We want to know who’s taking us on this ambitious voyage through India and Pakistan, through Kashmir, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Tibet, and in his opening chapter, “Learning to Read,” Pankaj Mishra offers us a self-portrait. We are back in the 1980s; a young scholar sits in a library in Benares, poring over Edmund Wilson, flicking through back issues of this journal, reading Heinrich Mann and then discovering he had a more famous brother. He knows that what a writer reads is as interesting as his own output, and inseparable from it; while he lurks in the shady library, student mobs run riot in the sun, and the police move in with their batons. But do not pity the students; they have guns.
Both the person and his circumstances will be familiar to readers of Mishra’s highly praised debut novel The Romantics, which was published in 1999, and features as protagonist a young Brahmin scholar called Samar. His sensibility is strung tightly on East–West tensions; he is full of nostalgia for an old world and yearning for a new. When Samar moves outside the city, he is a tourist in his own country. James Hopkin in the New Statesman suggested that The Romantics was a “novel about procrastination” and in a sense all of a young writer’s works are acts of procrastination in themselves—a period of constructive delay as one tests the limits of one’s talent, patience, interests, and ambitions. It is a story about a young man trying to locate himself, beset by the fear that he may never arrive but always be passing through. The Romantics looks to Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, to E.M. Forster, to Turgenev. But it is the product of a distinctive and sharp intelligence, beautifully and fruitfully deployed in this new book, which is part political history, part memoir, part reportage. It is a huge project, and if it all starts in Benares, that is appropriate; the city is a sacred place, dedicated to Shiva, a god who both creates and destroys. The dead are burned on ghats by the river Ganges; the cycles of incarnation are broken here, and new patterns begin.
In 1995 Mishra published Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India, an exploration of nineteen small Indian towns; a US edition is now in preparation. As he begins this much longer journey, his first exploration must be inward; the writer is now a man of letters, with an international reputation which he must leave behind on the road, as he travels into places where a bilious Naipaulian gloom would seem an appropriate response; we need more than the news of his mood, and he supplies it in the form of copious, eloquent facts: a mini-history of India since Independence, an overview of the calamitous history of Western intervention in Afghanistan. A Hindu, a Brahmin, he has to inspect his own prejudices and reposition himself, sometimes drastically; in order to be free to travel and ask questions in Pakistan, he pretends to…
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