Culture vulture

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 March, 2007, 12:00am

PANKAJ MISHRA has made a career of challenging received wisdom. His work, whether fiction, non-fiction or journalism, strives to depict the world, and especially its eastern hemisphere, in fresh and illuminating ways - most often to its other half, the west. Fusing extensive travel and personal experience with intensive research, Mishra peers into the planet's darkest recesses, confronts its most complex cultures and records what he finds. This might be the effect of globalisation on small-town India (Butter Chicken in Ludhiana), Buddha's place in contemporary society (An End to Suffering) or Martin Amis' views on Islam (for The Observer newspaper).

Mishra's most recent book does all of the above, Amis notwithstanding. Temptations of the West narrates Mishra's journeys in Asia to question the largest modern orthodoxy of them all: the fast-changing relationship between east and west.

Given his reputation as a genre-busting intellectual pioneer, it's fitting that Mishra in person should defy expectations. Within the elegant surroundings of his London home (he divides his time between England and India), the 37-year-old seems an unlikely adventurer.

The beard is promisingly rugged, but his loose-fitting Indian clothes can't disguise the slightness of his frame or the mildness of his demeanour. Mishra is polite, thoughtful and unfailingly serious. Despite having a dry wit, he doesn't crack a smile, much less laugh during our conversation. Indeed, it's in conversation that Mishra proves truly adventurous, whether relating his travels or discussing ideas.

Sitting cross-legged on his living room sofa, he fashions elegantly turned phrases that usher thoughts along different avenues until they're dispensed with. Take this meditation on the centrality of personal experience to his work.

'A friend in America said he became a journalist because he couldn't trust the newspapers. I could say the same, except I never really thought of the newspapers as holders of significant analysis. Going to new places and experiencing their realities at first hand has been terribly important. I feel I haven't earned the right to talk about them unless I expose myself to those realities.'

Mishra's motivation for these journeys is a sense of his own ignorance. He cites China as the latest example of this drive towards self-education. 'Here is a neighbouring country [to India] which is going through some of the most extraordinary changes any country has experienced - and I know nothing about it. I had to force myself to go and feel like an utter fool to try to decipher the whole place. I'm still very much a beginner trying to understand a complex society.'

Hong Kong, by contrast, seems easier to comprehend. Nevertheless, despite a number of visits, there's much that mystifies and intrigues him. 'Hong Kong's recent renaissance is fascinating. The way it's attracting a lot of capital from China and elsewhere, and becoming again a booming city. At the same time, it's a city which points to a very unattractive urban future. The way people live in these very small flats, and a city devoted to money-making and doing business deals.'

What puzzles Mishra most of all is the very thing the literary festival seeks to address - the dearth of home-grown culture. Why, he asks, has a city that has created so much prosperity produced so little art? 'In Europe, traditionally, it was the third generation after family wealth that thought, 'Let's write a symphony or a novel.' With America, people lamented its lack of culture, then it eventually produced writers and museums. Hong Kong has gone through a few generations of wealthy people and it's not happened to the same extent. Maybe with the literary and arts festivals, we're entering that phase.'

True to his method, Mishra exemplifies his point with a personal encounter - visiting a Hong Kong school some years ago. 'The students quite liked me because they didn't really understand what a writer is. The writer is simply not so much present in their daily lives. It's not that easy to conceive of writing as a vocation.'

This same notion - that writing is at odds with the prevailing culture - has informed most of Mishra's adult life. He says his literary blend of culture, travel, politics and autobiography is practically non-existent in India. 'The idea of writing as a vocation was unknown to me for a long time,' he says. 'I didn't really know what writing consisted of - I just wanted to write. [In Britain], you can develop the idea of being a writer from the age of 10 onwards. Growing up in India, that culture didn't exist. It doesn't exist today, except in very small parts. When you don't have that, you don't know what you're going to write about.'

Mishra says that a vibrant literary culture is perhaps the strongest temptation the west has to offer - apart from his wife, Mary Mount. It goes a long way to explaining Mishra's absence from his homeland. 'The temptation is the idea of writing, travelling, publishing, which is all made possible because people [in Britain] are interested in that kind of writing - admittedly a minority, but they do exist. That's an irresistible temptation and the reason I spend time here.'

In many ways, Mishra arrived in London perfectly equipped to deal with the west: a final vestige of India's colonial past is the emphasis on British culture in the Indian education system.

'I learned about English history and literature from the time that I learned about Indian literature. That isn't the case here. You could say, 'Why should that be?' But now that we're living in an interconnected world, where globalisation is knitting together societies at unprecedented speed, I do find that ignorance more and more shocking.'

Indeed, Mishra argues, if any single factor separates west and east today, it's the west's reluctance to engage with eastern culture. He describes British multi-culturalism, for instance, as 'froth ... There hasn't been a deeper exchange. You can't just buy a daal at Marks & Spencer and think, 'We're all multicultural now.' That's multiculturalism through consumerism. It's very shallow.'

The rest of the world can't afford to be so correspondingly ill-informed. 'Even extremely well-educated westerners who pronounce on global conflicts actually know very little about the world outside Europe and America. This isn't the case if you've grown up in Latin America or India, for example. There, you have to know about the world because the west has been the dominant power in your area for the past 250 years.'

Mishra traces this introversion back to the end of the cold war, which in the west, at least, inspired the belief that capitalism had won. 'Since 1989, there has been this great sense of triumphalism. Many people believe that the only model that exists is the model of capitalism, and that countries like India and China are now embracing it. They think that the history of China begins in the 1980s with the economic reforms and the history of India begins in 1991 with liberalisation.'

Mishra claims that these economic booms actually began under socialist governments several decades earlier. A more obvious example of myopic western self-interest is Iraq over the past decade or so.

'Look how these sanctions that western governments imposed on Iraq changed the country internally, how they altered the relationship between Saddam Hussein and the population. That has never really been talked about. People have this simplistic picture that if we get rid of the man at the top, the oppressed population will be grateful to us.'

The failure to grasp the extent of Hussein's appeal, and the loyalty of many Iraqis to him, partially explains why the 'invasion was botched and failed so catastrophically. I think this lack of knowledge is proving to be more and more expensive', says Mishra.

In this context, the truthful artist is even more important. He admits to an old-fashioned faith in 'the writer as the critic of society', but says an author can enlighten if he's prepared to engage with the world as a whole and confess the limits of his own understanding.

'That's what motivates me - the desire to learn and write so the reader can learn from my process of discovery. That's what I like - not taking them to a particular big idea, but saying, 'This is how I experienced a situation, these are its complexities, these are the individuals caught up in it'. Sometimes I realise it, sometimes I don't, but I want to keep trying.'

Pankaj Mishra, Tue, 8am, Foreign Correspondents' Club, HK$350; Wed, 12.30pm, Foreign Correspondents' Club, HK$180

Writers's Notes

Genre Novels, travel writing and cultural criticism

Latest book Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond (Picador, HK$195)

Age 37

Born Uttar Pradesh Province, India

Homes India and England

Family Married to Mary Mount

Other works include Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (Penguin, 1995), The Romantics: A Novel (Picador, 2000), An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Picador, 2004), India in Mind (Vintage, 2004)

Other jobs Publisher, journalist

Next project An unnamed novel

What the papers say

'A beautifully rendered mixture of history, philosophy, travel, journal and autobiography.' - Independent on Sunday Books of the Year on An End to Suffering

'With perfectly modulated lyricism, Mishra evokes a world few of us have seen from within. He is the rare writer who is at ease as a historian, philosopher, traveller, and memoirist.' - New York Review of Books on An End to Suffering

'A subtle, vivid and inexhaustibly thought-provoking book.' - The Guardian on Temptations of the West

Author's Bookshelf

A House for Mr Biswas

by V.S. Naipaul

Naipaul's classic 1961 novel. Mr Biswas is an Indo-Trinidadian, who strives for independence and success in a newly post-colonial world. Having lived a rootless existence, his goal in this dark and moving comedy of manners is to discover a home.

Sentimental Education

by Gustav Flaubert

A young man, Frederic Moreau, lives through the 1848 revolution, mixes with the souring cream of French society and falls in love with an older woman. Autobiographical, ironic and pessimistic.

The Possessed

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky's 1872 novel dissects life in imperial Russia towards the end of the 19th century, examining a society on the brink of collapse.

The Labyrinth of Solitude

by Octavio Paz

The Mexican poet and writer offers a vivid account of his homeland's people, history and identity. In America, Paz noted that Mexicans feel especially ashamed of their origins. He seeks to uncover the men who 'hide behind masks of solitude'.

Tristes Tropique

by Claude Levi-Strauss

A quest for 'a human society reduced to its most basic expression', Levi-Strauss' 1955 study of anthropology and culture takes the reader through the Amazon basin to the jungles of Brazil to find some of the most primitive tribes on Earth.