Pankaj Mishra: “Modernisation is offered as a liberation, and yet it comes with many psychic costs”

We talk to the renowned Indian author and writer about the complex relations between the West and the Global South.

Pankaj Mishra takes a critical view of the myths of modernity and reflects on the consequences of imposing the Western model on post-colonial countries. We take a look at his work as an essayist and his recent return to fiction.

In September 2001, the attack on the Twin Towers changed the life of Pankaj Mishra (Jhansi, northern India, 1969), who at the time was just beginning to gain international recognition following the publication of his first novel, The Romantics (Random House, 2000). In the confusion and media frenzy that followed the attacks, Mishra, who until then had been working to consolidate his literary career, was suddenly thrust into the role of Middle East analyst. The main reason why he found himself in this new role was the trip he had taken to Afghanistan during the first few months of 2001, which resulted in a series of articles for Granta and The New York Review of Books and made him an expert on the region in the eyes of the Western media. As he explained in his talk at the CCCB, “There were, back then, very few writers of non-Western origin in the Anglo-American press, and I often accepted the absurd role of a terrorism expert out of an uneasy sense of responsibility. For, writers not previously known for their acquaintance with anything east of Vienna had suddenly become loquacious with interpretations of jihad and analyses of the Shariah, and anti-Islam agitators luridly defining a Muslim propensity for irrationalism were anointed as brave truth-tellers.”

The 9/11 attacks led to a feverish explosion of media activity marked by the support of many writers and intellectuals for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq (we could mention Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and Thomas Friedman, to name but a few), and where such respected news outlets as Time, Newsweek and The New York Times regularly published articles that espoused the use of violence and torture against the enemies of the West. It was in this context that Mishra realised there was profound ignorance in the West of the implications of imperialism and colonisation and a great need for re-education in history, politics, sociology and religion. In the post-9/11 world, fact had become more important than fiction.

This new phase as an essayist led to the publication of books such as Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), From the Ruins of Empire (Penguin, 2013), Age of Anger (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) and Bland Fanatics. Liberals, Race and Empire (Verso Books, 2020), as well as regular collaborations with publications including The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Guardian. In all of them, Mishra offers one of the best and most in-depth analyses of Western modernity and its links with the global South, especially India. With his extensive knowledge of European literature and thought, he takes apart the myths about the success of Western hegemony and exposes the weaknesses of a cultural, political and economic system that is often imposed on the rest of the world with dire consequences. He brings to light the forgotten realities of post-colonial countries and makes visible the complexity of the identities that took shape in such places in the wake of European imperialism. This analysis places special emphasis on the world that has emerged since the disappearance of the Soviet Union, one where neoliberalism considers itself to have free and unfettered reign everywhere, and where talk of democracy and modernisation is used to reformulate the submission of those countries that won independence from colonialism a few decades earlier. This is a process that is being seen in different areas around the world and that takes on an even more brutal character in contexts such as the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. As he himself says, “a ‘post-ideological’ generation of liberal internationalists as well as neocons now thought that democracy could be implanted through shock-and-awe therapy, in societies that had no tradition of it” (Bland Fanatics, p.15). In this post-Soviet world, the rise of a neoliberal supremacist right wing, convinced of its hegemony and the legitimacy of its aspirations and the means of bringing them to fruition, is the central theme of many of his essays, through which he aims to highlight the inconsistency of its discourses and the failure of its supposed successes.

Pankaj Mishra and Josep Massot | Reading the world, Looking Forward

Mishra also casts his critical eye over the role of the left, both political and intellectual, in shaping an increasingly undemocratic and unequal world. “What we saw in the last two decades is that organic embryonic connection between working class cultures and movements and political parties on the left was broken. The political parties became more and more metropolitan in their structures, in their representations and in their worldviews, in their ideologies. And that has been the fatal disconnection that leaves the left today incapable of offering an alternative.” Among other things, this disconnection of progressive parties and elites from the reality of the social classes that have traditionally supported the left has paved the way for a far right that, in the style of Donald Trump, has been able to mobilise these sectors of society with a discourse based fundamentally on hate. In his texts, Mishra describes a progressive, well-meaning left, concerned with defending all minorities on social media and digital platforms, but without any real experience of what life is like for the most disadvantaged.

Mishra’s analysis of the crisis of the Western model of democracy also extends to its impact on former colonies, as he speaks of the failure of countries like India to realise the ideals of equality, freedom and dignity that marked their independence, having succumbed to this cultural and economic domination of the West. “India was going to represent something new in the world. It was to bring something new to geopolitics, to the world economy, to the world intellectual culture. What we’ve seen in the last two, three years is that India has become an imperfect, sadly not very good copy of the West. […] It has turned its back on Gandhi, it has turned its back on Nehru, it has turned its back on its founding ideas. And that’s been in many ways the tragedy of many of these post-colonial countries, which started out with great hopes, great expectations”.

One of Mishra’s fundamental themes is precisely this “temptation to be modern”, which stems from the idealisation of the Western way of life that has been bestowed on India and other post-colonial countries. Embracing modernity, aspiring to new forms of freedom and leaving behind a past full of poverty and humiliation, is for Mishra a double-edged sword, since this process often leads to a renunciation of one’s own identity and the need to build a new one that must always be artificial. In India, the consolidation of social norms whereby success is associated with the adoption of “modern” ways of life has generated a deep fracture that forces people to leave behind their own traditional language and culture. “I am very interested,” says Mishra, “in how even when you do everything right in this process of becoming modern, you find yourself in a strange impasse, a stalemate of sorts, where having achieved all your material dreams, you find yourself discontented, you find yourself restless.”

After two decades of writing essays, in 2022 Mishra published Run and Hide (Hutchinson Heinneman, 2021), his second novel, a story that follows the lives of three Indian friends from their humble origins to their leap to economic and social success. It is a novel in which many of the themes that have marked his career appear and which reflects the most intimate contradictions of these lives that straddle East and West. Mishra explains this return to fiction as the end of the process that, twenty years ago, led him to become an essayist. While then it was the need to prioritise facts that led him to turn his back on novels, today, in a world dominated by post-truth, fiction has taken on a new meaning. “I returned to fiction partly because of my personal experience of disillusionment and partly because of a broader event: the facts of public life becoming over-determined by dominant ideologies, to the point where they became a version of propaganda, lost credibility, and came to be challenged by fake news.”

In this return to fiction, Mishra defends the ability of literature to explain deeper truths or, as Nadime Gordimer, an author he admires, puts it, “Nothing factual that I write or say will be as truthful as my fiction.” While literature does not aim to explain the facts of history or politics, it can, as Mishra points out, draw us into the deep complexity of the thoughts and consciousness of its characters, showing their motivations, unveiling their contradictions and revealing the multiple ways of existing in the world. “Instead of offering a program or conviction, facts or counter-facts, [literature] shows the human truth – muddle and conflict – in every situation; and it enlarges our suspicion of the unfathomable strangeness and variety of life.”

For Mishra, the return to fiction has offered a way of taking apart the discourse regarding the success of the Western model. Faced with the avalanche of data that aims to show how the economies of post-colonial countries are improving and moving towards the much-desired goal of economic growth, in Run and Hide Mishra wanted to portray what happens when people who grew up in a context of great poverty suddenly gain access to professional success, wealth and sexual freedom. His characters thus show the complexity of this fracture between different worlds, with a high psychological, emotional and personal cost which leaves them in a state of unresolvable spiritual distress.

“No matter how potent and compelling our ideas and facts are, we will still want to know the deeper reality of our moral and emotional lives. […] Fiction will continue to speak, more valuably than ever, its truths in the post-truth age.”

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Pankaj Mishra: “Modernisation is offered as a liberation, and yet it comes with many psychic costs”