Though we typically reserve the term scholar for erudite intellectuals sequestered in academia’s ivory towers, Pankaj Mishra qualifies as a sort of maverick-scholar. He is a novelist, essayist, literary critic, lecturer, and reporter who travels the world writing on a wide range of topics, including globalization, the Dalai Lama, Bollywood, and the “Talibanization” of South Asia. His views on these subjects are both learned and unsullied. He regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman, and has written for too many international magazines and newspapers to list.
Given his estimable résumé, it is striking to learn that Mishra was—for the most part—self-educated. Born in 1969, he was raised in Jhansi, a small town in the province of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. As a child, he developed a distaste for formal schooling because he said it kept him from what he loved most: reading. He later attended universities in Allahabad and New Delhi but describes his college days as “idle” as he spent most of his waking moments in the library immersed in books. When it came time for Mishra to enter the professional world and join the civil service as his parents had thought he would, he instead moved to Mashobra, a small village in the Himalayas. For five years, he read and wrote literary reviews for Indian newspapers and magazines. He also published his first book, a travelogue, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India. After submitting an article on Edmund Wilson to the New York Review of Books, Mishra was “discovered” by the renowned editor Barbara Epstein. He went on to publish a novel, The Romantics, and two books of nonfiction, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, and his latest, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. He also edited an anthology of writing on India, India in Mind, and wrote the introductions to new editions of books by Rudyard Kipling, R. K. Narayan, E. M. Forster, J. G. Farrell, and V. S. Naipaul.
Our conversation took place over the course of two mornings at Wellesley College, where Mishra was the Robert Garis Visiting Fellow in Writing last fall. During the interview, Mishra—who has very dark hair and adumbrative eyes yet seems to emit brightness—described India as a phantasmagorical place, one where the linearity and fixed identities of the West still do not exist. In his books and articles, he often cautions against the notion of an unchanging self or ideal society. When I asked him what those of us living in “modern” countries in the West can learn from such sagacious skepticism, he referenced a quote from Frederick Nietzsche: “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
I. THE LIFE OF THE WRITER
AS A LIFE OF READING
THE BELIEVER: When you were twenty-three, you went to live in the Himalayan mountains to read and write in the hope of someday becoming a writer. Did you have a clear idea about what you were doing?
PANKAJ MISHRA: Well, I had a basic idea that I would go to the mountains, where it would be cheap to live and there would be lots of silence, lots of solitude. In retrospect, this was a completely romantic idea. I wasn’t making a living at that point—only a few hundred rupees from writing reviews and articles for different magazines and newspapers in India—but this was in 1992 and the economy in rural India was on a different scale altogether. It only cost me two thousand rupees a month to live, with my rent included—that’s forty-five or fifty dollars. I could live very comfortably on that. The day began at five o’clock when the sun hit my windows. The whole day was there ahead of me with nothing to do except read and write. I wrote reviews— I loved reading books anyway, and I was happy to write a few words about them and get paid. There was no television, no telephone. I started on various drafts of a novel, which eventually became The Romantics, but I mostly read, about a book a day. I was able to finish a medium-size, 350-page book in five or six hours.
BLVR: What did your family think?
PM: I’m sure they thought that I was doing something extremely risky, but to their everlasting credit, they supported me. At least, they never raised any objections, which in the Indian context is especially unusual. It would be unusual here too, but in India people like my parents are anxious, generally, about what their children are going to do. My relatives often told my parents that I was not doing the right thing and that I was going to end up badly. The fear is that if you don’t do certain things at a certain point in your life—if you don’t sit for certain exams, if you don’t apply to certain colleges—you’ll be left with nothing. In my case, there were no safety nets, no family money. But if my parents felt those anxieties, they never expressed them to me directly. I think my father may have had some literary ambitions of his own, which were reflected in the books he had around the house, and may have had sympathy for me. Otherwise I can’t explain why they were so tolerant.
BLVR: Did you tell them that you were going to become a writer?
PM: At that stage, making a career as a writer in English wasn’t the most absurd, unimaginable thing in the world. By the mid-’80s, Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate had come out and soon after, Amitav Ghosh’s first novel came out. I had no idea what I would write about, but I really didn’t think too long about that. Initially, I saw the life of the writer as a life of reading, which for me was really an extension of the life of idleness that I’d been living as an undergraduate at university. Reading gave me so much pleasure that I felt that maybe I could continue that life indefinitely. I basically went from day to day, reading a lot, loving most books I read and making notes about them. I was just hoping that nothing would happen—like having to apply for a job or think seriously about a career—that would put a stop to the wonderful life I was leading. And, miraculously, nothing stopped me.
BLVR: What kinds of notes did you take when you read? Do you remember?
PM: I would record my personal responses to a book—notes that would be almost worthless to anyone else reading them. I remember reading a long story by Chekhov called “My Life” about the son of a small-town dignitary who tries to rebel against his father and nothing works out for him. One of the things that affected me most when I read that story—it’s a beautiful, heartbreaking story—was that I could be one of those figures who had turned away from a professional career and could end up being a pathetic failure like that. But I also remember noting that there is not a single superfluous image in that story. Everything contributes to the overall mood.
Most of what I read now is for reviewing purposes or related to something I want to write about. It’s slightly utilitarian. I definitely miss that sense of being a disinterested reader who’s reading purely for the pleasure of imagining his way into emotional situations and vividly realized scenes in nineteenth-century France or late nineteenth-century Russia. Often I find that when I go back to those books by Flaubert or Chekhov—which I loved—I’m unable to summon up that same imaginative richness. That seems to me a huge loss. Now I’m thinking more about the craftsmanship of it—why did this paragraph end here—narrowly technical things.
BLVR: You were almost entirely self-taught, you had never left India, and you were reading in English, which is not your first language. How did you end up reading books by Flaubert and Proust?
PM: Actually, I had read a great deal of literary criticism by then—Edmund Wilson, V. S. Pritchett. This may sound strange, but I think that contributed to my understanding. I read and reread Pritchett’s massive volume of collected essays. It was not available in India, but a friend sent it to me. It was a treasure trove of writings on the writers I was reading at the time. Reading Pritchett’s essays was like looking through an extremely alert, psychologically acute mind.
BLVR: That seems like the role literary criticism should play, but now it’s so arcane.
PM: I know. It doesn’t educate people in the art of reading in the way it used to. Pritchett was trying very consciously to get people to reread “the classics”—Balzac, Zola, Maupassant—and to think about them again, to think about what made them so interesting and engaging. I don’t know how many critics today are trying to make the act of reading a more enriching experience as distinct from establishing their own superior intelligence vis-à-vis authors.
BLVR: You mention that you often read travelogues and diaries by Western writers and explorers who journeyed through India. That must have given you a strange perspective on your own country.
PM: Those nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European and French writers were writing about India as the “other” of modernizing Europe. It’s an Orientalist vision—although I use the word without its pejorative associations—in the sense that it portrays India as an extraordinarily exotic culture. To look at India through the eyes of these Western travelers wasn’t strange, because the school and education system was almost entirely shaped by the long British colonial presence. I remember reading Nicholas Nickleby as a child. Perhaps that’s why the West has never been separate from my conception of myself as a writer.
BLVR: You received a $125 advance for your first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India. Did that seem like a lot of money at the time?
PM: No. Given my salary at the time it was a fairly large amount, but once I actually started looking at the places I was going to be traveling to and how much the hotels were going to cost it seemed like a very inadequate figure.
BLVR: Is that how you got into reporting?
PM: It was a great stroke of luck: I wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on the elections in Allahabad, and they became my main commissioner. That was in 1999. Soon I was traveling to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the beginning I couldn’t figure out anything, but I loved suddenly being challenged by everything around me. Often I would know the language, but the chords in which people spoke—the specific vocabularies—would be different. Slowly, I started to understand and every encounter became a marvelous store of perceptions and insights. I’d meet someone and then when I ran the whole film in my head of my meeting with them, I’d discover new things. It was wonderfully stimulating. I still love arriving in a new city and finding everything around me a sign that has to be deciphered and understood.
BLVR: In Temptations of the West, you describe the aftermath of a massacre in Chitisinghpura in Kashmir. You focus on a young girl whose father has been killed the night before and the people around her talking loudly and shaking her but then zero in on how the girl’s “stony expression… did not break, the eyes remained glassy.” How did you learn to write about such extreme situations without any formal training as a reporter?
PM: My initial training, or self-education, certainly helped me. I read and reread books of literary reportage like Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night and some of Mary McCarthy’s writing. Joan Didion too—primarily her early work. Tom Wolfe is an odd figure and though there’s no trace of his style in my writing I did love his sharp sense of social class in those early pieces of reportage that he wrote for Rolling Stone. The 1960s and ’70s were really golden years of world journalism, especially the writing that was coming out of Vietnam and out of the antiwar protests here. I learned a great deal from them, how they relied on particular details or vivid images that said more about the situation than any amount of abstract analysis. Of course, Mailer and McCarthy were primarily novelists.
BLVR: What is the difference between writing fiction versus nonfiction?
PM: When I was writing The Romantics there were many things I just left out because they didn’t fit in with my idea of fiction—too political, too full of detail. I thought they threatened to overwhelm the delicate structures of fiction. Yet, for the past six years I’ve only written nonfiction, and I’ve felt confined by having to construct a narrative based on facts and not having the freedom to provide a different perspective. As a novelist, your impulse is toward multiplicity: multiple voices, multiple perceptions, multiple nuances—the ambiguity in human communication. Fiction really is the ultimate home for that sense of ambiguity.
BLVR: What do you think are the different responsibilities of the reporter, novelist, and essayist?
PM: Well, I feel the responsibility of the novelist is to create a very complex world populated by very complex individuals and to deepen that as much as possible. I don’t think the responsibility of the reporter or journalist is fundamentally different, but I think the reporter or journalist is well served by having a responsibility to the powerless, to use a much-abused cliché. The voice of the powerless is in some danger of not being heard in the elite discourses we now have in the mainstream media. This is something that I’ve learned late. Obviously, I write for a very elite audience, but is there something else that I’m also responsible to? People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering.
II. A NARRATIVE
BASED ON FACTS
BLVR: In 2005, you were on a panel on the war in Iraq at the PEN conference in New York. What was your opinion of the war then and what do you think of it now?
PM: What I said at that time was not to underestimate the power of nationalism in a country like Iraq. In the modern world, nationalism remains a very important force. We delude ourselves into thinking that globalization has made all of that redundant and that everyone just wants to be like America. A lot of Iraqis would love to have the comforts and freedoms that most Americans experience, but they don’t want a foreign army at their doorstep propping up a puppet government.
Now I think we are all aware that the war really is a disaster, although I don’t know to what extent the lessons of that disaster have been learned. American credibility has really suffered such a blow. I’ve seen it as someone who often writes for American magazines and is identified with America in various parts of the world. Before there was contempt for American power, but there was also fear and now the fear is gone and the contempt is growing.
BLVR: In your new book, Temptations of the West, you describe the jihad as a kind of mob that recruits idle young men with no prospects and no hope. Is it more secularly motivated than it’s made out to be in the mainstream press?
PM: Radical Islam became a kind of fashion much the way gangs became a fashion in America. Until Osama bin Laden emerged as a kind of gang leader, an inspirational figure, and franchises started to go up all over the place, delinquent British Muslims were turning to drugs and crime in towns in northern and central England. Then suddenly those idlers and drifters had a cause and a sense of victimization that made their lives seem meaningful. So the false sense of solidarity that you get from joining a group gets mixed with quasi-religious elements. But what tends to be written about and what we tend to be interested in is someone coming from Egypt to America who says, “This is a horribly decadent society and it should be destroyed,” because this fits our prejudices about these countries and these societies. Instead of looking at the bland, xenophobic pronouncements of people like Sayyid Qutb or the struggle among modern Islam and mystical Islam and conservative Islam, I wish more attention was paid to the struggle within the souls of the people in these traditional societies. They are the ones growing into the modern world with very severe conflicts and contradictory pulls in their lives.
BLVR: Do you think that writers—or writing—can really bring about change?
PM: At this point there’s no pressure for writers to respond in this way, but it seems important to change public opinion here—by here I mean in America and in the West—by talking about non-American and non-Western societies in intelligent and sophisticated ways. Martin Amis wrote a twelve-thousand-word piece for the Observer that basically said—I’m paraphrasing—that London is a multicultural society and Islam is the only thing that doesn’t fit. His whole experience of Islam in that article is Christopher Hitchens buying an Osama T-shirt in Peshawar and he and his wife being refused entry to a mosque in Jerusalem after closing time. Amis spins out a whole paranoid fantasy about the man at the Jerusalem mosque and how the man could have killed him or his wife. I found it really disturbing to see a novelist writing a diatribe about Islam and Muslim radical extremists, blurring the distinction between the two. When the most sophisticated and well-read people in our culture start thinking along those lines, then we really are in trouble. I find it irresponsible because ordinary people in their everyday encounters with Muslims have an intuitive sense that “these are not terrorists. These are not extremists with whom I’ve been interacting for the past ten years,” whereas writers like Martin Amis are living at a vast remove from everyday experience. Many writers today live an extremely isolated and sheltered existence. They go from one literary festival to another, and they don’t have those interactions with ordinary people anymore. If a writer doesn’t have sufficient experience or knowledge to write about these subjects then fine, but then he shouldn’t write about them in a prestigious forum, because what he writes has consequences.
BLVR: In An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, you write about your life, but in doing so you put your personal story in the background and the history, theology, and philosophy of the Buddha in the foreground. Most people would put themselves first. Is that how you set out to do it?
PM: I don’t remember having any clear-cut ideas in the beginning as to how I was going to write the book, but I did have a sense that my story wasn’t important enough to occupy the foreground. I could tease out certain ideas that were relevant to my account of the Buddha’s life and his relevance to the modern world, but I never thought I was going to write a memoir. I had a sense that the form was going to be unusual. It was not going to be a historical re-creation of the Buddha’s time, which was my original idea and was—thankfully—abandoned early on. It was not going to be a straightforward account of my discovery of the Buddha. I couldn’t just say, “My life was shit and then I discovered Buddhism,” because my experience was a bit more complicated. It couldn’t be a straightforward biography of the Buddha because that’s been done a million times and what could I really add to the existing genre?
Three books inspired me. One was Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. It’s an extraordinarily radical book in that it’s the mid-twentieth century and he’s doing straightforward ethnography in Brazil while at the same time he’s looking at his own experience as a Frenchman and the larger encounter that’s happening between Western modernity and older cultures. The other book I had in mind was Native Realm by Czeslaw Milosz. It’s another hugely fascinating example of someone mixing personal history with a larger historical account. My experience was quite different from theirs, I was neither an academic like Lévi-Strauss nor someone coping with very fraught political situations the way Milosz was, but these books were inspirations if not models. Also [V. S. Naipaul’s] An Area of Darkness, which I think is one of the more interesting examples of experimental nonfiction: it’s an essay, a travelogue, it’s an instance of what today might be called cultural studies, it’s certainly a memoir—a very angry one at times—there is a range of moods and a range of tones.
BLVR: You write about coming upon a statue of the Buddha on one of your first trips to the Sangla valley. You describe the statue’s expression as lacking “passion.” It’s a cliché, but aren’t writers supposed to have “passion” and suffer?
PM: That image that I describe doesn’t reflect an absence of passion so much as passion sublimated and tamed and turned into insight. Nietzsche’s vision of the superman is also of someone who’s able to control and tame his passions and turn them into something richer than raw emotion and raw feeling. I think the best writing does that too. Untamed passion basically results in bad writing or bad polemics, which so many writers and public intellectuals are vulnerable to, especially in recent years. I think the Buddha presents an image of someone who believes in self-control. I think he’s offering, perhaps, a critique of the romantic idea of the passions being this wonderful source of life or vitality that define you or your writing.
But so much of writing is fed by vanity and the feeling that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world and it has not been done before and only you can do it. Without these feelings, many writers would not be able to write anything at all. If you think that what you’re doing is not all that important in the larger scheme of things and that you’re just an insignificant creature in the whole wide world, which is full of six billion people, and that people are born and die every day and it makes no difference to future generations what you write, and that writing and reading are increasingly irrelevant activities, you’d probably never get out of bed. You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it.
BLVR: In the book, you write about the many ways the Buddha tried to divest himself of his egocentric energies, and yet soon after you finished writing it you had to set off on a publicity tour. Did you ever feel that promoting the book was inconsistent with what the Buddha professed? I mean, he probably wouldn’t have gone on a book tour, right?
PM: I wasn’t making any high claims for the Buddha or Buddhism. The book was an attempt to think about the world we live in and to think it through Buddhist ideas, not an attempt to persuade or convert anyone to Buddhism, not an attempt to persuade anyone that my life is interesting and dramatic enough to read about.
I don’t feel any great need to subscribe to a certain notion of Buddhism that says “You have to do this” or “You have to do that.” Buddhism does not prescribe rituals or prohibitions in the way many religions do. The Buddha would not have liked people to call themselves Buddhist. To him that would have been a fundamental error because there are no fixed identities. He would have thought that someone calling himself a Buddhist has too much invested in calling himself a Buddhist. The Buddha saw life as a continuously dynamic process where every day begins anew and you have to start again.
Buddhism does have certain rules for monks and nuns. If you enter the order of the sangha as a monk or nun then you have to obey certain regulations within the community, but the message is of mindfulness and awareness. It asks you to consider speech and action very carefully and to keep monitoring your mind and ensuring that the mind is not weak before emotions like anger, envy, or malice, and to consider every situation calmly and soberly.
BLVR: Do you meditate?
PM: I meditate at airports because those are the places where I’m extremely tense, and I often meditate while I’m walking down the street. I have a thought and become aware of that thought and thereby create another level of awareness. That’s really what the whole idea of mindfulness—which sounds like such a New Agey concept—is all about: having a second-level monitoring of your thoughts and being able to recognize them as being negative or harmful before they become a part of your being, before they become some kind of action like writing an angry letter to someone or speaking too strongly to someone.
BLVR: When you’re written about in the press, people often comment on your earnestness. Do you think they’re just surprised to find earnestness in a human being these days or do they have a preconceived idea that you are “the Buddha guy”?
PM: I don’t think of myself as particularly earnest. I have long bouts of cynicism and skepticism. So much of my early life was full of uncertainties—it still is—the “Buddha book” expresses that. Perhaps that’s what created this impression of earnestness.
BLVR: Years ago, you coined the term modern spiritual tourists to describe Americans and Europeans who jet off to India, as you say, to raise their kundalini while checking their Hotmail accounts. In the articles you’ve written recently, you seem to have grown more tolerant.
PM: In India, such people are too easily mocked because they are so highly visible, especially if they start wearing dreadlocks and tie-dyed clothes and start hanging out with the seedier elements of society. I think I was most hard on them before I visited the West. Coming to America and Western Europe, I began to see what they were trying to escape: the hyperorganized, hypermodern society where the pressure to have a professional career and dress in a certain way is intense. The ’60s was the last time when large groups of people in the West searched for alternative modes of being. In a society like India’s, which is still not fully modern or totally organized, and has a great deal of tolerance for otherness in general, they find the cultural license to try other things, to be whatever they want to be. I see this most recently with the large number of Israelis flocking to India, which is an extraordinary phenomenon. In India, Buddhism, Hinduism, drugs, sex is for them a way of escaping what is essentially an extremely harsh life as a conscripted young man or woman in Israel. I find it’s hard not to be sympathetic to them, however outlandish their behavior might be—they can be very aggressive with the locals.
I suppose I’ve become less judgmental about individuals leading lives according to false ideas and false consciousness, because sometimes entire societies are prey to false ideologies and national delusions. While I’ve been in the States I’ve been reading that the top of the income bracket has enjoyed a 600 to 700 percent increases in their salaries since 1976 while the middle and low brackets have stagnated. In a poll in the Economist an extraordinary number of Americans denied that there was any inequality in America. A lot of us live with these national illusions.
III. REASONABLENESS OF TONE
BLVR: You live in London part of the year and in India part of the year. Are you associated with the writing community in either place?
PM: Writing in English in India really does not have a territorialized community, by which I mean a community that is based in one city or even in one region. You have extremely scattered communities. There is now a community in Brooklyn of Indian writers in English: Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Suketu Mehta, Amitav Ghosh. There’s a group of Indian and Pakistani writers in London, but I still wouldn’t call it a community, even though these are people who see each other on a regular basis.
But I’ve never really felt that being part of a literary community is all that important. It can be extremely detrimental to a writer. It can damage successful writers by giving them an exalted sense of what they’ve done, and it can crush less successful writers by infecting them with envy and malice at an early stage in their careers.
BLVR: What’s a typical day like for you in India?
PM: I wake up at five or five-thirty, have a cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking the mountains, which is absolutely wonderful, look at the newspapers, start work. Lunch arrives—lunch is made by a family in the village, they deliver it.
PM: They knock on the door and lunch is there.
PM: And then I have a nap after that. And then a cup of tea. And then I go back to work. I “leave” work around five-thirty or so and have a drink on the balcony and watch the sunset. Very soon dinner arrives from the family in the village.
BLVR: Of course.
PM: Evenings are usually polished off with a movie. For the past two years or so I’ve been in China a lot, so I load up my suitcase there with DVDs. You can get a whole box set of Truffaut for five dollars. I’m very interested in Jia Zhang Ke. He made a movie called The World. Then I go to sleep early, around nine or nine-thirty.
BLVR: What’s a typical day like for you in London?
PM: More or less the same.
BLVR: A family brings lunch and dinner from the village?
PM: No. No food from the village. For lunch, I make myself ready-made Indian soup from Marks & Spencer. And no drinks on the balcony, alas. My wife and I usually make dinner or go out.
BLVR: Who encouraged you to become a writer?
PM: I wrote for many years without showing my writing to anyone, because I was constantly comparing it to what I was reading. You have to compare yourself to the best and feel totally inadequate. The people who encouraged me weren’t necessarily writers or readers themselves. They were people who were just pleased to see me devote my life to reading and writing, such as my landlord in Mashobra [in the Himalayas]. He was a Sanskrit scholar. He did not read in English and didn’t really have a sense of the books I was reading or what I was writing, but he liked the idea that I was a scholar. In India, there is a great tradition of revering learning for its own sake. He encouraged me in all kinds of material—for instance, he sent me breakfast every morning—and nonmaterial ways.
But, as I said, Barbara Epstein at the New York Review of Books was a huge influence on me. Civility of tone, reasonableness of tone, was her preoccupation. They make possible a kind of dialogue with the reader. You aren’t just talking down to the reader from a position of privilege and authority, rather from a place of uncertainty—not knowing everything, knowing things partially, which many writers conceal with an all-knowing tone. She was the first person to look at my writing and mark certain passages and say, “You’re lapsing into a more aggressive tone here.” It was a revelation. By that stage—it was 1997—I had published a book, many articles and reviews, but I’d never had the benefit of having someone comment on a piece of my writing in that way. It made me realize that I had to learn a lot more and do a lot more than what I’d done before. It’s shaped everything I’ve written since.
BLVR: Do you write with a specific audience in mind?
PM: There is a lot of anxiety in India about writers selling out to foreign audiences, but I’m neither flattering the Indian audience nor the American audience. I’m uneasily somewhere in the middle. I think there may be a new audience coming into being. The internet has created a transnational audience. If you publish something in the New York Times, it’s read all over the world. Who knows how big this audience is or how long it will last.
Ideally, the act of writing should not be accompanied by the sense of an audience, someone peering over your shoulder, but in nonfiction I think it’s almost imperative that you identify an audience so you can confirm or challenge or undermine whatever ideas or prejudices they might have about your subject. You have to have a sense of what they might be thinking about the Indian economy or terrorism or Islam based on what they may have read. I find myself writing more and more of these kinds of pieces with this in mind and having to reckon with prejudices which are multiplying very fast.
BLVR: When you first moved to London to start your writing career, did you encounter a lot of racism?
PM: When I moved there in the 1990s, London had changed a great deal. Racism had become deeply uncool. But there has been a return of racism in the guise of “antiterrorism.” People who look like myself are immediately suspect. I’ve become extremely self-conscious about going into crowded public places. I’m constantly being stopped and asked to produce my identity. At airports, it’s gotten to the point that you start to have the sense that everyone at the airport is looking at you wondering if you are the guy who’s going to blow up the plane. It’s deeply unpleasant, and it’s now a disturbingly commonplace experience.
IV. POLITICAL AND
BLVR: In Temptations of the West, you write about the corruption of the Tibetan monks who were in power before the Chinese invasion. In America, we have a rather Hollywood conception of Tibet.
PM: The whole Hollywood conception of Tibet as this peace-loving country denies the complex humanity of the Tibetan people. Their ideas exist in a high degree of tension with impulses toward corruption, toward violence, toward all sorts of things. The Dalai Lama himself would say that he has to fight these impulses himself on a daily basis. There’s no fixed state that he’s arrived at where holiness is guaranteed no matter what you do. Like any other ruling class set up, the monks in the early twentieth century in Tibet were corrupted by power. Any kind of power unchallenged will enfeeble rulers morally, and that’s what happened there. But the innocent Tibetan Buddhist is a counterimage of the West, and therefore China is horribly cruel because they sent the Tibetans into exile. But the story is much more complex than that.
BLVR: You also talk about how the human rights abuses in Nepal—which are horrifying—are completely off the radar of the mainstream press. What does that mean to a country like that?
PM: Well, obviously Condoleezza Rice is not taking meetings about Nepal—she doesn’t have time to do that—so there are people at very low levels of the government making important decisions about it. And these people are sometimes making horribly wrong decisions. If you belong to a small country that is geopolitically not that important, or strategically not that important, you have no place among nations. Those countries are neglected and left to fend for themselves. Nepal only appears on the radar when there’s a fantastic incident of regicide where the entire royal family is murdered, or if it embraces democracy in a very public fashion.
BLVR: You’ve been criticized for speaking out about the Indian government’s involvement in Kashmir.
PM: Seventy thousand people have died in Kashmir—many, many times the number of people who’ve died in the violence in Palestine, but it simply does not occupy the kind of mainstream space that so many of these other conflicts occupy. I published a series of articles that came out at a moment when India was trying very hard to ally with the United States and make the Americans more suspicious of Pakistan. The government at that time was the BJP Hindu nationalist government, so I became a kind of hostile figure in their eyes. My parents were visited by a couple of officers from the intelligence bureau in India asking them why I had visited Pakistan. My phone was tapped in Delhi, but that’s a very commonplace occurrence.
I think all of that is in the past, partly because Kashmir has become a slightly marginal issue to the main story, which is the rise of India as an economic superpower. There’s this idea that India is a democracy, Pakistan is a dictatorship, there are fundamentalists out there—as for Kashmir, it’s complicated, and few people can be bothered to come to grips with it.
BLVR: If you could have every American read one book, what would it be?
PM: A House for Mr. Biswas. It’s quite removed from the glamorous notions of what a great novel should be. It’s about a man in the middle of nowhere working his way out of a background of deprivation and wanting a house of his own for his growing family. The frustration and partial fulfillment of that desire is described with great insight and humor, and, most extraordinarily, with no sentimentality. Apart from other things, reading that book makes you understand—intuitively—the violence in the world today.
BLVR: In America, memoirs of suffering are written and published and read ad nauseum—and yet we’re so incredibly privileged. Why do you think that is?
PM: Paradoxically, I think it is because suffering is largely invisible in this country. In a place like India it is in your face all of the time. That is why so much is made of it when it is highlighted in a book or memoir about this bereavement or that medical condition. In some cases, these books are extremely well written, powerful pieces of writing, but the memoir does have a special place here in America that it doesn’t have elsewhere. European and English literatures don’t exalt the genre as much as you do in America.
BLVR: Occasionally, you teach creative writing at colleges in the United States. The idea of teaching “creative writing” is almost unheard of in Europe and India. Do you enjoy it?
PM: It’s a very different way of learning. Some of my students seem to want to be able to write without actually reading, which seems utterly bizarre. When I assign certain readings, they often say, “I can’t relate to this,” which means whatever story we’re reading is so far outside of their experience—which tends to be limited—that they will not make the effort to understand what it is about. I find this a crippling attitude to have toward literature, toward history, toward all sorts of things.
Some of my students don’t have a sense of whether their writing is any good or not. They think it’s good just because it comes out of them and it’s a part of their being. To criticize their writing is to criticize them in some profound way. It’s as if they’ve been taught far too much self-confidence—and maybe not much else.
BLVR: Has the internet made this worse?
PM: The internet has spawned people for whom knowingness is more important than knowledge. It equips you with the illusion of offering knowledge instantly—and quite easily—so you can read a few articles on a few subjects and feel well informed but not actually know any of those subjects in any depth.
BLVR: Do you see the same trend in young professional writers in America?
PM: This may be a huge generalization, and there are many exceptions of course, but if you look at the average trajectory of the American writer today—he or she goes to high school, college, does an MFA after that, gets a writing contract and advance soon afterward, publishes a few short stories in Ploughshares or the New Yorker, and then creates a career for him- or herself—life experience is almost absent. This is a relatively new development. If you look at the life of someone like Philip Roth, who was very actively involved in the antiwar movement in the 1960s, his later career would have been impossible if he had not immersed himself in the politics and the world around him when he was a young man. In a Paris Review interview he says that the ’60s were a “stunning” education for him in political and literary possibilities. In the books he wrote in the ’90s, American Pastoral and elsewhere, he went back to those experiences, and they help give his later fiction its particular social and political density. Are there young American writers right now undergoing that kind of education? I often wonder about this because the American writer right now is a very pampered figure—by foundations, by fellowships, by publishing advances. Even though I am not American, I have been pampered enough myself to know how it can make your life too frictionless.
BLVR: Are you ambitious?
PM: Well, I feel very privileged to get to read and write and not to have to do things that I don’t like, and I don’t want to give that up. Everything else is just a bonus and often a distraction from the writing, reading, and traveling that gives me the most pleasure. I feel that I already have the life I love and I don’t see how it could be improved radically by any greater material success I might have—bigger advances, more prizes. It’s a kind of madness. And the culture of prize-giving is so corrupt. To think of what someone like Flaubert would have made of it, what kind of utter disgust and scorn it would have aroused in figures like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. What would they say if they were told they all had to compete for these little trinkets that were given out? Yet the longing for a very garish kind of success seems as widespread among writers as among investment bankers.
BLVR: In a piece you wrote on the Indian writer R. K. Narayan, you talk about how he wrote about marriage as a deeply fulfilling engagement for a man. That seems so far from the view we have of it in America.
PM: In the context of those men in India who are faced with all sorts of professional burdens and are asked to create an identity for themselves in the modern world of careers and jobs, women often play a great role in rescuing men from this very drab world of adult responsibility and bring them back to a world of carefree freedom and happiness. In Narayan’s case, in his scenes of marriages, there is that sense, which I find very attractive. In India, love often follows marriage. I know many people who are still very deeply in love with their wives, who they barely knew before they were married. In America there’s this idea that “how could someone get married without being deeply in love with each other?” but in a lot of these cases feelings of love and affection actually grow after they’ve been legally and formally brought together. I don’t think the experience of romantic love between two well-adjusted people has been satisfactorily described in fiction, but maybe I’ll write about it in my next novel.
Illustration by Charles Burns
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