Pankaj Mishra talks about “A Great Clamour”, his new book that makes sense of the sounds that emanate from the other side of the Great Wall

Nearly two decades ago, Pankaj Mishra undertook an expedition through small-town India. The book that resulted from it, “Butter Chicken in Ludhiana”, details the changes places like Shimla, Murshidabad, Gaya, Kottayam, Kovalam, Tirupur, Shimoga, Ajmer, Bundi, among many others, were undergoing, after the ushering in of neo-liberal reforms. It also inaugurated the author’s quest, which he has deepened in the subsequent years, and pursued in different parts of the world, to understand the effects of a paradoxical modernity.

In his new book, “A Great Clamour”, Mishra observes China, and the toll its encounter with modernity has taken. Although he has addressed the country in his earlier works – “An End to Suffering”, “Temptations of the West” and “From the Ruins of Empire”— the idea for a book exclusively on China came from the author’s belief that despite being neighbours, and despite several overlapping concerns, “not enough Indian writers and journalists had engaged with China”.

In this enterprise, Mishra’s attempt has been to look at China through prisms other than those of Indian security interests and economic ambitions. These prisms, according to him, have “not been helpful at all in making us learn about larger processes being unleashed in China today, in what way its intellectual culture is changing, what are the new forms of literature and art being produced there. It is fair to say we have remained to a large extent ignorant of that.”

“The other aspect of China is that so much of what we read about it has been mediated through the Anglo American media. If you go to a bookstore today, the books on China will all be by European and American writers. I would also like to think that a book like this clarifies the possibility that Indians can write about their neighbourhood,” he adds.

Divided into three parts – ‘Drumroll to Modernity’, ‘A Din of Questions,’ and ‘Echoes from the Mainland’ — the book is a collection of essays that look at China from aesthetic, political, socio-economic, and geographical perspectives. The essays include a discussion of “Fortress Besieged”, a 1947 novel which poses questions about China that are yet to be settled; the stylistic trajectory of authors such as Yu Hua and Ma Jian; the great famine of 1958-1962, caused by the heedless rush towards industrialisation; the troubling legacy of Mao Zedong, China’s ‘patriotic engineer’; the supposedly benign new train service from Beijing to Lhasa, among several others. Significantly, the author also looks at China from the eyes of its neighbours, to see the connections, sometimes troubled, between them. “I felt it’s important to talk about the impact China is having on its neighbourhood, how it’s altering the politics and economy dramatically in a place like Japan. You cannot understand what’s happening in Japan today without reference to China, and the same holds true for Malaysia, Indonesia and Mongolia,” Mishra says.

In his introduction, Mishra carefully distances himself from the figure of the travel writer. The essays rely on not just personal experience, but a blend of analysis, reportage, literary criticism and memoir. This particular style is not extraneous to the argument being made, but in close correspondence with it, essential to sensing “the inner life of a society”. “The most resourceful literary form for the kind of journeys and explorations I want to make is the long essay – a discursive space in which you can bring in all kinds of things. You can review a book, and say something about the culture it emerges from, which you can’t really do with the conventional travel book…It’s simply a very constricting form, because of its origins in a particular kind of curiosity in Anglo-America for exotica, for strangeness…It’s on that kind of superficial encounter that the whole genre is based, and now the whole genre is in trouble, because these societies are much more complex. We need new ways of reading them.”

Remembering the travels he undertook for his first book, Mishra characterises it as “a book in which a lot of eavesdropped conversations are recorded”. In “A Great Clamour”, Mishra eavesdrops on a different kind of conversation – one that a society is having with itself.