Pankaj Mishra inhabits a perplexing position in Indian and international letters. One of India’s most exhilaratingly provocative voices, his blistering op-eds and essays in Asian journals and such “intellectual outposts of Anglo-America” as the New York Times, Time, the Guardian, Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Review of Books (NYRoB), frequently involve lacerating moral critiques of both Indian and triumphalist Western ideologies.
He has drawn an impressive array of naysayers down the years: from neo-con military historians such as Max Boot, to “neoliberal” bigwig, Jagdish Bhagwati, a WTO colleague of Peter Sutherland’s who, in a 2010 speech to the Indian Parliament, denounced Mishra’s criticisms of India’s economic liberalisation as “fiction masquerading as nonfiction”. Meanwhile, life rarely delivers such pleasure as Mishra’s demolition, over a long and remorseless 2011 essay in the London Review of Books (LRoB), of the preposterously right-wing Scottish TV historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson, whose enthusiastic apologia for Western imperialism, for Mishra, amounts to “moral and intellectual onanism”.
Gentle in person, Mishra is a compact, boyish-looking man with a piercing gaze: his faultless courtesy framing a voice of quiet gravitas from which undulate impeccably elocuted, oft-ornate and resonant sentences. Much of this flows from the exactitude and force of his writing; his vivid, pyrotechnical style embroidering telling quotations from world writers and philosophers into propulsive passages which often ignite in the mind.
Mishra diagnoses our era of resurgent bellicose nationalism as a recurrent symptom of capitalism’s dysfunction: as opportunist demagogues deflect mass disaffection onto minorities (or “Islam”); and make grand promises of “development” whilst facilitating crony capitalism. They typically present themselves as social revolutionaries promising to uproot entrenched “cosmopolitan elites” and political “insiders” who are seen, correctly, as callously unresponsive to the sufferings of their peoples.
Mishra’s latest book, ‘Age of Anger’ interrogates the contradictions inherent within western liberal democracy: forged in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment as a secular, materialist, universalist civilisation based on rational self-interest, equality, ‘liberty’, and laissez-faire free market capitalism.
“Even equality is a deeply problematic concept. It has its origins in Christianity, where it is conceived as equality before God. When you transfer that into a competitive commercial society, it becomes elusive, even deceptive. Really, the drama of the modern world is the collision between the promise of equality and the fact of structural inequality. This is where neoliberalism’s promise of meritocracy is an illusion. It has created a subjectivity where equality is seen as achievable, not through state intervention or socialism, but through the pursuit of prosperity. Except that prosperity creates and requires new hierarchies…
“So it becomes a completely futile pursuit, accumulating all kinds of political pathologies in its wake. This is not the left view: I think the left is committed to the idea of equality through redistribution. But here we reckon without specialisation, industrialisation, all these complex processes of gradation and heirarchy which make the project of equality all the more difficult. Even in socialist states, you had massive inequality; say in Yugoslavia, what was called the ‘New Class’ ….”
Meanwhile, fuelling the engines of history, Mishra identifies Nietzschean ressentiment: a corrosive, rancorous mix of powerlessness, subjugation, humiliation and hatred which can boil over into revolution or terrorism; and from Hannah Arendt’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ (which sold out on Amazon after Trump’s election), a “new terrifying negative solidarity”- a “structureless mass of furious individuals” and superfluous people, united only in loathing of the status quo. Arendt was writing about post-WWI Europe, where class collapse and economic calamity created an atomised people without social identity or emotional moorings. Now, declares Mishra, it is happening again, not just at the global margins, but “in the heartland of modernity. So you get this political insurgency, a nihilistic impulse to punish the elites, to blow up the system; and retreat into fantasies of authenticity, some imagined national community”.
For Mishra, “the history of modernisation is largely one of carnage and bedlam”; of uprootedness, dislocation and alienation, as economically backward countries often take cruelly coerced shortcuts to aggressive urbanisation. “Socialist states in general have been everywhere committed to this particular vision of modernisation – whether in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union or in Asia or in Africa – which more and more complicates the project of equality”.
He reminds Westerners of our own often wartorn historical transition to modernity; mirroring the turmoil and extremism often witnessed in the developing world, especially after 1945, when emergent nations shook off colonial shackles across Asia and Africa. Thus huge recent advances in India and China are the most radical since Bismarck’s Germany: shoring up catastrophic environmental and social disruption, where just as in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe and the US, many millions are being left behind. Across Asia, he says, this threatens to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage among hundreds of millions of have-nots.
Born in 1969 in Uttar Pradesh, Mishra grew up near the north-central Indian city of Jhansi, the son of a railway worker whose high-caste Brahmin family had been impoverished by post-independence land reform. With parents “decisively shaped” by “a pre-modern world of myth, religion and custom”, he can attest to “the ruptures in lived experience and historical continuity, the emotional and psychological disorientations… that have made the passage to modernity so arduous for most people”.
Although born a Hindu, “Hindusim is not really a religion, it’s a way of life: there was no obligation to go to temple or engage in rituals, it was very agnostic, very relaxed”. They lived “a semi-rural life on the margins of small towns, amidst a mixed local population. I grew up assuming human diversity to be the norm. That’s why I find any suggestion that we should have a homogenous society deeply repulsive. For me, humanity is diverse”.
“I grew up in an India where the collective project was important, where the phrase ‘the common good’ still had some meaning. We didn’t think of ourselves as individuals competing with each other in the marketplace. There was a particular system of moving into the modern world, educating ourselves, joining the professions.
“I don’t think I was terribly ambitious. We had a few books around and I picked up the habit of reading and felt that this was something I could do for the rest of my life. But it was only when I went to university that I started reading seriously”. He studied commerce at Allahabad, before an English Literature MA at Delhi’s Nehru University. In 1992, he moved to Mashobra, a village in northern India, in the Himalayan foothills.
“That’s when I did most of my reading, that’s my intellectual capital. A lot of the literature I quote in the book I read back then: Flaubert, Schopenhauer, Goethe, I must have read everything available by him in English at that time…”. Yet, considering the richness of his English, “it’s not my first language, it still doesn’t feel so. I started speaking it when I went to Delhi, at 21. By the time I came to write, I had been reading mostly in English, and my sentences were forming in English”. He says he “was never given an opportunity to write in Hindi, which is very much my first language, and I don’t write in Hindi”.
In Mashobra, he began writing literary essays and book reviews for Indian journals, until Penguin India commissioned his first book in 1995: the small-town Indian travelogue, ‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana’. Then came his stint as an editor at HarperCollins India, where he famously ‘discovered’ Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’. He is modest about this, yet he is credited as a highly influential figure in India’s flourishing literary movement.
In 1997, he met Barbara Epstein from the New York Review of Books (NYRoB) in Delhi; and began writing for it. His only novel, ‘The Romantics’ (2000), was well received; but he turned to nonfiction, filing long, lyrical reports for the NYRoB from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, Nepal, China and investigative pieces about human-rights abuses in Indian-occupied Kashmir, in a conflict in which up to 80.000 people have been killed since 1989 alone. His extended 2000 NYRoB piece, ‘Death in Kashmir’, queried the Indian government’s claim that Pakistani-backed Muslim guerrillas had committed massacres such as that of 35 Sikhs at Chitisinghpura (hours before President Clinton’s visit to India), as rumours spread that it had been conducted by Indian intelligence.
He still writes and campaigns for true democracy there, including ‘Kashmir: The Case for Freedom’, a recent book of essays co-written with Tariq Ali and Arundhati Roy, “a very good friend”. Like Mishra she is an activist and has condemned India and Pakistan’s nuclear showdown, megadam projects which forcibly displace millions.
Mishra used to divide his year between London and India, but since Narendra Modi’s election as Indian PM in 2014, “it’s become politically very treacherous”. Does he feel endangered? “A tiny bit. I don’t want to exaggerate that because many people who live there full-time have been threatened, attacked, assassinated, I haven’t faced any of that. It’s difficult for people to live in a climate where they are constantly being intimidated, bullied and harassed by Modi’s armies of trolls”.
Instead, between trips to elsewhere in Asia, he has very much arrived in London, where he does most of his work, “although I don’t take a lot of interest in local British politics”. As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he lives with his wife, Mary Mount, a literary editor (who works with Colm Tóibín and John Banville) and their young daughter. When I note that Mary is said to be David Cameron’s cousin, Mishra chafes: “It may seem to people like we’re having dinner together practically every night, but I’ve never met the man; my wife has met him once in her life. Neither of us share his politics…”. He almost mutters: “a ghastly figure”. Later, I clarified the comment with him as correct, and he mailed back “The description might have seemed extreme before, but not after he pranced on a stage with Modi, led a viciously xenophobic London mayoral campaign, and then presided over the disastrous [Brexit] referendum” – since which Mishra has been confronted by racist taunts.
Mishra has written extremely critically about the often flower-bedecked Modi, whose Hindu-supremacist BJP party purges “anti-national” dissidents and “westernised” intellectuals from Indian institutions.
Modi still stands widely accused (with his closest aides) of inciting the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom of over 1,000 people in Gujarat, where many were gang-raped and tens of thousands displaced, prompting the US and UK to impose a travel ban on Modi who described the refugee camps as “child-breeding centres” before finally expressing regret over the killings as he would a “puppy run over by a car”. A lifelong member of the paramilitary RSS, explicitly modelled on European fascism, Modi now commands a nuclear-armed, immiserated nation where 43% of children under 5 are malnourished; 48% stunted; while over half the population defecate in the open.
Modi’s government in Delhi now puts relentless pressure on dissident writers and artists, as emboldened mobs ransack newspaper offices, galleries and cinemas. Three “rationalist” writers have been assassinated, amid the lynchings of Dalits and Muslims accused of eating beef. Last year Arundhati Roy was charged with contempt of court as a social-media meme uncritically repeated in India’s mainstream media claimed she was part of a Christian conspiracy to break up India. This is “a farrago of paranoid nonsense” fumes Mishra; an allegation. Roy’s “offence” was her May 2015 article calling attention to the incarceration of a severely disabled academic, Prof G N Saibaba of Delhi University; a wheelchair user in rapidly deteriorating health.
Modi has his own pet academics. Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, two Ivy League Indian economists accused of “poverty-denialism” by Nobel laureate Angus Deaton have downplayed the 2002 pogrom as a “riot”. Mishra points to the fact that “Bhagwati – who calls himself ‘the world’s most foremost free trader’ – spearheaded a vicious, highly personal campaign” against Amartya Sen, another Nobel laureate and Harvard Professor of Economics and Philosophy, whom Mishra knows personally. “On the whole, he’s a deeply, deeply admirable figure. He has been a voice of real courage and truth in India, and has been punished for it. He was in charge of Nalanda University in Bihar; and was basically forced to resign”.
It was also a battle of ideology between Sen’s post-Keynesian developmental economics, favouring poverty amelioration and public investment in health and education and Bhagwati’s ‘neoclassical’ economic growth-first model favouring ‘wealth creators’. Panagariya has argued that Indian malnutrition rates are based on faulty WHO metrics, and that Indian children are genetically stunted.
Despite personal attacks, often via lurid fake news reports, Sen had led the visionary new international university at Nalanda, in impoverished Bihar in northeast India: a symbolic revival of Nalanda Mahavihara, the oldest university on earth, and the original center of Buddhist religion and culture,which drew students from all over Asia, even Turkey.
Eventually, Sen stepped aside to protect Nalanda’s academic independence, laying the blame firmly at the door of the government in an eloquent 4,000-word essay in the NYRoB.
Mishra remains a critical gateway to emerging Indian, Asian and often African literature, yet borrows Kwame Anthony Appiah’s term, “comprador intelligentsia”, to characterise his compatriots and fellow-novelists, Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul.
In 1999 Mishra denounced Rushdie’s ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ as “an alarming new kind of anti-literature”; and has since repeatedly, and resolutely, criticised Rushdie’s work and politics.
Mishra is more ambivalent about Naipaul whose earlier work he often cites to illuminate the globalised deracination which ambitious Indians must negotiate – often having to abandon, or at least sublimate, their culture and in the process become English-speaking ‘Brown Sahibs’, or what Naipaul called – with devastating self-reflexivity, in the title to his 1967 novel – “The Mimic Men”.
Interview by Mic Moroney