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The return of Pankaj Mishra, the novelist

Twenty years after ‘The Romantics’, acclaimed essayist Pankaj Mishra’s second work of fiction, ‘Run And Hide’, is out today

Writer Pankaj Mishra
Writer Pankaj Mishra (Getty Images)

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Pankaj Mishra’s second novel comes more than two decades after his debut, The Romantics, but Run and Hide is worth the wait.

Arun, Aseem and Virendra, all from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds, meet as batchmates at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Hungry to better their circumstances, Aseem and Virendra reach dizzying heights of material and social success; their eventual fall from grace is just as spectacular.

Arun’s aspirations are fuelled by a different desire—of what he thinks could be love. Told from his point of view, Run and Hide is a slow burn. It covers three decades, recounting stories of lives on the cusp of economic liberalisation in India and globalisation in general, takes cues from high-profile cases of both white-collar crime and the MeToo movement, while tracing political changes in the country and identity politics globally—till the scene is set for a global virus.

Yet no page feels bogged down by the weight of contemporary issues; no strand is underserved. Arun, self-effacing and almost unselfconsciously prone to philosophising, makes the book immensely readable. He observes and articulates minutiae with rare lucidity, grippingly sketching the emotional intricacies of trying to stay afloat through tides of change.

In the time between the two novels, Mishra has earned acclaim as a sharp yet sensitive essayist, a keen observer of our times. This also keeps Run And Hide firmly rooted in reality, exploring motivations and sympathies, and how these play out.

While it is unfair, of course, to compare works 20 years apart, the arc is nothing short of phenomenal. The sharpness of experience and softness of wisdom find an alchemical balance in Run and Hide. A world-weariness is evident, but so is a deep romanticism towards life itself.

In an interview in the lead-up to the book’s launch today, Mishra talks about experiencing the world through fiction, the challenge of covering three decades of change, and more. Edited excerpts:

The book’s characters share similarities with people who have been in the public eye.

I think the reason why anyone turns to fiction is essentially to do what cannot be done in any other form, whether it’s reportage or essay, or poetry, or a play. The novel is just a much more spacious form that can accommodate different ways of understanding the world; the play and clash of ideas. In an essay you more or less end up taking one side—you might present the other side but you have to put your own position forward.

The fiction form gives you an opportunity to critique your own views, positions, your own class and caste. You can take very many different sides without coming out conclusively on one side or other. It’s a very democratic space; it’s a space that allows all kinds of characters to have their say, to have their inner freedom.

Obviously, I went back to the novel with these advantages in mind. But that does not mean I am going to break with everything that I have been thinking about or experiencing over the last three decades. I have encountered a wide variety of people, ways of being. They will inevitably make their way into my fiction, as composite characters.

These are (also) the themes that have concerned me over the years—the rise of a “new India”, what that actually means, who is rising, how they even seek fulfilment now that they have been freed from old restrictions and constraints, how fulfilled they even are, and how they pursue happiness, so to speak, in this new, very heady world that has been opened up to them by economic liberalisation and globalisation.

I’ve written about the political consequences of that, but the reason I turn to the novel is that only fiction can explore the spiritual and emotional consequences of this massive transformation we have undergone over the last three decades.

Is an essay exploring these concerns not as effective as a novel ?

These are two very different ways of reading and engaging with the world. (With fiction) you are asking the reader to enter into a kind of communication with the author; they are being asked to imagine certain situations, certain landscapes and people, (with) little signs of recognition all around. Which is not to say that only people in India will (relate).

Someone from a working-class background in the north of England emailed to say that the book spoke to him as an account of the humiliation you grow up with as a member of a lower class.The shame of growing up poor, of growing up ignorant—how much that follows you around even when you become successful. (With fiction) a reader brings their own life experience and imagination to the process. Non-fiction isn’t really asking you to do much of that. It’s giving you a set of facts around which a narrative has been woven.

Run And Hide: By Pankaj Mishra, Juggernaut, 336 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Run And Hide: By Pankaj Mishra, Juggernaut, 336 pages, 599.

Arun is an interesting choice as narrator. He seems never fully present in the events he recalls. Yet he is observant, reserving it all for a later telling.

This really goes to the heart of how you conceive of the novel and the strategies you adopt to tell the story. It was very clear to me that I had to choose somebody who is on the margins of the world he is describing, and yet, at the same time, not have a particularly moralistic point of view of it. I could not give Aseem the voice of the narrator, even though he is supposedly a novelist; he’s too egotistical and self-seeking to be able to see and observe the world around him. Whereas Arun, while working within the realm of literature, is on its margins too as a translator. It is a unique position—someone who does valuable work, and yet remains invisible.

Once I found this way of thinking about him and his relationship with the other characters, the novel started to fall into place. It was a challenge to think about covering three decades in the lives of these people. But the notion that he can be traumatised into eloquent speech helped me a great deal.

You meet people like Arun all the time—who don’t speak much, aren’t part of the cultural mainstream, who don’t go to parties, but are incredibly observant and insightful.

A certain unease is central to the story. Arun is uncomfortable with both the “victimhood” of the elite and the rage of the socially disadvantaged that lets them aid in oppressions of other kinds. For him, love, friendship, family fall away because of this. Is running and hiding the only way out?

One reason I went into fiction was to get away from easy generalisations or conclusions. It was really to demonstrate that there are so many different ways of being and perceiving the world. Living alone in the Himalaya can be much more exalting and liberating than, say, being at a dinner party in London, where you feel uncomfortable with all the opinions that are being expressed around you. Especially if you come from a background like Arun’s, where you know people have a very good reason to be angry at the way they have been treated by their social systems. He sees that his own father, regardless of how horrible he is, has known what degradation is much more than the people claiming that their rights and identity as a black or brown person should be honoured.

I think he has left open the possibility (of what he will do next). (The novel is at) an impasse he has been driven to, by his experience of all these different realities outside the little world he had created for himself. I would not want the book to be seen as my own kind of general statement on where we are today, and that there’s no other possibility except to run and hide.

Arun has influences of your life. Does inhabiting the book’s world influence you too, and shift how you view your life after writing it?

I do feel that every novel changes (the writer) deeply. Apart from everything else, you are exploring parts of your own self while writing fiction. Non-fiction engages only a very shallow part of yourself; mostly the mind—you have had an experience, you have talked to people and you are putting it in some shape. But when you are writing fiction, you are pulling stuff out of yourself, you don’t know where from. You are conducting a very intense dialogue with different parts of yourself. So if I were to go back and start identifying myself (in this novel), I would not identify myself in just Arun, I would also identify myself in Aseem, in Alia. We all consist of multiple selves—and all those characters carry traces of my own self. It’s only in fiction that you can conduct this dialogue with these different selves—where else would there be an opportunity to do so? So, to answer your question, I think writing it was really a unique experience. If people like it, it will be a bonus but it has brought me into a conversation with aspects of my experience I wouldn’t have otherwise engaged with.

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