A living study of caste and class in India

In the 20 years that have passed since his only previous novel, Pankaj Mishra has gained a reputation as a brilliant literary essayist and controversial left-wing polemicist.

In his articles – some of which were collected in Nothing fanatical (2020) – Mishra, born in India and living in London, lights up Britain’s colonial heritage and gives vital criticism of India under the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi. I always want to know what he’s thinking.

But does he have the creative intelligence required to write fiction? It is clear from Run and hidethe opening as narrator Arun describes meeting with his two friends Aseem and Virendra on his first day at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi that Mishra has a lively imagination.

The trio is subjected to a depraved initiation ritual, which establishes the novel’s interest in caste and class. They endure their humiliation because education is supposed to be their ticket to a better life.

Arun’s parents would like to see him in “the ranks of those who do not have to worry about money”, while Aseem is happy to say: “If you
must be responsible for your life, then you must be ruthless. “

Arun looks back on his youth and tells the story from the Middle Ages, after both Virendra and Aseem have been imprisoned, in the United States and India respectively. Arun remembers his friends’ head-long rush into a 21st century where the economies of the East are rising and Western power is declining; he goes another way and moves close to his mother in a village in the Himalayas.

Arun addresses a writer named Alia, who is working on a story about a global financial scandal, and halfway through she goes into the story as a character.

Aseem, who had become a magazine editor and art festival director before his imprisonment, encourages Arun to meet Alia and calls her “really hot. Rich, but with some brain cells and very politically engaged.”

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The observation is an illustration of Aseem’s superficiality, but it still feels like a flaw in men’s novels when their female characters are to be beautiful, as if the author would not otherwise trust that we were interested in them.

The political urgency of Mishra’s journalism is palpable Run and hideand his polemical voice cuts through in Arun’s narrative, with a flick to Salman Rushdie and Tony Blair.

Jibs about complacent liberals continue as Arun and Alia become a couple and travel to London, and he discovers that her privileged friends are all merging into a veil of hypocrites. I snorted in recognition of their insane chatter about Boris Johnson, Stoke Newington and Rebecca Solnit, while deep down I knew people are more complicated than in this portrayal.

Fortunately, the novel recovers, leaving London and the knowing tone for an end to genuine emotional vulnerability. Eventually I was left in the hope that I would not have to wait another 20 years for Mishra’s next novel.

Run and hideby Pankaj Mishra, published by Hutchinson Heinemann for £ 16.99)

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