A Life Poorly and Jointly Lived: On Pankaj Mishra’s “Run and Hide”
By Aditya Narayan SharmaFebruary 28, 2023
Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra
To the Outer Ring Road’s north lie the swollen domes and lush gardens of Hauz Khas, a complex of ruined buildings built in the 13th and 14th centuries by Alauddin Khalji, Firoz Shah Tughlaq, and other rulers of the Turkic empire known as the Delhi Sultanate, which once governed most of the Indian subcontinent. To its south is a dense forest, Sanjay Van, home to the octagonal tomb, stained black by age and polluted air, of the Mughal courtier Adham Khan; to an array of birds with delightful names (pied crested cuckoo, Oriental honey buzzard, rufous treepie); and to the brightly colored Ashiq Allah Dargah, where, beneath the thick foliage overhead, pilgrims pay their respects at the graves of 14th-century Sufi saints, picking their way gingerly across the stony ground.
In the loud and busy gap between Hauz Khas and Sanjay Van, by the large concrete overpass that elevates the endless traffic of the Outer Ring Road, a low, modest gate of gray stone marks the entrance to the Indian Institute of Technology. Delhi’s campus is one of the oldest in the IIT system, which makes up India’s most prestigious engineering colleges and which admits less than one percent of the more than one million hopefuls who sit its notorious entrance exams every year. Many of its alumni are senior business types, founding and leading huge tech firms or working at banks and consulting firms. Others are world-class scientists. One has ended up a famous yogi in Dallas. For many of India’s blighted young minds, Pankaj Mishra writes, the IITs symbolize “the path to redemption from scarcity and indignity.”
This is where Mishra’s new novel Run and Hide begins, behind the yellowish stone walls of this ostensible engine of progress, as India’s finest minds strip to their underwear and bend down like dogs while their fellow students rain casteist abuse down on them. Virendra, the Dalit subject of some of the foulest of these torments, goes on to become a Wall Street tycoon. Aseem, another of their circle, ends up a sort of talking-head pop-intellectual. Arun, the narrator, takes an altogether different path, pursuing an unprofitable career as a literary translator in a small Himalayan village — a place that sounds rather similar to Mashobra, where Mishra got his own start. Each, in some way, ends up dissatisfied: Virendra’s fraudulent practices put him in jail, we are told from the outset; Aseem’s favor in the public eye waxes and wanes; and Arun struggles to ascertain his identity, his feelings for Alia (the old-money liberal journalist to whom the novel is addressed), and, above all, his place among those around him.
Buried beneath all this is the story of Arun’s grinding, impoverished origins in India’s rural hinterland. Mishra’s depiction of this deprivation is never voyeuristic, never approaches the poverty porn that such a setting might inspire. In his eyes, poverty is not a production or a performance but merely a phenomenon that exists. Various characters (Arun’s abusive father, his subjugated mother) and details (stains left on the wall by oily hair, pale crockery stolen from trains and kept as prized possessions) are deftly woven together to create a portrait of a life poorly and jointly lived. Mishra’s poverty is not reductionist; those who suffer it are more than the sum of their circumstances. As Arun notes, “[L]ives driven by want cannot be reduced to it; they will still contain a range of human emotions.” The joy of “drawing houses on a slate and building a railway out of matchsticks,” the fear of “nightmares about churails with feet turned backwards blazing through the thick blackness” — this will all remain, defiantly unsacrificed to chronic deprivation. In much the same way, Mishra’s evocation of caste is all the more powerful for its sensitivity, for its never being fully explained. In Arun’s old primary school, “two teachers in spotless khadi check every morning the hair of pupils for lice, using rulers rather than fingernails for this purpose with the two Dalits among us, before allowing them to sit on the red clay holding their black slates and chalk.”
Arun’s story, and India’s, too, is defined by the journey away from that rural penury toward something altogether more complicated. India’s middle classes are stymied by sluggish growth and appalling employment prospects. Horror stories abound: 25 million people applying for 90,000 jobs with the state railway service, thousands of PhD holders seeking employment as messengers in a government office. Add to that the fixed brutality of caste discrimination and the poverty that underlies life in vast swathes of the country and you end up with a rather deterministic situation. The IITs are viewed as guarantors of upward mobility, and as such have become the subject of cultic worship. Every year, the whole nation, whether we like it or not, will know when the Joint Entrance Examination is being held; someone has always spent endless, friendless months preparing for it — if not you, then your neighbor or cousin. Glory awaits those who top the tests: their names are reported in the newspaper, their faces plastered across sickly pastel-colored billboards by the sides of busy highways.
No wonder the drive to free oneself from that kind of existence, to run from one’s origins, is a common theme of Indian writing in English. From Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995) to Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), stories that receive much acclaim in the West often tell of low-caste, poverty-stricken men emigrating to cities to escape destitution and persecution, with varying degrees of success. Run and Hide, while tracing this familiar path, does it rather differently. At first, in the story as in life, the Indians of Arun’s generation are desperate to conceal their origins, personified by the conceited IIT freshman who flexes a made-up aristocratic pedigree before being “[b]etrayed into ordinariness” by his “dumpy and dark-skinned” mother, who he then attempts to brush off as his housemaid. But later, this is all reversed: Aseem, the public-intellectual type, talks proudly of his humble background; he was able to rise from nothing to his present position on top of the world, he seems to say. The question implicit in this, of course, is why can’t you?
In this way, Mishra changes that standard rags-to-riches, escape-the-past, Gatsby-cosplay dynamic, updating it for a more complicated India, where the current leader flaunts his low-caste origins while deriding his high-born opponents. As our present government tells it, the paternalism of India’s past rulers has been comprehensively consigned to the past by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — he of the oil-presser caste, of the near-mythical tea stall in the railway station in Vadnagar, where he used to help his father serve customers — in favor of the go-getter, self-made-man narrative that propelled him to power in 2014. It was that narrative that bewitched many of the sort of people covered in Run and Hide: business types, or “American-accented economists from Columbia and Princeton.” Beyond merely reflecting this shift in India’s political culture, Mishra also examines the cost of such success — the crippling damage that breaking away from one’s background can cause to the spirit, or at least its outward expression.
Mishra’s narrative draws a compelling connection between the casual cruelty and ultracompetitive hysteria of his characters’ IIT days and their vacuous and myopic later lives, filled with sexual debauchery and conspicuous consumption — or, often, something at the intersection of both: Virendra’s obsession with expensive prostitutes, Aseem’s incessant boasting about his sexual prowess, or the moment when Siva, another of their number, spends six figures to sit next to a celebrity model at a dinner. When Joan Didion wrote of Reagan’s America as being a place where “the celebration of natural man’s capacity for moving onward and upward has become a kind of official tic,” she could easily have been describing the world inhabited by Arun’s former classmates. Achievement, from the IIT hothouse to the obscene wealth they eventually accumulate, is a fetish for these men, something that can only be attained by dragging others down.
Arun, too, is not spared from having to examine the cost of his transformation. Moving in Alia’s upper-crust circles in London, he feels himself surrounded by “veils of unreality,” worrying that he is beginning to resemble Aseem, “floating through the world, using up its opportunities of power and pleasure.” The insecurity that threatens to erode Arun’s sense of connection to the world around him eventually drives him to escape, to leave Alia without warning and return to India: “Seized with fright of all that had changed and was changing, I became desperate to hold on to a time when the rules were clear, the feelings simple, and no impersonations were necessary.”
The portion of the book set in London also shows some of its weaknesses. Mishra devotes a dozen pages to describing various people Arun meets at parties, with a view, I think, to portraying them as vapid and hypocritical. One section is dedicated to snippets overheard at one such bash:
“Maybe Rebecca Solnit is an exception, but white feminists are the enablers of neo-imperialism.”
“C’mon! Sonos is a sure sign of middle-age crisis!”
“She got one K retweets in five minutes.”
And so on, numerous context-free tidbits spread over an entire page. I’m not quite sure what to do with this; it’s a far cry from the lyricism of the book’s earlier sections, and largely encapsulates the somewhat meandering nature of Arun and Alia’s time in England.
But the dialogue as a whole is a more widespread and serious problem. Oh, the dialogue! It confounds and frustrates and brutally derails the narrative, like one of the innumerable potholes of the Outer Ring Road, jarring the reader and catapulting them from Mishra’s sublime fictional landscape into the pages of a political polemic. The elegance of Mishra’s prose evaporates almost entirely when it moves from the narrator’s voice into the characters’ mouths. Every few pages, when Arun’s musings turn to his memories of what people around him have said, we are confronted with something like this (here, Aseem is telling Arun about Alia):
She’s a sort of Indian that didn’t exist when we were growing up, from a conservative Muslim background but very much in tune with the global progressive zeitgeist, at home everywhere in the world without belonging anywhere. A gypsy, but a very modern gypsy, densely wired into the metropolitan nodes of London and New York.
Elsewhere, Alia asks: “Do we really need to hear about literature from such discredited Blairites and Obama-ites anymore?” Other ostensible conversations read like blog posts or short-form news coverage. “It is a federal grand jury indictment,” Aseem breathlessly tells Arun,
Virendra and Siva were profiting from confidential information they got from their Indian pals at Intel, IBM and Goldman Sachs. And they were putting their money in tax havens in the Caribbean and using shell companies in India to bring it back into the US. […]
Back then Google’s stock was rising into the stratosphere. But Virendra heard about its poor financial results from a young Indian employee at an investor relations company that worked for Google. He promptly sold his Google stock and took a $15 million short position.
We are expected to believe that the characters of Run and Hide — who are, despite everything, human beings — issue such declarations spontaneously, speaking as if newspaper printing presses roll in their mouths in place of tongues. No one talks like this. The unreality of such dialogue threatens to undermine the flow of the narrative, making it much harder to believe in the characters and the way they comport themselves. Considering how Mishra defers to the reader’s intelligence in every other respect, counting on them to draw their own conclusions from the linguistic and cultural signals he drops, this approach to dialogue is all the more surprising and disappointing.
The problem extends beyond spoken dialogue, too. In many places, what seem to be personal potshots and put-downs bubble up unexpectedly, and a little disquietingly. There are references to two unnamed but prominent Modi cheerleaders, “the gay Bollywood director” and “the silver-tongued advertising agency executive,” each of whom is easily identifiable as a real-life figure to anyone who keeps even a vague eye on Indian Twitter. Arun tells disparagingly of a young colleague, the daughter of a senior civil servant, who writes “a novel titled The Sherry Drinkers, an account, both satirical and melancholy, of Indians like herself who find themselves spiritually marooned in India after returning from an exhilarating stint at Cambridge.” Ask any Indian who keeps up with our English-language media, and we know straightaway who this is. (References to prominent TV news anchors being “Oxbridge-educated” also appear, jarringly, twice, in almost identical phrasing; the word “Oxbridge” itself appears six times.)
This on-the-nose style points toward the larger — I would say central — issue that afflicts Run and Hide, which is the difficulty it has in overcoming the core tension of every “social novel,” if you will forgive that rather reductionist term — whether the sociopolitical commentary inherent to the genre will erode the novel’s fictional coherence and threaten its status as (in the words of the disclaimer in the author’s note) “a work of imagination.” That danger appears to be real and significant here. Awkward dialogue aside, consider the moment when, overcome with feelings of alienation and isolation in London and wanting to return home for his mother’s funeral, Arun abandons Alia, leaving her alone in their bed. As Mishra describes the sorrowful Arun sitting in the back of a taxi as it climbs the Himalayan roads to his village, the reader could be forgiven for imagining that he would be ruminating on his lost world, thinking about the complicated and beguiling lover he has left behind and the mother whom he has lost. Instead, we have: “The thought suddenly came to me, shocking in its stark clarity: New India will never make it.”
That someone in Arun’s situation, having just suffered immense loss and with such turmoil in his personal life, should be ruminating instead on the sociopolitical condition of his country suggests that Mishra the novelist is surrendering to Mishra the social critic. Aside from Arun, none of novel’s other characters display any real attempt at complexity. Virendra is sketched out as a series of actions to be dissected, to be analyzed and spun into motivations, all from a distance (“he held his pen in a clenched fist and drilled it into paper as though it was a weapon in a war with no mercy for the loser, where failure meant expulsion to his home”). Much the same goes for Aseem: he is the standard model of the frustratingly myopic Indian public intellectual, too preoccupied with status and money to identify or honestly critique the dangers of Hindu-nationalist politics. Delhi’s talking shops and op-ed columns are stuffed with this type of person; Aseem goes no further than that model. Alia’s own personality is surprisingly peripheral to the story. She certainly doesn’t have all that much to say, and when she does speak, she sounds rather hackneyed (“God, these rich white men are just hopeless, […] they can’t get rid of the idea even now that the West is best”), or else positively comical (whispering into Arun’s ear, as she cups her hands around his waist in their hotel room, “How do you think that Hindu fanatic receptionist will react if she sees a nude Muslim woman molesting a sexy Brahmin?”). It’s difficult to see why Arun finds her so bewitching, and we’re never really told. The characters around Arun come across as symbols or parables rather than people.
It feels perhaps a little trite to complain that a novel skirts the borders of polemical writing. After all, this is hardly the first example of that long and noble tradition, even within contemporary Indian literature: Perumal Murugan, V. J. James, Neel Mukherjee, and Arundhati Roy, to name just a few (and there are many more), have used fiction to effectively and memorably critique India’s darker aspects, including those issues that define Run and Hide’s tensions — caste, upward mobility, rural deprivation, urban cruelty. But the looming danger of the social novel is that it will lose its human connection, that it will trade personality for persona, narrative for commentary — and it is here that Run and Hide stumbles.
Large segments of the novel are deeply compelling, particularly the opening half, where Arun recounts his childhood in a poverty-stricken small town. As Modi claims he once did, Arun helps his father at his tea stall at the railway station, where, every day,
[t]he platform suddenly starts to seethe, with people scurrying like bewildered ants about the unmoving millipede of the train: and Baba needs several arms to meet the hands proffering coins and sweat-soiled notes across the counter. Grabbing biscuits, samosas and paan, while speedily counting cash and then throwing it into a greasy drawer below his shelves, he seems, briefly, to dance.
The sensitivity with which Mishra writes about life in Arun’s hometown, and about the grime and torment of his college days, is quite brilliant, and done in prose as fine and light as the Himalayan air that bewitches Arun away from the plains of Delhi. I just wished, as the novel progressed, that I knew where that sensitivity and humanity — that believability that comes with great fiction — went, and why.
Mishra is famous for his sharp analyses of the rise of political resentment and the degradation of the Indian imagination, in works like Age of Anger: A History of the Present (2017) or his fabulous articles in The Guardian and elsewhere. In an essay published when Modi was first elected in 2014, he described the ability of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its backers to create “positive-thinking fictions” in which “a post-1991 generation that doesn’t even know it is lost fleetingly but thrillingly recognises itself.” It is that same generation, shaped by the liberalization of India’s economy and the discontent that gave rise to fundamentalist Hindu politics, that Mishra investigates in Run and Hide. This investigation is incisive and nuanced, examining lives lived in what Mishra credibly calls the New India: unmoored, for better and for worse, from the values of the past, forging new ways of living — and, with them, new prejudices. But I use the word “investigation” for a reason: the novel’s wondrous opening half aside, it is more of a moral tale or political article than a story. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But with books like this, it is hard not to ask the fundamental question of why we read fiction, or to think about the tension that exists between authors and their characters. Run and Hide takes a vivid piece of social commentary and embellishes it with some aspects of a fictional universe, but in truth, it acts mostly as a repository for political criticism, a critique of the resounding clash of values in modern India, an analysis of the way the meanings of caste and class have shifted and eroded.
This is all great. But Arun, Alia, and the rest are no better known to me than any of the anonymous faces I have seen in the crowds on the steaming pavement by the IIT overpass, or milling around at a house party here in London, looking through me or past me, saying things I do not really hear. They are ciphers and symbols, not people. I know what they think. I know where they come from. But I do not know them at all.
Aditya Narayan Sharma writes about books and politics. His work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, The Indian Express, and elsewhere.
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