Midway through Pankaj Mishra’s first novel in 20 years, Run and Hide, the narrator, Arun, predicts something drastic. “The new India will never make it,” he thinks, on a long cab ride from New Delhi to the Himalayas. Arun has just abandoned his girlfriend, Alia, in London and returned to India for the first time since his mother’s funeral. A close friend of Arun’s died by suicide in an American prison not too long ago; another friend is about to make a creepy move on Alia. And yet Arun is beleaguered more by his country’s prospects than his breakup or loss. You don’t have to agree with his opinion of “new India” to realise that his prognosis is superfluous to the story.
Ever since his debut novel, The Romantics, was published in 1999, Mishra has established himself as a prognosticating pundit of sorts. His essays have scrupulously documented the dark underside of India’s economic growth: the widening rift between the country’s nouveau riche and the millions who struggle to make ends meet; the decades of military occupation of Kashmir; the reverberatory ascent of Hindu nationalism. In 2017 he published Age of Anger, an ambitious polemic that traced the rise of Modi, Erdogan and Trump to older ideas of discontent with western modernity. Even in the 18th and 19th centuries, Mishra wrote, “the sense of being humiliated by arrogant and deceptive elites was widespread, cutting across national, religious and racial lines”.
Run and Hide puts this provocative theory into practice. In the opening pages, when we’re told that Arun and his friends are “self-made men of… lowly social backgrounds”, we’re already being primed to expect a cautionary tale about our unequal world. Aseem is a novelist and a media personality who is perceived as a hero of “petit-bourgeois aspirations” in India. Virendra was born a Dalit, the lowest Hindu caste, once called “untouchables”, but becomes a Wall Street billionaire within a few years. Arun’s father is cartoonishly evil, at once a wife beater, a rioter, a philanderer, a foul-mouthed swindler, and a “libtard-obsessed” supporter of Modi. Arun is the only character allowed some degree of complexity. A part-time translator living in the Himalayan foothills with his mother, he is alone among his cohort in his reluctance to pursue a lucrative career. He rejects the idea of moving to the west with a plaintive remark: “How much further do I have to go for a bit of dignity?”
In Arun, the Buddhist desire to withdraw from the world coexists with a sterile self-absorption, which makes for a fascinating case study, but a wearisome narrator. The novel is robbed of a necessary frisson, what Henry James once called “an immense and exquisite correspondence with life”.
There is much to be admired about Mishra’s willingness to tackle one of contemporary fiction’s ignored themes: class. But his social – and, frankly, moral – indictments come at the expense of a novel’s inherent imaginative promise. It isn’t just the tediously flat characters; the plot, too, is an assortment of soapbox staples, be it the rags-to-riches story of Arun’s friends, or his own poor-boy-meets-rich-girl trajectory. Women are no more than props in this sweeping inventory of male self-aggrandisement. Arun’s mother is stereotypically submissive: always “working, knitting, when not cooking or cleaning”. Alia, too, is thinly drawn, apparently doomed to vapidness by her well-off upbringing, and later, for posting selfies on social media.
The didacticism of Mishra’s essays, bracing in their clarity, works against him in fiction. Arun may be approaching 50, but his misgivings about Alia are the stuff of teenage pop lyrics: “you belonged to a world that could never quite be mine”. The reader is never quite immersed in a credible fictional landscape, because some character is speechifying on every other page about the crisis of liberal democracy or the “unfolding calamity” in India. Mishra doesn’t seem to realise the difference between the illuminating and the trivial detail, what to include and what to leave out. It is one thing to mock the pretensions of a newly wealthy middle class blinded by their own appetites, quite another to repeatedly drive home the point that everything about the rich is fraudulent, down to their “fake fingernails”. Scenes are introduced as “agonisingly vivid” before being laid out, objects are overwhelmingly catalogued as “emblems” before being described. The novel exudes a constant anxiety about being understood: Mishra doesn’t trust the reader to read between the lines.
Twenty years ago, Mishra famously criticised one of Salman Rushdie’s novels, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, for merely echoing “the white noise of the modern world”. Now Mishra has himself produced a bristly saga, cloying in its concerns, tailored to appeal to those who, following the literary theorist Fredric Jameson’s edict, breathlessly consume novels from the global south as national allegories. You’ll find in this book a meticulous exposition of India’s illiberal turn, how the country’s pluralist and quasi-socialist founding principles were betrayed in the past three decades. But the story lacks a subtler feeling for life.