Interview: Pankaj Mishra talks to GOWRI RAMNARAYAN about the need for writers to contemplate and stay clear of the modern-world's incessant din

“Where can I get a spicy Andhra thali?” the man asks after the Chennai launch at Landmark of The Caravan, an old magazine in a new avatar.

Novelist, essayist, anthologist and travel writer Pankaj Mishra (Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, The Romantics, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the Modern World, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond) was in the city to promote the niche publication focussing on serious narrative non-fiction, with other panellists, including Managing Editor Anant Nath and art critic Sadanand Menon.

Essays of 5,000 words in a world of texting and tweeting, soundbytes and smileys? “Why not?” is Mishra's confident response. Has he not published such reflective analyses in The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Times Literary Supplement. Didn't his unflinching report of the massacre in Chattisinghpora (2000), Jammu and Kashmir, including Pakistani accusations of misdeeds by the Indian army, brew a storm of protests for its allegedly anti-Hindu thrust? “We are not in the business of being pro or anti entire communities or religions,” Mishra shrugs, and over pappu and pickles, goes on to talk about the projection of the word in the world today. Excerpts:

There was a time when writers were seen as contemplative workers in quiet spaces. Today, they can't do without an obvious political stance. When did this shift happen?

This false distinction between literature and politics belongs to Western societies where political processes are remote from the lives of most citizens. In North America, that illusion was shattered by 9/11. Look at Pakistan, where nobody makes an attempt to define literature as unrelated to politics. Everyone is affected by bomb blasts and happenings in border areas. In India, we can't allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that whatever the Government does is remote from our lives.

Is loss of innocence in this convoluted global reality an advantage for a writer?

Jane Austen knew nothing beyond England, had nothing to compare it with. Today, it's a multiple challenge to make sense of the global interconnectedness achieved by communication and technology, find forms that best capture our experience of living here and now. Non-fiction may be? Sometimes, fiction fails to capture the complex world we live in.

Isn't today's fiction using non-fictional, docu-journalistic tools anyway? Why haven't Indian writers in English looked seriously at the fantastic blend of fiction and non-fiction in purana and kavya structures?

That's a difficult question. Every age throws up its own forms. True, major Indian writers depend so heavily on archival research that we think non-fiction books are waiting to be born within their works of fiction. We don't really have a mature body of writing in English as yet.

No? Despite world attention and Western writers saying you have to be Indian to get literary awards?

They say it half-ironically. Indian writing occupies not more space in the world than Irish writing, or better known, more-loved Latin-American writing. In this country, we make a fetish of Indian writing in English. The English press is obsessed with that writing to the exclusion of other languages. But, it is still evolving, finding its voice, forms and genres. Wait 20 years and see what happens.

Zipping from mountain village to megapolis as you do, how easy is it for an always-on-tour writer to connect the expanding, dizzying outer world to the inner world?

The danger of living cosmopolitan lives is that you are unable to differentiate between — and grasp the significance of — each experience. I was able to think much more deeply 10 years ago when I wasn't travelling incessantly. Experience without reflection and analysis means nothing.

How do you save yourself from asphyxiation?

The same shops and brand names everywhere make us believe the world is flat… Get out of metropolitan areas and you know this is not the only uniform, uni-dimensional reality. I try to give myself opportunities to be on my own.

Don't you think that with a dearth of metaphors, conformity has crept into much writing today? Don't we know just what's going to come next, what politically correct attitudes will be struck, what emotions will spurt and when?

Writing is an industry now, with powerful homogenising forces. People have forgotten that a writer is essentially a critic of society and that no amount of professionalism can compensate for lack of engagement. Only passion will arrive at deep thinking, originality, new perspectives and fresh imagery. Language will follow you then and become your slave. The reason why so much writing looks the same to you is the professionalism at work; craft without commitment to truth, clarity and accuracy.

Do you think there is less tolerance today for opposing points of view? How does a writer establish his neutrality, passion intact?

We live in a world of incessant noise. Thanks to the Internet, we can tweet everywhere, and rantings acquire respectability. No filters either. We have to be careful about this din not affecting our psyche. It is possible to have civil dialogue, defending our rights to disagree in a democratic way. I feel great need to hear what my heart and mind have to say, unencumbered by this huge background din of clichés and opinion-mongering.

The Buddha reconciles paradoxes - he is all gnana (wisdom) and karuna (compassion). Is it his essential stillness that attracted you to focus on Buddha in the Modern World?

Thoughts, desires, impulses… the Buddha cautions us to subdue and quell noise in order to understand the essential self within. Finally, it's all about awareness isn't it?

The New Order

The launch of a new edition of “The Caravan” at Landmark (12 Jan) featured a discussion on “Emerging Non-Fiction Writing in India” with three panelists: Pankaj Mishra, writer and essayist, Sadanand Menon, arts and culture critic on the Faculty of the Asian College of Journalism, and Anant Nath, Managing Editor, The Caravan.

The Caravan being a resurrected and repositioned form of an old nationalist publication (1939), the discussion started with the magazine's adaptation, of the narrative non-journalistic genre associated with international publications such as The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta, and Atlantic Monthly.

Anant Nath said that he was fascinated by in-depth literary reporting, with a scene-by-scene reconstruction of events as if the writer were making a mental film for visual perception. “Some writers felt ashamed to write fiction after 9/11. The complex world in which we live may best be dealt with in non-fiction,” said Mishra. He believed that in a world where visual language has overpowered the written word, narrative non-fiction could satisfy the need for reflective engagement more than any kind of aphoristic expression.

Sadanand Menon warned against misrepresentations and biases in the process of narrativising, and noted that writers must rethink their craft and sharpen story telling techniques to adopt this challenging form of writing.

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