The first novel in more than 20 years from the essayist and cultural analyst Pankaj Mishra is as sharp, provocative and engagé as you’d expect. An exploration of Narendra Modi’s autocratic, Hindu-nationalist New India seen through the progress of three graduates from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, it’s also reassuringly rich in characterisation and the sheer sensory overload of modern life.
Narrated by Arun Dwivedi to an initially unnamed interlocutor, the book follows his journey from poverty to modest success as a translator in Delhi, while his feckless friends Aseem and Virendra make it big in America. A desire to escape ‘the material deprivations and the moral shabbiness... determined much of our lives’, Arun reflects, as they embark on their ‘strange, self-distorting journeys’.
His own lucky break comes when he’s transformed into ‘an upper-caste Hindu by the stroke of a schoolmaster’s pen’, giving him a Brahmin surname resulting in ‘a lifelong fear of being found out’. No such scruples trouble his thrusting friends. While the wildly indiscreet Aseem becomes a literary mover and shaker, Virendra becomes a billionaire at a hedge fund. Both are Modi’s ‘cheerleaders’, holding aloft ‘New India’s banner of entrepreneurial pluck and sparkle’.
When Arun retreats to Ranipur to look after his ailing mother, we learn the identity of the novel’s addressee. Alia Omar, a writer from a conservative Muslim background and a one-time TV anchor and model, enlists Arun to help with her book on crooked global elites, interviewing him about his friends. Some of Run and Hide’s most affecting passages are set here, as Arun and Alia begin a tentative relationship — the wider ‘hyper-connected world of unprecedented possibility’ contrasted with the poverty and tradition of the village overlooked by the ‘stern majesty’ of the Himalayas.
The centre, unsurprisingly, cannot hold, as Virendra is arrested for money laundering, insider trading and tax evasion, and Aseem is found guilty of sexual misconduct. Arun’s reaction is to retreat further into mysticism and isolation, super-aware of the inescapable commonplace that the personal is the political.
As an exuberant chronicle of a late capitalist world fatally mediated by Twitter and Instagram, Run and Hide might be the most zeitgeisty novel you could read. By the end, Arun recalls Hermann Hesse’s non-conformist heroes, his searching insight and principles of social equality assailed but still intact. On his return to Delhi, he comments: ‘The thought suddenly came to me, shocking in its stark clarity: New India will never make it.’