Academics / The Sunday Times / Writers

An end to suffering: an interview with Pankaj Mishra

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The comment thread under a YouTube video featuring Pankaj Mishra tends to get crowded quickly. The Indian novelist, essayist, literary critic, lecturer, and reporter has that effect on people – perhaps never more so than with his latest book, Age of Anger.

Come 2018, Mishra has participated in more than his fair share of debates but remains soft-spoken; he is willing to let the silence stretch and his sentences, when they come, are carefully considered.

A dedicated intellectual, he speaks with as much knowledge of Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky as he does of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Liang Qichao, Rabindranath Tagore and the teachings of the Buddha. All this diversity of scholarship informs a very particular view of the world.

The author has said Age of Anger was written as a response to the election of Narendra Modi in May 2014, but that it was finished in the week when Britain voted for Brexit. Those YouTube comment threads make it clear his views have not always made him popular, but Mishra shrugs these off.

“I became accustomed to strong sometimes abusive criticism a long time ago when I started to write about unpopular subjects like Kashmir,” he tells The Sunday Times, remembering vicious attacks from all sides of the political spectrum. “That was an experience that made me immune to what has now become very common place, a kind of free floating viciousness…”

In fact, Mishra is curious about some of this inchoate rage; the racism and misogyny he sees online. They all feed into a book that is billed as a history of the present.

Mishra’s attempt is to explain the origins of ‘the great wave of paranoid hatreds’ that have become so much a part of our modern world. Consider just 2017, the year in which Anger of Anger was published: ‘Beef lynchings’ in India; the truck bomb that claimed 300 lives in Somalia’s worst attack; ‘Blood and soil!’ being chanted on the streets of Charlottesville; men, in Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, London and Melbourne, getting into trucks and mowing down families on the street. If these and other news stories disquieted you, then this book will resonate.

Mishra is interested in the ranks of the ‘disaffected and the spiritually disorientated’; men and women who have been failed by modern political systems and left behind by an increasingly globalised capitalist economy. He sees the rise of ‘ressentiment,’ caused by ‘an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness.’

In many ways this is familiar terrain for Mishra; he is the author of nine books, each of which sought to peer under the skin of the modern world. You can follow the thread all the way back to his first book ‘Butter Chicken in Ludhiana’ (1995) which wrestled with the ‘arrival of capitalist modernity in India, the unleashing of new political and entrepreneurial energies and cultural ambitions.’

“This problem – of how to accommodate the wishes and aspirations of people entering the modern world, being uprooted from their traditional vocations in rural areas – this problem has haunted the whole project of modernization right from the very beginning, from the early 19th century onwards, where industrialisation and urbanisation processes kicked off,” he says, now.

Mishra argues that in the early stages some countries were fortunate enough to accumulate a whole lot of wealth through a variety of means: through the scientific revolution but also slavery and imperialism. “Everyone else was being tasked with catching up with this fortunate minority in Europe and the U.S and what we have seen as the result is the periodic crisis, periodic eruptions of rage and disaffection caused by the failures to catch up with these societies…”

He includes in this litany the imperialism of Germany and Japan, as well as the attempts of post-colonial Asia and Africa to grow as sovereign states which adopted the financial, legal and political models of the west.

Today Mishra sees large numbers of people, whether in India or Pakistan or Egypt, are still very far away from achieving the consumption habits of a tiny minority of Europeans and Americans, of achieving the kind of material growth that has been promised to them. “So we are looking at global disaffection that manifests itself in different ways, sometimes through terrorism, sometimes through authoritarian movements, through the figure of the strong man who promises to cut through the slow processes of democracy and bring people instant gratification,” he says. “We have seen this over and over again in history in the last 200 years.”

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That Mishra himself could easily have been among these disaffected youth gives him a unique perspective. He does not come from privilege: he grew up in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The son of a railway worker whose high-caste Brahmin family had been impoverished in the land reforms that followed India’s independence, Mishra was largely self-educated; English was not his first language.

When he was twenty-three, he went to live in the Himalayan mountains to spend some five years dedicated to reading voraciously and writing regularly – he chose Mashobra not just for the solitude of the mountains but the sheer affordability of life there. Mishra’s salary from publishing pieces in a few Indian newspapers and magazines was just enough to cover the Rs.2,000 INR it took to live comfortably in Mashobra.

Eventually, his reportage and columns found space in publications like the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman. He has also become famous as the editor who ‘discovered’ Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ – earning a reputation as an influential figure in India’s literary community. He published his first work of non-fiction in 1995, and followed it with his first (and so far only) work of fiction, The Romantics, in 2000.

However, of his books, among his most personal is An End To Suffering: The Buddha in the World. Reflecting the best traditions of Buddhism, he manages to be both objective, and deeply engaged, erudite yet direct. And it is the book in which he perhaps comes the closest to articulating a kind of solution to this age of anger; a response to how the individual might find happiness amid the chaos.

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“Economic growth or material improvements are a very poor measure for human contentment, for assessing human lives which need a lot more than gadgets, amenities or greater income in order to be happy,” he says reflecting on what Buddhism taught him. “I think as individuals we have lost sight of some of the values that really make us human – the values of compassion, of solidarity; it’s the feelings of charity and modesty and humility about one’s place in the wider world. The limitations that exist for all of us, imposed not just by death, but by the very nature of the individual self, which is not constant over time, and whose desires are changing. This is something that Buddhism really did help me understand.”

An End to Suffering is still one of the few instances where Mishra attempts to provide an answer; in most cases he contents himself with asking questions. In fact, with Age of Anger now a year into print, he is already moving on to his next book. “I am looking for new subjects and am hoping to sharpen my understanding,” he says.

First published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 28 January, 2018. By Smriti Daniel.  

 

 

 

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