“Not a light read, but it’s a worthwhile one” – Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra

0Arun’s a literary translator who lives a frugal life in Ranipur, an isolated village in Himachal Pradesh, a mountainous state in the Western Himalayas, northern India. His school-friends, though, have forged rather different lives: Aseem is a cultural commentator, magazine publisher, wannabe-novelist, and general progressive man-about-town (if, by town, we mean based in Delhi but otherwise globetrotting); Virendra is an immensely wealthy banker in the USA, jailed as the novel opens for insider trading. Then there’s Alia, writing an non-fiction expose of the ‘New India’, using Virendra as a case-study. Run and Hide traces the ways in which these four lives are entangled, and in doing so, sketches out a politically astute vista of contemporary Indian class and race politics that – a rarity in English-language literature – turns a scrutinising lens to a country other than the UK or the US.

All three of Mishra’s male leads come from low-caste backgrounds; all have been educated and socialised away from them in the context of India’s apparent rise as a tech-and-finance superpower. As they accumulate their assorted varieties of capital – monetary and cultural – Narendra Modi is ascending to power on the back of a Hindu nationalism that turns rapidly and violently into a violent supremacism. Meanwhile political forces abroad are also eddying right-wards, with Brexit and Trump following on the heels of Modi’s election; the US falls upon Virendra’s corruption with the same delight that fuels the slaughtering of Muslims back in India. Aseem – vocally liberal, yet financed by Virendra, and (like Virendra) an unreformed womaniser, is also due a fall. And Arun? He’s been living an almost (and, at one stage, completely) monastic life in the lower reaches of the Himalayas; he has, he thinks, disengaged from the pettiness and greed of the middle-class life into which his education was supposed to propel him. Rather, he’s something of an ascetic aesthete, happy to judge Virendra from afar. As the novel progresses, though, Arun has to think a little deeper and assess the rectitude of this retreat: in the wake of his mother’s death (alone) and funeral (which, spoiler, he declines to attend), he’s got to consider whether to run and hide in the face of suffering and inequality is ever an ethical choice.

The book’s told as an address to Alia, from Arun – the nature and rationale for this address come clear as the book progresses – and is set out as an account of his relationship with Aseem and Virendra; an apologia of sorts for his own behaviour, and in part an exploration of why Virendra behaved as he did. While there is a plot, the ending is clear from the beginning, so this is more an exploration of the why than the what. Arun is an erudite, cautious and careful thinker, albeit not the best analyst of his own shortcomings, and in an odd way – given that he’s in his mid-forties – this could be read as a late-onset Künstlerroman: the story of how, through the writing of this book for/about his friends, he comes to know himself.

What’s particularly interesting though, isn’t Arun’s own story, but the political context in which is develops and matures. Mishra is deeply critical of Modi’s state, but also keenly aware that this is a state not well understood or discussed in Europe; Run and Hide isn’t a blow-by-blow account of the rise of ethno-nationalism in India, but it redresses the balance of global narratives that position that worst of reactionary racist violence in the US. Mishra has written extensively about liberalism, Empire and the right, and this novel is a continuation of that project: it’s a good read in the level of characters and introspection and explores the culpability of the individual and the ethics of engagement really effectively, but its real import, it seems to me, is in its broadening of the English-language reader’s exposure to the ills of rising fascism across the globe and the hypocrisies of moneyed liberals, no matter their ethnic, national or religious affiliations.

Any Cop?: It’s not a light read, but it’s a worthwhile one (and not a long one, either). And while you’re at it, check out his non-fiction.

Valerie O’Riordan


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