Though we typically reserve the term scholar for erudite intellectuals sequestered in academia’s ivory towers, Pankaj Mishra qualifies as a sort of maverick-scholar. He is a novelist, essayist, literary critic, lecturer, and reporter who travels the world writing on a wide range of topics, including globalization, the Dalai Lama, Bollywood, and the “Talibanization” of South Asia. His views on these subjects are both learned and unsullied. He regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books, the New York Times, the Guardian, and the New Statesman, and has written for too many international magazines and newspapers to list.
Given his estimable résumé, it is striking to learn that Mishra was—for the most part—self-educated. Born in 1969, he was raised in Jhansi, a small town in the province of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. As a child, he developed a distaste for formal schooling because he said it kept him from what he loved most: reading. He later attended universities in Allahabad and New Delhi but describes his college days as “idle” as he spent most of his waking moments in the library immersed in books. When it came time for Mishra to enter the professional world and join the civil service as his parents had thought he would, he instead moved to Mashobra, a small village in the Himalayas. For five years, he read and wrote literary reviews for Indian newspapers and magazines. He also published his first book, a travelogue, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India. After submitting an article on Edmund Wilson to the New York Review of Books, Mishra was “discovered” by the renowned editor Barbara Epstein. He went on to publish a novel, The Romantics, and two books of nonfiction, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, and his latest, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. He also edited an anthology of writing on India, India in Mind, and wrote the introductions to new editions of books by Rudyard Kipling, R. K. Narayan, E. M. Forster, J. G. Farrell, and V. S. Naipaul.
Our conversation took place over the course of two mornings at Wellesley College, where Mishra was the Robert Garis Visiting Fellow in Writing last fall. During the interview, Mishra—who has very dark hair and adumbrative eyes yet seems to emit brightness—described India as a phantasmagorical place, one where the linearity and fixed identities of the West still do not exist. In his books and articles, he often cautions against the notion of an unchanging self or ideal society. When I asked him what those of us living in “modern” countries in the West can learn from such sagacious skepticism, he referenced a quote from Frederick Nietzsche: “If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
I. THE LIFE OF THE WRITER AS A LIFE OF READING