Reviewed: Pankaj Mishra, Run and Hide, Vintage
The long shadow of empire, the rise of corrosive forms of nationalism and the rapid march of globalisation are predominant themes in Pankaj Mishra’s incendiary essays and nonfiction books. But perhaps some observations are better fictionalised, as we can see in Run and Hide—his first novel in more than two decades. Set against what Mishra has described as India’s embrace of America’s ‘individualistic ideology of meritocracy, individual prosperity, self-fulfilment and finding yourself’1 and the sinister rise of Narendra Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist state, Run and Hide charts how the traumas of India’s turbocharged, ill-devised project to reinvent itself as an international superpower in a few short decades has imprinted itself in the psyche of its own people.
The book is couched from literary translator Arun Dwivedi’s perspective and addressed to a ‘you’, who we later find out is Indian-Muslim writer, model and influencer Alia. Much of what transpires in the novel is revealed in the book’s first pages—Arun’s fellow students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Aseem Thakur and Virendra Das, have been imprisoned for crimes of varying descriptions—focusing the novel not on what happens to them but how they got there. Most of all, Run and Hide is a character study, situated at the nexus of Arun’s innermost thoughts and recollections about his upbringing, his time at IIT, and the moments at which his, Aseem’s and Virendra’s lives unspooled from each other on distinct yet fast-hurtling trajectories of tragedy.
In India, people’s experience of class is inseparable from its historically intransigent institution of caste, and how one informs the other plays out indelibly in the lives of Mishra’s three protagonists. Unlike class, however, which is expressed through social and cultural markers that can either be learned or altered, caste is immovable—Mishra’s characters are relegated to their ‘assigned positions in the pecking order’ through their surnames alone. Arun is a low-caste Kurmi, but through an act of subterfuge executed by his brutish father’s possibly most enduring act of kindness, he has a Brahmin surname on his school certificate, which opens all sorts of doors for him while consigning him to a lifetime of fear.
Aseem is of the Kshatriya warrior caste—the second-highest caste—which is nevertheless inferior to Arun’s assumed caste, though the conflation of his identity with Arun’s and Virendra’s is a curious choice by Mishra. Virendra is a Dalit—the inhumanely termed ‘untouchable’ caste, the lowest of the low-born. But as social strata go, there’s always someone below you. Arun’s bleak home life is sketched early on, but he resists being categorised as poor, observing that the ‘utterly wretched and the truly destitute do not have our advantage: faith in a future windfall’. Moreover, in Modi’s Hindu fundamentalist India, to be a Dalit offers you more safety than being a Muslim.
Class is often perceived as moving in a linear, progressive manner. In Run and Hide, however, Mishra paints it as a kind of ouroboros. To be upper middle class is to have the luxury to consume fresh, organic food, but as Arun recounts his poverty-stricken childhood, ‘food is always organic, since fertilisers are unaffordable; and freshly cooked, for there is no fridge’. Later in the novel, the fashion world embraces ‘indigenous garb chic’: not unlike the white chikan kurti that Aseem sported at university when he was still poor.
Arun, Aseem and Virendra are united not by their low-caste backgrounds necessarily—to be a Dalit is a dehumanised existence distinct from merely being from a lower caste—but by their experience of poverty. By gaining entry to IIT, India’s most prestigious engineering institution, with parents willing to sacrifice everything to see them on a ‘path to redemption from scarcity and indignity’, they spend their young adulthood living in servitude to the social mobility promised by both. As Arun observes early on, each of them desires one thing alone: ‘membership of the most superior caste: that of people who never have to worry about money’. And they go about it very differently.
The language Mishra uses to describe these characters transcending the limitations of their caste and class position—in Arun’s case, going as far as assuming a fake name—resembles the language used by African-American writers such as Nella Larsen and Brit Bennett when conjuring the performance of racially passing as a white person. The same fear of exposure and concomitant shame pervades the narrative: Arun worries ‘that our pretensions to bourgeois respectability could be exploded any minute’, while Aseem’s exhortation to his peers to ‘trample the past into the ground’ is echoed by Stella’s decision in Bennett’s The Vanishing Half to excommunicate herself from her family after she runs away with a white man. The word ‘fugitive’ is used to convey the act of escape and concealment—Arun sees himself and Aseem as ‘two class fugitives breaking free of shameful origin’, which is echoed by Bennett rendering Stella as a fugitive of sorts.
All these characters manipulate the slipperiness of the seemingly immutable categories of race, caste and class unabashedly to get what they want—in Larsen’s Passing, the protagonist Clare proclaims to her childhood friend Irene, ‘Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away’, which mirrors Arun’s, Aseem’s and Virendra’s ruthless remaking of themselves. As Bennett writes, however, ‘the narrative penalty of passing is often misery or death’; Mishra’s characters’ desperation to escape their ignominious past is only rewarded in the short-term—eventually, they’re all undone by the emotional, social and moral costs of a lifetime of performing and striving.
In Mishra’s writing, the word ‘humiliation’ frequently rears its head. He often writes about the concept from the lens of the state—such as the way autocrats in India, China and Russia have locked their citizens into a ‘narrative of humiliation’. In Run and Hide, he situates it on a personal level, explaining in an interview with the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2022 that the novel ‘aims to describe how deep these injuries of caste and class go, how much they deform the inner lives of many of these victims, and how you cannot truly break free of them, no matter how rich or successful you become in later life’.
Indeed, a demeaning hazing ritual perpetrated on Arun, Aseem and Virendra upon enrolment at IIT has an enduring effect. This and other degradations culminate in two vastly different trajectories: dreams of worldly glory (Aseem and Virendra) and a desire to hide from the world (Arun, who escapes Delhi to live in rural Ranipur with his mother). Even within these delineations, a bifurcation exists. While Virendra chases money and all the material advantages conferred by wealth, the canny Aseem seeks social and cultural capital as he fashions himself into a well-connected middlebrow literary figure—eschewing studying actual textbooks in favour of reading Esquire, Paris Review, Time and the New Yorker.
In many ways, Run and Hide speaks directly to the limits of representation and the dangers of viewing a group disenfranchised by race and caste without examining the intersections of class, wealth and power (one thinks of Rishi Sunak). It’s no secret that Indians occupy the upper echelons of various companies in the United States—Aseem reels off real-world examples Sonny Mehta, Fareed Zakaria and Vikram Pandit to Arun—but by depicting the downfall of hedge-fund billionaires Virendra and his associate Siva after they’re arrested for insider trading, money laundering and tax evasion, Mishra exposes the darker underbelly of the ‘American dream’. The so-called ‘global Indian takeover’ does nothing to lift the fortunes of South Asian migrants in the West, many of whom continue to drive Ubers and work in 7-Elevens around the world. The irony here is that this does further concentrate ill-gotten wealth in the hands of an elite few. That these elite few now include not only upper-class white men, but also upper-caste brown men (Virendra notwithstanding) is irrelevant.
Despite every review of Run and Hide that calls into question Mishra’s ability to translate the grandiose pontifications expressed in his essays into an evocative work of fiction, it’s hard to deny his descriptive flair. Everyday domesticity and lives carved out of lack and want are accentuated through clotheslines that resemble ‘crucifixes of shirts with waterlogged sleeves, pythons of crooked, wrung-out saris’; the bare feet of Arun’s father are vividly described as ‘dark and thickened and cracked at the soles’ due to the absence of running water. Mishra depicts a new, nepotistic hire at Arun’s literary journal as ‘the daughter of a pipe-smoking, lushly side-burned eminence in the British-built civil services’, while dilapidated colonial mansions in the sleepy hamlet of Ranipur, Arun’s home for more than a decade, had ‘long sunk into the quiet repose of places liberated from perennially fidgety humans’.
Yet for all its dense ideas, the novel manages also to be very funny. No institution or social milieu—particularly the middle-class, left-leaning one that I, many readers of this journal and Mishra himself move in—is exempt from skewering. There is barely concealed disdain for writers who have the confidence to add to the ‘colossal sum of published works out there’, but particular disregard is reserved for ‘desi bourgeois writers’—I guffawed reading about a novel within the novel called The Sherry Drinkers, an account ‘both satirical and melancholy’ of Indians who ‘find themselves spiritually marooned in India after returning from an exhilarating stint at Cambridge’. Mishra lampoons literary criticism for prioritising books by prominent people at the expense of ‘socially invisible and inconsequential authors’, while the Great Minds United literary festival that Aseem establishes, predicated upon creative expression and social ideals, is sponsored by Shell and Prada.
Run and Hide’s most overt preoccupations are with caste and class, but the book is a commentary on gender too. Although the entire book is addressed to Alia, we’re only ever privy to Arun’s interpretation of what happened between them. Arun, Aseem and Virendra, while initially disenfranchised by their low standing in Indian society, are nevertheless granted opportunities their sisters, mercilessly forced into arranged marriages, never even get a glimpse of. While Arun lives a life unencumbered by any real sense of obligation apart from taking in his mother (an arrangement that arguably benefits him more than her, as she cooks for him), his downtrodden sister labours to care for her four children alongside an alcoholic husband. All the mothers in Run and Hide, defined solely in relation to their husbands and children, suffer during the entirety of their lives—exemplified most deftly in the tragic fate that befalls Arun’s mother. The only woman in the narrative with agency is Alia, but not even her wealth insulates her from violence.
But there aren’t any winners in Mishra’s novel, just those who lose and those who lose more. The violence Arun, Aseem and Virendra endure and inflict on those closest to them serves as a warning: that the moral injuries of caste and class—gender notwithstanding—take more than a generation of good fortune to unravel. •
Sonia Nair is a writer and critic who has been published by the Guardian, Kill Your Darlings and the Big Issue, among others.
1 ‘A Catastrophic Loss of Faith in America: An Interview with Pankaj Mishra’, the Drift, 8 June 2022, <https://www.thedriftmag.com/a-catastrophic-loss-of-faith-in-america/>.