Mishra a chance to ask murky, risky questions harder to raise in his essays, where you tend to stake out a view and fortify it. He can wonder whether something precious like a sense of home, however squalid, might’ve been lost in abandoning it for global, rootless grandeur. Or what lies behind his protagonist’s estranged father’s embrace of Modi’s racism. Some of his speculations along these lines are quite daring, even for as brave a writer as Mishra. In a novel you can explore them as subjects, versus assertions.
Mishra is a master of highly informed invective, and Canadians may find some of his targets endearing. He calls Jordan Peterson — former U of T prof, now a vast globalized entity himself — “the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage.” Peterson threatened violence. Mishra also managed to outrage Michael Ignatieff, who slipped home briefly to lead our Liberal party to disaster, for his endorsement of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as well as “permissible” torture — like, say, putting hoods on prisoners.
I don’t mean to compare us and them. India is a great power, even when faded. Canada isn’t. Canadian writers have sometimes felt hobbled by the lack of grandeur. They couldn’t “learn war here,” or observe “daily, hourly human agonies,” the way, say, Russian authors could. A differing view has been voiced by Canadian authors like Harold Innis and his successor, Marshall McLuhan. They felt their presence in a hinterland gave them insights of value, not just for us but for everyone, including great powers.
This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.