Pankaj Mishra’s Novel of Intellectuals and Influencers

Pankaj Mishra’s Novel of Intellectuals and Influencers

The Differences Between Us

Pankaj Mishra’s novel of intellectuals and influencers.


In 2015, The New York Times Book Review posed the question “Whatever happened to the Novel of Ideas?” to the writers Pankaj Mishra and Benjamin Moser. On the question of “whether philosophical novels have gone the way of the dodo bird,” Mishra answered in the affirmative and—not a writer who shies away from generalizations—charged that the culprit was the MFA program. “America’s postwar creative-writing industry,” Mishra claimed, has “hindered literature from its customary reckoning with the acute problems of the modern epoch” and “boosted instead a cult of private experience.”

Yet in his new novel, Run and Hide, Mishra sounds a bit down on the idea of, well, ideas. He begins his story on a college campus, a place that, theoretically, should be teeming with the stuff (in fact, he asserted in the Book Review, the campus novel had become the new novel of ideas). Yet in the picture he sketches of the university, it largely functions as a means to an end: that of ruthless upward mobility. The novel begins at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, where we meet three young men filled with great expectations. The narrator, Arun Dwivedi, is a lower-middle-class student whose father sells samosas at a train station and forged a Brahmin surname to hide the family’s lower-caste origins. His roommate is Virendra Das, a computer science major and Dalit whose sheer proximity makes Arun feel unsteady, as if his secret could be discovered at any moment.

Their mutual friend is Aseem Thakur, whose wild trajectory from poor engineering student to shining light of the global liberal speaking circuit (he eventually runs a festival of ideas billed as the “Aspen-cum-Davos of the Global South”) occupies a fair share of the novel’s early chapters and sets the tone for much of what comes after. Indeed, throughout Run and Hide, Mishra oscillates between skepticism and outright cynicism regarding the status of ideas in a hyperconnected world. The circles that the men travel in after graduation—literary festivals, media parties, various corners of social media—are all shown as vacuous spaces for progressive preening and clout chasing, where ideas are not something you struggle to live by but rather something you condense into a viral tweet, and where the people are not intellectuals but rather intellectual influencers.

This is especially true of Arun and Aseem. Virendra cashes in after graduation and works at a multinational hedge fund, but his two classmates make a play for the life of the mind, finding jobs in journalism and publishing. Yet Mishra suggests that these are merely circuitous and, indeed, less honest paths for gaining power and prestige. Aseem decides to turn their shared experiences at IIT into a novel told “in a gritty social-realist style,” yet his real aim, most likely, is to have loads of videos of himself on YouTube “in conversation” at literary festivals and bookstores. The same holds true of many of the people Arun goes on to meet. His ex-lover, for example, is a woman named Alia from a cosmopolitan Indian family who is working on a comically vague book, “a secret history of globalization.” The particulars of her arguments are largely glossed over, but no matter—the book’s real purpose is to serve as a line in her bio. Alia may have a million-plus followers on Twitter, but a friend has a deal with HBO.

With Run and Hide, Mishra tweaks the question he was asked years earlier. Here, we see the novel of ideas, already a shaky category, further destabilized by the shifting backdrop against which ideas are expressed. Intellectual life, this novel tells us, has not just retreated to the college campus; it has been disintegrated and dispersed in pixels across our feeds, another commodity to profit from. Arun, now a quiet literary translator, watches as Alia and Aseem turn their ideas into content and their social consciousness into social media. Here, Mishra has written not a novel of ideas but rather a novel about ideas: how, in the ecosystem of social media and the influencer economy, it is getting harder to distinguish a belief from a brand.

In 2015, Time magazine announced its choices for that year’s 100 most influential people. Among them was the newly elected prime minister of India, Narendra Modi. In his brief essay on the right-wing Hindu nationalist, whose Bharatiya Janata Party fanned the flames of Islamophobia on its path to victory, Barack Obama offered nothing but praise. “As a boy,” he wrote, “Narendra Modi helped his father sell tea to support their family. Today, he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and his life story—from poverty to Prime Minister—reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise.” For Obama, the president of a country built on the myth of meritocracy, Modi’s (romanticized) rags-to-riches story was a shiny bauble whose charms he could not resist.

The theme of meritocratic self-help pervades Run and Hide. One of the most pernicious symptoms of globalization, Mishra suggests, has been the spread of this bootstraps ideology across the world. It is in this context, where striving is an ethical imperative, that his characters see no conflict between social justice activism and self-promotion. Arun says of Aseem, “He learned from Modi that the disgrace of being born weak and ignorant, and growing up ashamed, was now obsolete, and that, in the meritocratic society emerging in India, one could publicise one’s semi-rural, low-caste and low-class beginnings just as profitably as self-made Americans had for their origins in log cabins, peanut farms and East European shtetls.”

After he graduates from IIT, Aseem takes a low-paying job as a news reporter in Kashmir, where he covers the insurgency against the Indian government (a subject that Mishra reported on for The New York Review of Books in 1999) and exposes the army for dressing up its soldiers as terrorists and carrying out attacks on civilians. Reading about Aseem’s fearless reporting, we quickly warm up to him. But Arun cools our passions by observing that his friend has used this reporting from a conflict-ridden region as a launch pad for his literary ambitions. “In a space where the most sensational news was drowsily recorded,” Arun notes, “he flexed a muscular prose.” He also suspects that Aseem might have fabricated certain scenes in an effort to win readers, noting how frequently he seemed to find uncannily poetic images of war—such as that of a harmonium destroyed by a bullet. “I now wonder if he really saw this ” Arun thinks.

If it was all a plan, it succeeded. Two years later, Aseem leaves for Delhi to become an editor of a popular lifestyle magazine. Under his direction, the magazine becomes a voice for the anti-Modi left, and Arun gives Aseem his due: “It was the only one to consistently cover environmental depredations and routine torture in Kashmir and the North-East. It exposed corrupt politicians, judges and bureaucrats; it took the lead, after the atrocity in Delhi, in demanding swift justice for victims of rape.” But, Arun notes, politics and journalism also served as a springboard for Aseem’s favorite cause: himself. After reporting a story involving corrupt military officials in Kashmir, Aseem becomes a celebrity, appearing on the talk show and festival circuits, where he is billed as “an environmental activist, cultural impresario and intellectual entrepreneur of the Global South.” Aseem launches the Global Minds United festival of books and ideas, where he hobnobs with Joseph Stiglitz; and when he writes his novel, its lack of critical acclaim does not stop him from booking five-star hotels for his launch parties. Looking back on Aseem’s trajectory, Arun observes the caution with which some of his magazine’s stories were constructed. The charges leveled at the powers that be never seemed to include the ones sponsoring Aseem’s festival. “Aseem did not wish to rearrange this mean world,” Arun says; he merely wanted to rearrange his place within it.

Arun’s own position in Aseem’s world is complicated. He floats in and out of it, at times uncomfortably enjoying the champagne of the moneyed literati, at other times imagining an alternative life where he can atone for his excesses by cutting himself off from Delhi. Arun has, in many ways, lived a life parallel to Aseem’s: After IIT, he worked as an editor at a small literary magazine in Delhi, but despite his prestigious degree, he was never able to overcome his sense of being out of place. He describes the magazine as “a rich Bengali’s indulgence, with a small and unchanging subscription list, and staffed by Anglophilic scions of establishment families.” In Delhi, it seems people are less likely to talk about literature than about whether they read it at Oxford or Cambridge. Fortuitously, Arun is pulled away from this scene—albeit by some disturbing news from home. His father, he learns, has deserted his mother and run off with a younger woman, so Arun leaves Delhi to help his mother settle in the quiet Himalayan town of Ranipur. There, he discovers some respite from desire.

While Arun has not been immune to the pleasures of life among the glittering set, he finds the emotional pace of such aspiration exhausting. Life in the Himalayas feels free, he says: “free of the strain of ambition not my own and the fatigue of insecurities imposed by others.” Yet desire is a greedy thing, and it finds him again, shattering his idyll. First, new government roads invade the region, opening up new opportunities or, as Arun narrates it, harbingers of doom. Someone in the town starts a taxi service, then a gift shop for tourists, until one day, the son of a tea stand owner “announced his intention to do computer and English-speaking courses,” believing they could be “his springboard for life in a big city like Delhi.” Arun realizes there is nowhere he can run and hide; the thing about globalization is that, as its name threatens, it is everywhere.

As Arun’s once quaint hideaway becomes trendy, it occasions the arrival of a beautiful young woman from New York who decides to remodel her family’s old villa back in India. A wealthy, glamorous pseudo-intellectual, she is, of course, an acquaintance of Aseem’s. Her name is Alia, the “you” to whom Run and Hide is addressed. Reading the first half of the novel, one gets a strange picture of Alia. Who is this person, an Indian American who presumably has the interests and qualifications to write a book on contemporary India and globalization yet also needs Arun’s lessons on basic facts of the country’s history (such as the attacks on Sikh civilians that came in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination) and political present (the rise of Hindu nationalism and neoliberalism)? Is Alia that clueless, or is Arun, who often portrays himself as being more enlightened than his fellow IIT graduates, a mansplainer?

Of course, two things can be true at the same time. Alia is smart, but perhaps too self-involved to develop a theory on her subjects; all she can say is that she wants her book to speak “truth to power,” a platitude she utters without irony. The book is as much (if not more) about her own aspirations as it is about the class of men, corrupted by their own ambition, she thinks she is writing about. After graduating from New York University, we are told, Alia worked for a literary magazine in Brooklyn, followed by a job with Amnesty International in Sri Lanka, before breaking into modeling (for a moisturizing cream) and some kind of job involving a “television books show.” On Twitter, she has over a million followers who look to her for progressive commentary on hot-button issues. On Instagram, she announces her “political and aesthetic preferences, using book covers, black-ink drawings of Audre Lorde, and pictures of political demonstrations from Hong Kong to La Paz.” When she is approached to do sponsored content on the website, she takes offense and issues a long post announcing “I AM NOT AN INFLUENCER.” But she is also not not an influencer, insisting that “social media, though terribly compromised by brand capitalism and the right wing, could still be an agent of positive change.” A directionless blue check, Alia concludes that it is time to write a book.

I am not sure what explains Arun’s attraction to Alia, aside from the fact that she is physically attractive, but OK—fine. The two embark on a relationship that sees Arun finally flee his self-imposed exile in the Himalayas to resorts in Pondicherry and a few months living in London with Alia at her family’s flat. There, he accompanies her to parties for left-wing literary magazines and to dinners where he meets people who, like Alia, are focused on becoming change makers, regardless of whether any actual change is involved. For her part, Alia becomes sick with jealousy one night at a party for a lefty magazine when she meets a “Somali-British woman in a green turban and ankle boots, who had used her much-retweeted arguments against social media to secure a book contract and a feature article on Vogue online.” If Mishra once fretted over the campus novel and the retreat from the public sphere, in Run and Hide he shows that the latter—at least its online iteration—can be just as detached from reality.

After a few too many of these fashionably radical nights out in London, Arun becomes vaguely and understandably depressed. He never calls out Alia’s superficiality directly, but there is an air of superiority in his insistence that he can never fit into her world. “I couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was performing in a troupe with better actors,” he says at one point. Soon Arun falls under the influence of a Tibetan monk who doles out tough love to Westerners in a lecture hall on Caledonian Road, yelling at his audience: “Too much self, self, self! Too much fake drama!” Arun embraces the monk’s advice and packs his bags for India while Alia is still sleeping, then flies to a Tibetan monastery where he can go into isolation. Arun prizes the drastic nature of his act of self-abnegation, but the monk informs him that on this, too, he is not as distinctive as he thinks: By early 2020, the whole world, in one way or another, has gone into hiding “to evade death and suffering, with a surplus of toilet paper.” It is a refreshing deflation of our narrator, who, in the final pages of the novel, we begin to suspect is working on a book of his own.

By the end of Run and Hide, all three of our IIT grads are in crisis, including the brightest light among them, Aseem. Without spoiling too much, his hypocrisy is fully exposed (hint). When the scandal hits the papers, public opinion turns against him and concludes that “all his crusading for environmental issues and against political corruption, all his espousing of women’s rights and social justice for the historically disadvantaged minorities, and other left-ish causes, were not more than instruments of an exorbitant lust.”

The rise and fall of Aseem (and all the Aseems of the world) is a fairly straightforward tale, but Arun’s trajectory is trickier to construe as a morality play. Much of Run and Hide consists of Arun uneasily observing Aseem’s and Alia’s tortured attempts to translate left-wing politics into literary celebrity. Yet what about Arun himself? Are his acerbic observations of everyone else’s shallowness enough to prove his own depth? Is there any way out of this mess if your critique of said mess is likewise a product that can be sold? With all its talk about the cynical reasons people write books, the reader is left wondering what to make of Run and Hide. How do we reconcile Arun’s judgments about the commodification of radical ideas and the pursuit of literary prestige in the context of an overtly leftist novel published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux? This feels like such an unfair question to ask of any writer or book—so very “and yet you live in a society.” But with its relentless self-reflection, Run and Hide seems to invite such questions. Or maybe Mishra’s ruthlessness is just contagious.

Run and Hide almost feels intentionally unpleasant to read, as if its author is anxious about the ease with which ideas travel through space in the Internet age and wants to remind us that deep engagement with the problems of the world should feel like a bit of a slog. Conversely, he mocks self-described progressives who short circuit if they have to read (or write) anything longer than 180 characters. In a hilarious scene near the end of the novel, Mishra invites us into a London party that Alia and Arun attend. Milling among the invitees, Arun meets an academic who “periodically announces a long and necessary break from Twitter to work on his book, only to sign back in a few days later, in order to, he claims, alert his followers to a new and important atrocity, usually of a racial nature: the latest one is the persecution of Meghan Markle by the British press.”

This is a perfect example of how Mishra locates someone who has the right idea—Meghan Markle has been unfairly maligned by the British press—but then wields it in a such a self-serving fashion that you have to wonder: Is this person actually rooting for a better world, or would that not, after all, cut into their follower count? Mishra takes a risk in Run and Hide by diverting our attention from the obvious atrocities of the Modi regime (though they are by no means swept under the rug) to the more subtle ones in which many of his readers might be complicit. As Aseem confesses to Arun at one point, “the difference between us and the Hindu crazies is not so great after all. Ambition and vanity have probably made us more alike than we like to think.”

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