The following article is a conversation with the writer Pankaj Mishra. The interview can be read in full in Paris Review, where it was published in August 2022.
I met the novelist Anuradha Roy in Delhi in the mid-nineties, when she was an editor at Oxford University Press and I had just published my first book. Not long after that, she moved to a Himalayan town to set up Permanent Black, now India’s premier intellectual publisher, with her husband, Rukun Advani. She also began to write fiction. Her fifth novel, The Earthspinner, which was released in the United States this summer, is about the war on reason and on imagination in a world consumed by political fanaticism.
Though I don’t remember what was said in our first meeting, I can recall a certain hopefulness in the air—there was a lot of that about, among publishers and writers, in India in the nineties. Writing in English was ceasing to be the furtive and poorly paid endeavor it long had been. There were greater opportunities to publish; new literary periodicals and networks of promotion seemed to be creating the infrastructure for more vigorous intellectual and artistic life. Indeed, the conventional wisdom of that decade, helped by the prominence of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Arundhati Roy abroad, was that Indian writing in English was “arriving,” no less resoundingly than was India’s embrace of consumer capitalism at the end of history. One measure of this apparent progress was the respectful international attention such work elicited. Granta and The New Yorker devoted issues to Indian writing in 1997, the fiftieth year of India’s independence from British colonialism.
In 2022, there is something very forlorn about the seventy-fifth anniversary of India’s independence. Murderous Hindu supremacists rule the country, and lynch mobs—physical and digital—police its cultural and intellectual life. Educated Indians spend much of their time and energy trying to emigrate. Literature remains, for a tiny minority, the means to cognition in the darkness, and literary festivals project, briefly, the illusion of a community. But every writer seems terribly alone with herself. The sense of a meaningful shared space and a common language, the possibility of a broad literary flourishing—many of those fragile shoots of the nineties have been trampled into the ground by the ferocious invaders of private as well as public spheres.
Over twenty-five years of radical transformations, Anuradha and I have kept intermittently in touch. While emailing in recent months, I began to wonder if other readers should be invited to reflect on the fate of writers in India today. What follows is a conversation that explores some of the historical uniqueness of this fate.
There is a line in your wonderful new novel about how ordinary days can explode in places like India, leaving us to collect the shattered pieces for the rest of our lives (I am paraphrasing; I don’t have my copy with me at present). I was struck by it, partly because not enough has been said about the writer or artist in India who has to work amidst these shocks—of history, I was going to add, but the destruction of human lives and of possibilities in India is often too commonplace and routine to rise to the status of history. In recent years, I have become more curious about writers who worked under such extraordinary pressures—the Russians after their revolution, Germans during the early years of Nazism, Spanish artists during and after the civil war, South African writers under apartheid. What was experienced in these cases is something that has never been experienced to the same degree by writers and artists in the UK or the U.S.—the marginalization of art as well as dissent; the abrupt shrinking or loss of audiences and local patronage; threats of expulsion and exile, if not assassination. How do you calibrate your own relationship with a ruined public sphere as a writer (and citizen)? I remember J. M. Coetzee complaining about the obligation to address political themes in his fiction while he was living in South Africa. Do you feel any such imperative? I ask also because your new novel, though set largely in the eighties, is alert to the multiple transformations of India in the last three decades.
You’re right—we open the newspaper every day to some fresh horror. Terrible acts of violence are not even reported any longer, and if they are, they are forgotten the next day, or replaced by some other appalling public crime. I say “public crime” because these are now outdoor performances uploaded for general viewing by vigilante groups supposedly working for a Hindu cause: protecting “their” cows, caste, women, and so on.
Not only is the destruction of human lives and possibilities in India commonplace and routine, it is now well recognized as being sanctioned by the state—which does not so much turn a blind eye to vigilante violence as actively encourage it, and which ices the hatred cake by punishing the victims instead of the perpetrators. We have long been used to mobs that melt away into the shadows. The new development is that they no longer melt away; on the contrary, they become internet stars for especially vicious hate speech.
In this situation, the kind of books we publish at Permanent Black and the kind of books I write seem to me like faint shouts in an aggressive cacophony that drowns out reasoned debate and dissent. We are completely marginal to the mainstream discourse, which is clamorous, angry, and often abusive. In Germany, a hundred years ago, this was the initial stage of a fascist process. India is far more diverse, populous, and difficult to control centrally, so there is some hope.
I am relieved that you can see hope. I am less optimistic, perhaps because I am not as exposed to everyday Indian realities as you are. I worry that unlike Germany, which plunged into vicious philistinism after a century of unprecedented achievement in the arts and philosophy, India has moved straight from a pre-Gutenberg culture to the garish modernity of smartphone screens. The divide between a minority of writers and artists dedicated to a slow culture of reflection and creation and a majority prone to hectic consumption of politics as well as entertainment feels much starker.
Read the rest of the article here.