Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra review – a lyrical letter from the new India | fiction

Jthe last time I visited my ancestral home, in a typical Bengali village, there was no road leading there; we made our way on foot, crossing bamboo bridges at night, our path lit by fireflies. The village had no electricity or running water. Twenty years later, I arrived there again recently by a highway that crosses the village, or what is left of it. Now with electricity and plumbing, my neighbors have simultaneously mastered the smartphone and the WC: two centuries crossed in two decades.

Indian writer Pankaj Mishra is fascinated by these transformations, first observing them in travelogues written in the backwaters of South Asia, then analyzing their philosophical underpinnings and psychological repercussions in book-length essays. delivered. He also tackled the subject in a polemical way, especially in the Modi era, with opinion pieces in almost every major newspaper, including this one.

The shifting forms of his writing, always striving to encompass the chaotic reality that Mishra sees around him, reveal that he is a deeply literary voice, as interested in how to write about a subject as the subject him. -same. Run and Hide is her first novel since an unjustly forgotten beginning more than 20 years ago. He offers a new way of looking at what is now, for him, a familiar material.

Run and Hide characters are the masterminds of “New India”, who have moved from the dusty outback to the boardrooms of Wall Street and the penthouses of London, although Arun, our narrator, has given up the frantic race to translate fiction in Hindi. He and his friends Aseem, a rising literary celebrity, and Virendra, a hedge fund billionaire, first met while hazing their freshmen at IIT Delhi (one of the technical colleges Indians whose alumni include the CEO of Google). The three men’s transnational careers and intersecting personal lives ultimately involve a woman too, Alia, the Ivy League-educated scion of old-school Muslims, who now writes an expose on global elites. The novel is set as a letter from Arun to Alia, an account of their escape from their glitzy romance in London to return home to the Himalayas, from where Arun writes in a state of moral clarity.

This epistolary form (in which we never get Alia’s side) is a curious choice. The philosophical tone is reminiscent of 19th century Russian speech, in which the letters of the skeptic Peter Chaadaev – often quoted in the non-fiction of Mishra – criticized the modernization of his country. “It had become impossible for educated people like us to rely on a worldview, Arun recalls; contrary to the values ​​of his ancestors, “unchanged from generation to generation”. Chaadaev made a similar observation, widely quoted in Russia at the time: “Our memories are no older than yesterday…and the past is lost to us forever.”

The novel manages to be somewhat plotless, but unnecessarily convoluted. There are, at times, three levels of narrative: Arun’s letter to Alia, Alia’s own book, and Aseem’s novel. The latter two exist within the former, a sometimes disorienting setting only aided by Mishra’s hesitation between first, second, and third person. But Mishra has fun with the newfound freedom of fiction, and the reader comes to share it. Satirical excerpts from post-Brexit parties or militant Instagram accounts are among them; so is the blatant use of Hindi invective.

These vernacular fragments allude, more seriously, to the linguistic wounds of success in India. Mastery of the lingua franca of global capitalism is slavishly acquired out of necessity (Thomas Macaulay’s colonial government could only dream of such institutionalized uprooting). Ironically, the word Aseem struggles the most with is “career” (pronounced “carrier”).

After the density of his recent books, with heavy bibliographies, Mishra’s romantic prose can, once again, take flight. Here, he fondly recalls, in Arun’s childhood, “many moments that break away from the noise of time to whisper enchanting and unrecoverable things: like the rocket we buy at Diwali that bursts into life with a gratifying hissing then rises and rises, then, when green and red sparks fall, all of our smiley faces up briefly glow.

There is such a feeling behind this beautiful singing image. Mishra, after all, embodies her own subject; writing about India’s development from an inward-looking, custom-bound society to a neoliberal global player is what has caused its own rise from the deprived semi-rural landscape of its birthplace to a tucked away London postcode among the liberal elite. The mirroring of autobiography and subject matter is reminiscent of VS Naipaul, the Nobel Prize-winning author whose enigmatic arrival in London from a tropical island gave him insight into the postcolonial need for modernity.

Indeed, Naipaul, constantly quoted and recited and even making an appearance in the book, casts an unshakeable shadow there; wherever Mishra walks, the specter of Naipaul looms ahead. Naipaul was the prophet who captured the vibe of India’s ascendancy before it existed – its selfish, self-made men – in A bend in the river“The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place there.

The entire sublime line is quoted on the front page of Run and Hide, as Aseem’s creed. Arun, however, resists such “visions of aestheticized amorality”. Where Aseem keeps repeating, after Naipaul, that “to be modern is to trample on the past”, Arun repudiates the metropolitan modern for a monastery in the Himalayas, doubting the relevance of modernity if trampling on the past means deforestation and demolition of mosques (which Naipaul justified).

Naipaul was once a hero to every young man from the bleds looking to leave his mark on the world. Mishra – no different – has championed Naipaul’s work to admiring reviews and edited two collections of his essays, an association that links him to Aseem in the novel. But Aseem’s Naipaulian conduct leads to moral disgrace. Of the two alter egos Mishra has here, it’s Arun who remains uncompromising; Arun who shows true composure. With this denial of his former hero, Mishra dispelled an embarrassing shadow with a final act of homage: he passed on the past, just as the highway whistles through my village.

Run and Hide is published by Hutchinson Heinemann (£16.99). Jo support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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