Writing on the move

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MODERNISM Pankaj Mishra
MODERNISM Pankaj Mishra

Every new book is an exciting new journey, says PANKAJ MISHRA

Who is "modern"? A party animal in low-slung jeans? A khadi-clad Gandhian fighting caste oppression in a village? A gun-wielding revolutionary with dreams of an egalitarian society? One of the most complicated and debated words in the English language, the meaning of "modern" is in a state of constant flux. Pankaj Mishra's book Temptations of the West (Picador, Rs. 525) goes with the tagline "How to be modern in India, Pakistan and beyond". And it's interesting to see how the word refracts new colours as Mishra focuses it on different people and places - from suave Karan Johar and his glitzy films eulogising family values to Maoist Prachanda in strife-torn Nepal to the Buddhist monks of Tibet with their quiet resistance to "social engineering".

No one way

Says Mishra who launched the book recently: "My intention partly was to look at the various ways in which modernity is played out and lived in this part of the world. The title is meant precisely to say there is no one way of being modern. Though its terms are constantly mediated by the West, we are constantly negotiating it and changing it too." What made writing about this evolving idea specially tricky was that all the essays in the book were originally commissioned by publications in the U.S. and U.K. (That's why even words like "beedi" come with explanations.) "In non-fiction you ought to clearly know your readers and their prejudices. As I write, I am constantly coming up against existing traditions of perceptions about the East. I take them on board and undermine them. For instance, now the West sees India as a potential superpower. Ten years ago it saw us as deluded, socialist, and very poor. The previous idea was a myth and so is the present one!"Mishra admits that it is very difficult to leave out personal impressions even when one is trying to go beyond the impressionistic travel writing mode by bringing into play a close reading of history and current politics. "Honestly, I do not like Bollywood in its current form. That's perhaps what you are experiencing when you read the piece." A place like Benaras or Ayodhya, on the other hand, fascinates him with its very peculiar brand of cosmopolitanism totally unlike that of a metropolis teeming with IT-BT companies. In his chapter on Ayodhya, he quotes Wajid Ali Shah: "We are devoted to love; do not know of religion./ So what if it is Kaaba or a house of idols?" We have a lot to learn from these histories that are pushed under the carpet for political reasons, says Mishra. But it is equally important for him not to stay glued to the familiar. He is not one to demarcate disciplines and specialise in one area at the cost of blinding oneself to all else. It's important to set out on intellectual journeys and "move on from one set of ideas and prejudices to another set of ideas and prejudices".

Unexplored path

What one stumbles upon in the course of one such journey can suddenly open an unexplored new path. For instance, it was his "journeys in the secular world" that set Mishra exploring the times and teachings of the Buddha and resulted in the book An End To Suffering. His next journey is a fictional one. The novel he is working on (his second after The Romantics which received mixed reviews and a prestigious international prize) will be very different from anything he has ever done before, Mishra promises. BAGESHREE S.




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