The writer in India is under tremendous pressure: Pankaj Mishra

Public spaces have been invaded by noise and trolls, making artistic creation really difficult, says the author

Updated - March 06, 2023 09:13 pm IST

Published - December 16, 2022 09:01 am IST

Pankaj Mishra says, ‘I simply do not envy the situation of the writer or journalist in India who has to work against tremendous odds, I can only admire them from a distance.’ 

Pankaj Mishra says, ‘I simply do not envy the situation of the writer or journalist in India who has to work against tremendous odds, I can only admire them from a distance.’  | Photo Credit: special arrangement

To be a writer in India today is to live in a state of entropy. The socio-political landscape that began its dramatic transformation in 2014 has provided ample fodder for polemical musings, but the world of literature, says essayist Pankaj Mishra, has been slow to respond to the trials of the time. The Age of Anger author, who addressed audiences at Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest last month, discusses his view on how the politics of the day has impacted the state of Indian literature, and how the modern Indian writer is working against far more formidable forces than ever before.

How do you think the political transformations over the past few years have impacted Indian literature?

The big transformations in India are of such a scale and are so dramatic that it will take a while for writers to absorb them, and turn them into material for literature. We haven’t had the time to actually reflect, let alone start creating. That’s the difference between documentary and art: what for documentary is primary material is for art just a beginning. Art is something to be deepened, something that is enlivened and enriched by different emotional moods and philosophical reflections. That requires a degree of meditative energy and introspection, and a lot of these things have become luxuries in recent years. It is not just that the pace of events is too hectic, it is also that we are distracted like never before by digital media.

You said that what is material for documentary is just the starting point for literature. That says a lot about the potential of fiction to provide a space for conversation and critique that maybe journalism cannot.

Our public spaces have been invaded by a certain kind of noise, largely manufactured by trolls and ideologically driven fanatics, and they have made not just artistic creation, but life really difficult for a lot of people in India today. The writer in India is living under tremendous pressure and, unfortunately, the one thing that writers elsewhere can still rely upon, which is an attentive readership, is not something guaranteed in a country like India today.

Do you feel digital media creates a compulsion for writers to immediately react to the events of the day, in a way that denies them the luxury of introspection?

Once you put an idea out in its rawest, unedited form, and once it receives a degree of public attention, whether critical or admiring or hostile, then you’ve spent that insight, and it is very difficult to turn it into something else. So now we have a public sphere in which people are unleashing their most basic ideas and thoughts, we have entered a sort of organised bedlam where everyone says the first thing that comes into their minds. It is certainly not anything you can compare to what we call literature. I can understand the benefits in the case of journalists who need to get information out, but I am not so sure of the advantages of social media in the case of writers and artists.

What are the challenges that writers face when they’re living outside India?  

Living in India and publishing here is obviously a lot more challenging. Living abroad, nobody cares what you write about India. In India, writing and publishing have become challenges in a way they certainly weren’t previously. There is the inner censor at work, there are outer censors that are obviously extremely busy right now, so in every which way you are constrained. Then of course, once the piece is published, there is the fear of public backlash or ostracism. I simply do not envy the situation of the writer or journalist in India who has to work against tremendous odds, I can only admire them from a distance.

Are there other modes of expression in which artists are making their mark?

I suppose the biggest artistic breakthrough in India has been in the streaming world, where you’ve seen things of a kind of quality that had become almost kind of extinct in conventional cinema in India. Obviously, they attest to the enormous talent that exists in India today, the number of young people in particular with insights, with energy, with talent, is obviously extremely high. Whether the streaming world alone can accommodate all these many talents remains to be seen, but it’s certainly created some of the most interesting films and TV series that we have seen in India.

Also Read | Indian streaming industry expected to grow $13-15 billion over the next decade

The freelance writer and playwright is based in Mumbai.

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