Sunday, December 02, 2007

Small Town Weariness: Pankaj Mishra

My reading of Indian writers has sadly remained very limited, and I don't remember reading anything apart from Rushdie in the recent past. Over the last year or so, I have come across various articles and literary reviews by the Indian novelist, literary critic and essayist Pankaj Mishra and have just finished reading his brilliant collection of essays called Temptations in the west: How to be modern in India, Pakistan and beyond. These essays have been published over the last several years in various international magazines and papers and have been compiled here as a book. The essays are not chronologically arranged, as Mishra criscrosses over the years, apart from the first chapter where he speaks about himself.

This book is essentially a record of his journeys through a few countries but these impressions are mixed with part history and part memoir, a continuous reflective process, flashing on the things seen and heard previously, re-appraising, reevaluating. Mishra makes it clear that the essays are "not abstractions on democracy or religion and do not offer any solutions but are an attempt to confront bewildering perplexity", in countries as diverse as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet. However, there is politics here and history too, but it is from the view of an insider and a foreigner, with a subtle deeply wise understanding of the cultural context of various issues.

Towards his native India, Mishra brings an approach of self examination, allowing an insight into his world, what he calls small town India, a land of poverty, corrupt officials, criminal politics, unemployment and open nexus between the rich and powerful at the cost of the disadvantaged. As he moves on, from a provincial town in North India to Delhi and then London, he casts an eye on the troubled divides and history of his country, pointing out that the general malaise of northern India was not unlike any other post colonial society, wherein a new class had emerged to fill in the spaces left by the British. This is evident in his extremely poignant descriptions of the divide between the clutter and mess of old cities against the civil lines, an inheritance from the British, with each person dreaming to cross the line somehow. As a student, he reflects on the student gangs employed by Hindu extremist parties, and his personal knowledge of a few, keeping to himself, reading Edmund Wilson and Sentimental Education among other books.

As we read further, Mishra dwells on the policies and predicaments of India's modern leaders, with not much written on Gandhi but some attention given to Nehru and his dynasty, clearly culminating in his daughters brutal repression of civil rights and her subsequent demise. He allows an insight into the Hindu extremist parties, comparing one of them to the Nazi brown shirts, with their similar styles, codes and agendas against what Mishra calls the helpless minorities of India, especially the Muslims, whose presence is described as tokenist, with falling employment levels and in modern times, a community that is targeted as the foreigner within. Mishra quotes a senior minister as saying that "let Muslims understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority". He blames the extremists for engineering souls and hurtling India towards fascism.

One gets an impression of two things simultaneously..........of a country emerging from poor economic policies and yet, hurtling towards fascism, religious extremism and a deepening chasm between the so called upper castes ( Mishra is one he reminds us a few times) and the lower caste Hindus, with the latter organizing their own parties, politics and creating further divides. the impression of a country in a relaxed siege is given, the minorities like Muslims described as thin, gaunt, angular faced men in prayer caps who stood idle before lightless shops and gazed warily at the passing cars. His reflections on Kashmir, a flash point between India and Pakistan are perhaps the best part of this book, as Mishra remembers his stay there, graphically describing the persistent heartbreaks of the kashmiris as a young boy sits near a newly dug grave, sprinkled with irises, "surrounded by mist-hazy mountains, memories of massacres contaminating the landscape that had once been a revelation of beauty".

He ends his section on Kashmir by startlingly saying that "you can't hope for much justice in the subcontinent, where fulfilment comes to a very few among the needy and restless millions, and where aspiration can itself be a luxury. in Kashmir, isolated and oppressed, more people have been confronted with this awareness in the last ten years than in all of its tormented history. the Kashmiris want a relative stability even if it involves living with the humiliation of continued Indian rule over the valley: the same private uneasy accommodations that keep the deprived millions elsewhere in the subcontinent from exploding into rage and destruction".

Mishra travels on, into Pakistan and Afghanistan, then Nepal and Tibet. I felt that his essays on India and his reflections on Kashmir are more well written than the other ones. His style is neat, measured with no hint of shrillness. There is an atmosphere of gloom in his writings, in his descriptions of his university hostels, villages, the country side in small town India and the impression is of melancholy, of a useless, being used to impotence at the unchanging nature of things, with this being no better than in his lyrical descriptions of Kashmir. The refrain seems to be the same, his emphasis on unequal development, criminalization of institutions, a powerless unemployed youth finding refuge in extremist religious discourse. He draws parallels between extremists in India and Pakistan but finds Hindu disaffection more accommodating towards the west and the current closeness between India and America as a result of their "sly materialism and this pragmatic relationship" leading to economic booms and the "Indians writing in English", which he finds as "related aspects".

Affluence is still a rare achievement, reminds Mishra for the vast majority of the subcontinent; but the gloss has got shinier and deeper, with small cities restored to wretchedness and cruelties that were probably there under the gloss of temporary affluence". His descriptions of Peshawar are similar to his on Indian cities, with "weary looking policemen, carts, trucks, cars.....the romance of Peshawar probably an invention of jaded westerners........relief only in the British created bungalows, whitewashed trees and flower beds and the lone guard standing stiff before long smoothly gravelled driveways". Compare this with "calf-deep floods, tin shacked roofs, rain battered villages, low caste women paving tiny courtyards with cow-dung, the men spinning rope for the string cots, the sky low and grey over the flat fields and the tiny huts and the buffaloes placid in muddy pools-the long drive through a world that belonged to itself as it would have done two centuries ago and was a reminder of how far even the superficially good things of a global economy were from this heavily populated and impoverished part of India".

Mishra writes on Bollywood or Bombay, speaking of films that are "long and unreal", containing "songs and dances in swiss meadows, plump action heroes saving their motherland and watching these movies was to shed briefly our deprivations, aimed originally at a small town audience, which is bemused by its pseudo-Indian setting and detachment from corruption and poverty".

All in all, this book is extremely readable, with the author speaking in a voice that is calm, sensible and measured and nowhere is there a betraying of any judgement; far from it, Mishra's voice is sane, filled with pathos and grimness, with some sections very lyrical, especially the descriptions of the countryside in North India and one gets the impression of his battling with his own self as he tries to make sense of a world changing against all odds. This is as good a description anywhere of any post colonial country, with high rises against shanty towns, an elite living in a world that is alien to the silent other majority, and escaping, as Mishra says he did but in a different way. He moves from "unquestioning submission ( for Hindus and Muslims alike) to one creed and philosophy to redefining himself and entering complicated affiliations with the larger world".


Alok said...

It is great how much you have captured from the book about India in such a short post. I don't disagree with any of your conclusions or observations.

I like his autobiographical writings about the life in provincial north india. I grew up in a similar place and could understand what he says about such places.

He is also very repetitive, he keeps coming back to same thoughts, same issues and after a while it gets tedious. That Edmund Wilson and life in Benares, I don't know how many times he has written about it.

Kubla Khan said...

Thanks. I think his novel The Romantics is also based on his stay in North India with Wilson and Flaubert there again as in this book and thus i w'd agree that he could be repetitive. but then, most writers are......
however, his writing has a charm, an aesthetic melancholy, and the conclusions are not reached in a paroxysm of any self delusional thinking.....i remember him writing of transistors blaring melancholic songs on long afternoons.....these observations lift the prosaic to bigger levels as other people in different worlds see a glimpse of something........akin....
I am interested in a kind of narration that assembles cultural and political observation acutely in a historical narrative that is actually philosophical but does not appear so.......
this book is not that but is quite refreshing and so so readable.

Marta said...

great post, great synthesis, thanks for that.

i am reading the inheritance of loss, have you read it? what do you think of it?

Kubla Khan said...

no, i have not.