Pankaj Mishra, Intellectual and Spiritual Vagrant

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[Mishra continues]... in very complex societies and cultures as those contained in England and America, where you have huge numbers of people thinking very differently from what their governments say or do. So I suppose close proximity to them has produced a much more refined conception of them than I had when I hadn't left India.

LRS: Can you tell us about something you experienced in England or America that sharpened your conceptions of these places?

Mishra: It is hard for me to recall a particular experience. I do think that most people live in unawareness of where they and their society stands in the world, both historically and in the present. This is not to be pitied and scorned, but to be understood in the light of the pressures the society built around work and consumption exerts in its citizens, where a kind of amnesia and ignorance is essential if you want to move from day to day without feeling unduly stressed-out. I am a writer, and I spend most of my day thinking about writing, history, the present, I have this kind of leisure, but this is not what other people do or can do. So it is important to be aware of the larger organized systems of meaning we inhabit very differently, and to not blame individuals for aggressiveness and violence of their societies.

LRS: To what extent have these insights been personal, and to what extent do you think they have a wider cultural reach?

Mishra: It has been easier for me to have a more complex idea of life in the West. But I think one of the problems we continue to suffer from is that despite the Internet and cable TV, growing numbers of writers, and improved communication systems, people in the West still don't know enough about how people live in the rest of the world—they still depend on simple concepts of Islam, Muslims, Hinduism etc. So concepts replace the reality of lived lives, real people, and these concepts promote great misunderstanding. That's where the role of writers is even more important than it used to be.

LRS: Do you consider yourself (or aspire) to be a public intellectual?

Mishra: This is one role I would like to stay miles away from, mostly because in England and the US, it implies a sort of punditry that is really information masquerading as knowledge. There are no public intellectuals really in the real sense of the word, which implies a kind of intellectual and spiritual integrity that is rare in the public sphere. There are opinion-makers, security experts, hacks, ambitious academics, and most of them are compromised by their proximity to political power.

LRS: What about in India—is there still a public space for this kind of intellectual integrity?

Mishra: No, and it is shrinking by the day as a certain kind of urban affluence spreads and the idea of Indian superpowerdom goes around and intoxicates the middle class and its media. I think this new sense of power privileged Indians have is going to be very damaging for the country's political and intellectual life. You see what this awareness of power does in the United States, where despite the wealth of talent and intellect, you have someone like George W. Bush running the country, and public debate, as reflected in the media, occurs around predictably partisan lines and is generally sterile. We are also heading toward a politically and intellectually darker time.

LRS: What projects are you working on now? And what are you reading?

Mishra: I am trying to get started on a novel; also a short history of modern India. I am also trying to read as many books as I can on China. I return to India after a few weeks of traveling, and then I plan to write for a few weeks. This is how much of my time is spent these days.

LRS: What's taking you to China?

Mishra: I have been interested in China for a long time, and I feel I ought to know more about it. People talk of India and China in tandem now. Much is made of their rise as superpowers. And, yes, both countries have ambitious middle classes longing for international recognition. But I am not sure if the two countries have sorted out the great social, political and environmental problems that they face. Or have reckoned fully with their ancient traditions in their search for a suitable modernity. I think many of this century's big questions are going to be addressed in these two countries, and I feel I have neglected learning about China for far too long.

LRS: You've described yourself as an "intellectual and spiritual vagrant." You also express a fear of this sense of vagrancy, that this is all there is or will be. An End to Suffering is openly a personal spiritual quest—did researching and writing the book bring you to a kind of peace, even though you've said that you don't consider yourself Buddhist?

Mishra: Thinking about the Buddha, reading about, about Buddhist philosophy, making connections with the world we live in—these were the most rewarding things about writing this book. There was self-knowledge, too, and I feel I have found in Buddhism one of the most subtle ways of looking at the world and oneself. Yet I feel reluctant to say more because I am still living, the world is changing all the time, so am I, and nothing remains constant. So there is no permanent peace or stability I can honestly claim to arrive at. Every day begins afresh, and I feel I have to keep up that pitch of self-enquiry, not bind myself too much to conceptions of who I am or what I have become, but try to live in the present, and be alert and attention to oneself and the people around one. This is, perhaps, the greatest gift that writing this book gave me. But, as I said, I better not be complacent about it, or I will lose it!

LRS: Do you have a favorite Buddhist saying or teaching?

Mishra: Yes. The Buddha's last words: "All conditioned things are subject to decay—strive on untiringly."






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purchase selected works by Pankaj Mishra:

An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World

The Romantics

India in Mind

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India

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