Monday, June 12, 2006

Pankaj Mishra's resistance to temptation

In a piece written to coincide with the launch of his new book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, Pankaj Mishra argues that large sections of opinion in India and China have been persuaded of the virtues of the free-market model of development without scrutinising sufficiently the pitfalls attendant on this way forward. Western elites, for their part, are happy to flag us as emerging superpowers. Mishra (like another perceptive Indian thinker with whom he shares certain affinities, Ashis Nandy) argues:

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.

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.
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?

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.


Amit Chatterji said...

In this context, what you think of Mishra's view on novels? Do you think that the mid-nineteenth century Flaubertian model that he recommends (and has himself used) works in this century, especially when exploring Indian realities? In these times of globalized powers, terrors and dissent, is it possible for the novelist to be a creature of ascetic calmness and dispassionate observation, an animal without an angle of vision? I have my doubts.

Chandrahas said...

Dear Amit - There are many ways in which to go about writing novels, and the model you speak about is still, to my mind, a perfectly worthy ideal, even if replete with all kinds of ifficulties. I don't see at all why it should be unsuited to dealing with Indian realities - in fact, just think of how swampy and stifling our middle-class life is, and how interesting an Indian *Madame Bovary*, written with close attention to the life of a couple in, say, Kota or Ghaziabad would be, were it to be written by an Indian novelist today - office life and family life, the great many things swept under the carpet, complicated and confused attitudes towards sex and the body, the taking of a vacation in Shimla, visits from relatives, letters from an old flame. It would be great.

The kind of observation you are speaking of as possibly being outdated, although you find good, rich words for it, is really not as ascetic and dispassionate as you think - even that has a kind of ferocity and ardour to it, a hunger for detail. It is so subtle as to seem without an angle of vision, which is of course much harder to do than write from a clear point of view - in fact there is a kind of wonder in it when it is successfully brought off.

electrostani said...

Thanks for the provoking review. I tend to be suspicious of such arguments as well. Though I'll have to have a look at Mishra's book to see how he gets there, perhaps in response one could say 1) that a free market can be managed, and 2) the downsides of the old socialist system/license raj were too widespread and corrosive to be forgiven.

The links to old essays by Mishra are also nice. I haven't read some of these.

Tusar Nath Mohapatra said...

Should we be content with the froth or hasten to sip deeper?

The opinions of the likes of Mishra or Nandy on India and her future need to be read juxtaposed with that of Sri Aurobindo, the greatest modern Indian thinker. Contemporariety is no assurance of wisdom and a wider perspective would carry us safe.

Anonymous said...

I didn't quite agree with Mishra's article in the Guardian or even a similar piece on the Clash of Abstractions (on Hirsi Ali, simple but passionately held beliefs apparently leave you stateless whereas complicated, seemingly passionately held beliefs afford you a regular column in the Guardian). All in all, they seem like fairly simplistic viewpoints - and lets face it, the English speaking "I know the Orient" hack's viewpoint. I have no quarrel with this - I make a living out of reading and writing English and am constantly rearranging and reshifting attitudes that arise out of the clash of two cultures within me. Its that slightly supercilious air that Mishra employs - in everything from Butter Chicken to recent pieces that gets me. Mishra and co seem to simultaneously preach to the great and bloodthirsty Indian unwashed, Western libertarians and conservatives, almost as if they occupy some hallowed space which allows them a unique perspective. To which one can only employ an un Flaubertain "bollocks". In fact I wish Mishra would ditch his fussy, moth balled, over written "Flaubertian" language too - it can at times make for very tedious reading.

I did enjoy all that bit about Soviet Russia. Still, we have too many Indian authors who are terrific at evoking a particular time through objects and landscapes - but too often there is little beneath it. Or was it Mishra's love of all things Soviet that brings about his positive view of socialist India? I grew up in the 70s so I can empathise and much more with the nostalgia but really good writing as opposed to pleasant, well written stuff requires one to look a little deeper at the myriad contradictions of any age.

Anonymous said...


I had read some of the reviews and essays you have mentioned in this post right about when they came out, notably the ones on R.K. Narayan in NYRB and the Indian era of Soviet books. And Shama above has already aired the beef I have with Mishra's writing, both in style and content.

It seems to me that a sense of "Looke here, I have such a delicate James-ian sensibility even though I have had a screwed up mofussil youth in India", seems to infect both of his books, as well as a number of his reviews. I also think he sets up false dichotomies such as those between the provincials and the cosmopolitans, and flogs these for what they are worth. I admit I enjoyed reading his novel 'The Romantics', but found it tiresome when most of the subject matter of this novel was regurgitated in his latter book on, which is really not a book on, Buddha. Who gives a s**t if Mr. Mishra spent years in Mashobra brooding about Buddha, and fashioning himself into a public intellectual who will live a life of the mind? I certainly don’t.

Finally, his review of Virkam Seth's "Two Lives" in the NYT Book Review made me stab the newspaper with my letter opener. If Mishra wanted to write an essay on Hitler and British India he should have done so separately instead of flogging these 'ideas' out of place in a review on a memoir of, well, two lives. And in the process of deploying all this hot air, he forgets to tell the reader if he actually liked reading the book or not, and his qualified recommendations to the potential readers - cardinal sins by a reviewer IMHO.

Anonymous said...

You may also want to take a look at his LRB essay on Nepal.