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Run and Hide

Pankaj Mishra

(Penguin Books, 2022)

Reviewed by Mirza Waheed


Pankaj Mishra has written a rich and varied range of books during the last three decades: travel, examinations of south Asian politics and society, a spiritual journey cum memoir, incisive critiques of western power and the crumbling of the neoliberal order, not to forget a unique account of Asian thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Over the years, he’s come to be one of our most compelling thinkers and a combative critic who does not shy away from pugilistic engagements with a Harvard historian or a YouTube thinker from Canada. Early on in his career, Mishra published a lyrical, finely observed novel about the existential dislocation of a bookish young man amid a changing milieu. The Romantics (2001) bore some relation to Mishra’s own early life, and it has echoes of his criminally underrated book – An End to Suffering (2004) – on the Buddha’s thought in the world today. The latter is a meditative, deeply satisfying exploration, its most memorable sections belonging to the author’s journeys across the Himalayas in search of the Buddha’s traces. Alongside this, Mishra wrote trenchant essays on the contradictions and cruelties of modern life, and about his own rapidly transforming country – the early promise of a post-colonial state, its much-vaunted aspirations to be a plural democracy, ruined in three decades of rapid growth, inequality, and the simultaneous rise of extreme Hindu majoritarianism.

It is around these broad markers that Mishra’s new novel, Run and Hide, his first in more than 20 years, might be read. What does he do here?

In this epistolary novel, Arun gives his former lover Alia an explanatory account of his and his two friends’ lives, their mercurial rise from poverty and obscurity, and their subsequent fall. In the story of Arun, Aseem, and Virendra, Mishra has crafted an intense, often unflinching and unsparing portrayal of a lost generation during a period of national churning, but perhaps more importantly, a story for our times: what does it take to be a successful individual, how far will one go, and what is the cost to our humanity in our competitive drive to be modern?

Arun and his two friends are from India’s underclasses, but through sheer grit and hard work they manage to enter the halls of an elite institution, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) from where many of India’s ‘success men’ have emerged and gone on to lead global corporations.

Aseem senses cultural and financial power within his grasp as soon as he leaves the IIT, choosing not to go abroad, as new India is where all the action and ‘chicks’ are going to be. Virendra, he of the lowest caste, who’s suffered the worst of the debasements inherent in India’s apartheidist caste system, does leave and within a few years transforms himself into a Wall Street tiger, making heaps of cash and buying a luxury house in the Hamptons. Before he’s imprisoned for a high-stakes fraud, he uses his money to buy sex with blonde women so that he can witness his power over them.

Arun, the low-caste boy from a railway shack whose father has tricked the system by having his surname changed to that of a Brahmin, is a restless introspective, an itinerant, sometimes tormented, sometimes weak-willed, but devoted to his long-suffering mother. He cannot find it in himself to fit into Aseem’s world of lit-fests, networked journalism and ‘a thousand fucks’, nor in Virendra’s venture capital world of chartered flights and Tuscan holidays. He works as a literary translator instead, content, he tells himself, in the small world of respected Hindi writers and university presses. But soon he leaves this genteel world, to live with his mother in a pretty village in the mountains, giving her a home of her own at last. This is where he meets the glamorous upper-class Muslim journalist Alia, introduced to him, of course, by Aseem who must know all the ‘hot’ women on the cultural circuit. 

Some of Arun’s commentary, even when insightful, may get in the way of the fiction in some places. These musings on the dizzying trajectory of a new generation of Gatsby-like figures remind us of Mishra’s prescient writing about India and the world, but they also delay the pleasure of the arresting prose he reserves for the fictional. But when it arrives, and it does come often, it conjures up an entire world, bringing it to life, making it throb in the reader’s hands.

The scene when Arun visits his sister, who runs a highway tea shack while looking after her children, as her husband drowns himself in drink, is heart-stopping. Having been shown the grimy truck drivers and their smoke-addled existence, we can almost hear her sob when Arun leaves, never to come back.

Autobiography is very much there, skilfully deployed, most vividly in the Himalayan village of Ranipur where the narrator goes to live a quiet, idyllic life with his books. It clearly derives from Mishra’s years in Mashobra where he lived a solitary life of reading and writing as a young man after leaving Delhi. Mishra makes no attempt to disguise all this. Neither does he in the central strand of the novel where, in the character of Aseem, he reconstructs the life of a high-profile journalist, writer and cultural entrepreneur of the late nineties and the early 2000s when India’s urbane middle classes began to declare new India, and by extension themselves, ready to share centre stage with the big boys of the ‘free world’. It seems Mishra wants us to see the story of a generation, and that of a country, its people and its recent history, through the story of this go-getter who overreaches, played against the docile old world of the village in the hills.

And it’s in the hill tracts that the narrator’s interiority, his beautiful and agonising engagements with the world come alive. The figure of his increasingly sick and dependent mother is subtly portrayed alongside the looming ecological destruction of the world that has given him – at least until that point in his life – a sense of peace and peaceable belonging. It’s not a coincidence that the two forces of life-affirming contentment in his search for meaning and feeling have come together in Ranipur. But when she becomes debilitated, the natural world around him also begins to be despoiled at the hands of a grasping developer. 

It’s also here, in the hills, that the novel delves into profound truths about loss, grief, and guilt. As Arun’s dead mother is mourned by her neighbours in the Himalayas, he is unable to detach himself from the pleasures of intimacy in the company of his young lover. He chooses to go to cosmopolitan London with Alia, who’s writing a book about go-getter men like Aseem, rather than make the ‘painful return to Ranipur for the post-funeral ceremonies’.

Arun strives to belong to newer worlds, cutting ties to escape his past, only to fear ‘having lost a world’ in the process. Towards the end of the novel, he attempts to understand his betrayal of his sister and mother – abandoned in his self-absorbed quest for a truer version of life and a better reckoning with his past and present – but it’s too late and he ends up making another betrayal, this time of Alia, with whom he’s had the only proper relationship of his life, a love beginning to assume shape. He runs to hide in a monastery so that he can escape all the impostures and pretences of his life – one of the great themes of the novel. But it’s a devastating denouement – it’s all too clear that in his struggle to make sense of his life he has abandoned and hurt the three women in his life. While Aseem and Virendra have been guilty of toxic masculinity, the women in their lives mere objects of desire, Arun is culpable of inflicting lasting wounds on the women who’ve shaped him.

In the closing pages, we are wonderfully transported to the old seclusion of the mountains, the monastery, and all the way to Arun’s cold bedroom. It perfectly sums up the desolate peace brought on by his betrayals. A superb examination of power and privilege ends as a riveting story about the loneliness of modernity’s hollow men.