As India and China rise with their consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalries and military conflicts that made the last century so violent. In any case, the hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth - that billions of customers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans - is an absurd and dangerous fantasy. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.As the piece continues I find Mishra to be less persuasive than usual: some of his interpretations of facts are problematic, and his subject is so large as to probably defeat comprehensive treatment in a short essay. But in general I find him to be a thoughtful cautionary voice running counter to many of the currents of our times.
Indeed, the launch of his new book is an occasion to revisit some of Mishra's brilliant work over the last decade, in which he has emerged both as a modern master of the personal essay and an unusual and highly articulate commentator on modern Indian politics and literature. I feel great admiration for the dedication with which Mishra has taken himself to all kinds of places, and tried to experience different kinds of things.
The two Mishra essays I like the best - they are worth reading several times over, both for pleasure and for instruction about such matters as composition, style and balance in prose writing - are "Edmund Wilson in Banaras", an essay from 1998 about his university education in Banaras and his admiration for the American critic Edmund Wilson, and "The East Was Red", a recent essay harking back to his years of "Sovietophilia" as a boy in small-town India:
For boys like me, in north Indian railway towns in the 70s and 80s, where nothing much happened apart from the arrival and departure of trains from big cities, the Soviet Union alone appeared to promise an escape from our limited, dusty world.This one essay must have restored for many Indians an essential part of their childhood - I remember myself going to book fairs as a boy in the late eighties and being captivated by the wealth of beautiful Soviet books on offer at cheap prices. In fact, while browsing on the streets of Flora Fountain a few weeks ago, I myself came across a few works of Chekhov and Dostoevsky in English translation published by Raduga Publishers and Progress Publishers, two prominent Soviet publishers that Mishra mentions. The physical appearance of these spare, white-covered, hardbound volumes and the impress of these two names on my memory instantly took me back to the spare stagnant world of small-town Indian social life, enlivened by books from remote locations one could never visit, in which I, along with millions of others, grew up. Oh generous Soviet Union, where did you go - were you always a dream?
It is hard now, in these days of visual excess, to recall the sensuous poverty of the towns I lived in: the white light falling all day from the sky upon a flat land only slightly relieved by bare rock and the occasional tree, and houses of mud or grimy brick, among which any trace of colour - shop signs, painted government posters for family planning, or garish posters for Bollywood films - could provoke a sense of wonder. It explains the eagerness with which I awaited Soviet Life, the first magazine I subscribed to, which was really an illustrated press release boasting of Soviet achievements in science, agriculture, industrial production, sports, and literature.
When a new issue slipped through the mail slot, I would smell its glossy pages and run my fingers across them. Alone in my room, I gazed for a long time at colour pictures of young Soviet women raising production levels on the Ukrainian steppe, in the Fergana valley and Siberian oilfields. I lingered longest over the pages with pictures of Young Pioneers, and then cut them out carefully and wrapped them around my school notebooks, obscuring the calendar-art images of the young Lord Krishna. I did not outgrow Soviet Life even after I got my parents to subscribe to Soviet Literature, and cajoled my younger sister, who had won a small school scholarship, into giving me a subscription to the news magazine New Times. The magazines cost less than the stamps on the brown envelopes in which they arrived - indeed, my parents declined to support my pen pal-ship with a Young Pioneer girl because airmail letters were too expensive.
Here are two more beautiful essays by Mishra: "The Great Narayan", a tribute to RK Narayan, and "The Art of Inquisition", a sympathetic portrait of the much-derided Nirad Chaudhuri. I came across Chaudhuri's polemical book about the deadness of Indian customs and current ways of life, To Live or Not to Live, recently, and found in it a very trenchant, almost Thoreauvian, questioning ("Do we live at all? This would seem an absurd question, for none of us commit suicide, though to be honest, I would confess that I have come to feel that a large majority of the persons I know should do so, because I cannot see any point in their remaining alive.") That question - do we live at all? - is one that every writer must think about, and sometimes plainly ask.
I note with some curiosity Mishra's observation that Chaudhuri "generalised far too recklessly" and calls this "the autodidact's vice". Some of this vice is occasionally visible in Mishra's essays on politics and economics, though to my eye not on literature.
An archive of Mishra's recent reviews can be found here, and another archive of pieces for Outlook, containing several good tough-minded essays from the late nineties, is here.
"Edmund Wilson in Banaras" is not available online, but it can be found in at least two anthologies of Indian writing: the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, and India: A Mosaic edited by Robert Silvers and published by the New York Review of Books.
Update, June 15: Salil Tripathi takes issue with Mishra's Guardian piece here in "Escaping the 'Hindu rate of growth'", and Mishra composes a reply to him here.