Pankaj Mishra’s first novel in two decades, Run and Hide, is a Bildungsroman tale of three young men who come of age around the time when India’s economy is beginning to open up to the larger world. Arun, our narrator, is a small-town boy. His father makes a meager living selling snacks on a railway platform. But his family’s financial sacrifices pay off when Arun gains admission to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
At the student hostel he meets two other “freshers” – Aseem and Virendra. On the very first day, the trio are humiliated by older student Siva and his friends who subject them to sexual hazing rituals. The reader is led to believe that this mortifying experience and their common low-caste status in a class conscience social-order, forms the initial basis of their friendship. As their bond strengthens, the boys outgrow the provincialism of their respective childhoods and transform into ambitious young men who see themselves riding the wave of endless possibilities in the “New India.”
Virendra, a Dalit by birth, follows a predictable IIT-ian trajectory. He heads to graduate school in the US. After a meteoric rise as a Wall Street hedge-fund manager, Virendra fulfills the nouveau riche stereotype. He acquires an opulent East Hampton summer home, jet-sets to glamorous European locales, and lives out his sexual fantasies in casual encounters with Russian blondes.
Aseem remains in India. He sets up a magazine bankrolled by Virendra, evolving into a Tarun Tejpal type character, who poses as a cultural pundit. Aseem hosts literary fests and mingles with the global literati. Of the three, Arun makes an unorthodox career choice despite his father’s hopes that an IIT education would lift the family out of poverty. Arun drifts towards a modest life as a translator of Hindi literature and retreats to Ranipur, a small town in the Himalayas, with his elderly mother.
Author Mishra spent his long hiatus from fiction publishing books and essays that analyze the socio-political complexities of rapid globalization. His work also focuses on the after-effects of colonialism, the rise of populism, and the psychological collateral damage of fast paced modernization in developing societies.
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mishra said his return to fiction rose from a compulsion to explore these themes in a more unconstrained genre. In a format that Mishra describes as “nifty,” the novel is written in the form of a long epistle by Arun (now, well into his middle-age), to a journalist called Alia, a young Muslim born into a family of wealth and privilege.
When Virendra is jailed for insider-trading by a Preet Bharara style prosecutor in NYC, Aseem underplays their association. Alia is researching material for an expose on Virendra and Siva when Aseem introduces her to Arun. Despite their age-gap and disparate upbringing, the two fall in love. Swept up in his first serious romance, Arun abandons his mother and travels with Alia to Pondicherry and then to London. He does not return even when his mother passes away. And yet, he remains tormented by an inner angst.
After a few months of high-society London life, Arun leaves Alia without an explanation and flees to an austere Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Aseem is caught up in a Me-too style scandal and accused of sexual misconduct by various women, including Alia.
With frequent references to literary icons such as V.S. Naipaul, Balzac, Sartre, Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Zora Neale Hurston, Mishra skillfully builds upon the intellectual foundation he rightfully assumes to be extant among the global elite. His nod to pop-culture icons such as Tina Brown, Sonny Mehta, Fareed Zakaria, or even the London-based chef, Ottolenghi, leads the reader to another layer of associative thinking.
Mishra’s writing is dense, often flowery, with a flair for minutiae. Yet, as in his nonfictional work, Mishra prods the reader to question established norms in our contemporary zeitgeist.
For me, Mishra’s story hit a particularly personal note. I grew up on the campus of IIT Delhi campus where my father was a Professor of English in the small Humanities Department.
To generations of his students, my father was known by his nickname, Hemingway (the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation). As I read the novel, the character of “Professor Sir ” conjured up images of my father. It revived memories of his students’ impressions of his teaching style and the influence he had on their thinking.
In the mid-1980s this “Hemingway’s daughter” met her Muslim husband who grew-up in small-town Bihar, graduated from IIT Delhi, and went on to study at Harvard. Mishra’s insights into the atmosphere of cut-throat competition that simultaneously motivates and traumatizes impressionable IIT students is brilliant. It’s a testament to the meticulous research that must have gone into creating these characters.
Run and Hide: a Novel. 2022. Pankaj Mishra. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. New York.