Books, Uncategorized

The Fraud That Is Pankaj Mishra

It is so easy to fool people. A bright fellow cannot miss this. But, it is worse. If you do not fool people, you are at their mercy. Pankaj Mishra is instinctively shrewd. He could not have missed this. When people say that “Pankaj Mishra is very shrewd”, they are not merely damning with faint praise. Any bloke who has “made it” through some contemptible swindle evokes such loud gasps in the average man.

But, there is a strong element of condescension in all this. Even his admirers know that there is not a single notable thought in the work of this smarty. When I asked a writer why she likes “The Romantics”—it is not even a proper novel—she said that she liked his “inquiry into autodidacticism”. A boy said that Pankaj Mishra is very “westernized”. The condescension I sense is not too unlike what his subordinates feel toward an editor whose prose is a notch above that of a headmaster. If he were stripped of his position, they would have spat on his face.

Pankaj Mishra does not know elementary social science. But, unlike his lame critics and admirers, Pankaj Mishra writes eighteen-carat, impeccable English. I’d be the last to miss that it is jealousy which motivates his critics. His prose would not have had any bearing upon this, but Pankaj has oiled his way into the bed of the British Prime Minister’s cousin. They could not have missed this. But, what stays his admirers is the hope that “what he could do, they could do better”. They would better be polite. I am sure that Pankaj Mishra knows this.

Pankaj’s critics have long been pointing out that he is “oddly resentful of the social mobility of other Indians”. Some critics believe that this is self-loathing. Rupa Subramanya writes:

“He must therefore, one presumes, be especially riled that Modi and his many fans at Madison Square Garden are a reminder of his socio-economic origin in India, from which he’s fled so nimbly.”

Deepika Ahlawat observes:

“Note Mishra’s fetishisation of formal education throughout, his mockery of Modi’s background, his disdain of popular culture, and his Socratic horror of democracy. This is a vicious and yet tragic piece. Because Mishra stares at Modi and sees only himself. Just less popular, less powerful and immensely less significant.”

This might as well be true. But, imagine a leftist young man coming of age when India was at the cusp of liberalization. There is no need to imagine. Read Pankaj’s “Butter Chicken In Ludhiana”. This class-conscious philistine traveled across the country, making class/provincial distinctions, sneering at everyone and everything. When he tried to find out what liberalization, westernization and modernization had wrought, it was clear that everything had gone from worse to bad. The progress was already “traveling too fast”. What to do?

What did he infer? Like the provincial-minded NRI who comes back to India, bawling, seething with resentment toward the “white man” who snubbed him, he said, “These people sure are too westernized.” This is not surprising.  The liberals who once said that liberalization is not the path to progress did not swallow their pride when they were proven wrong. They claimed that the progress is imaginary.

The economist Ludwig Von Mises made the same observation about the critics of industrial revolution and capitalism in the 19th century in “The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality”:

“The main criticism leveled against the principle of equality under the law by the eulogists of the good old days is that it has abolished the privileges of rank and dignity. It has, they say, atomized” society, dissolved its “organic” subdivisions into “amorphous” masses. The “much too many” are now supreme, and their mean materialism has superseded the noble standards of ages gone by. Money is king. Quite worthless people enjoy riches and abundance, while meritorious and worthy people go empty-handed. This criticism tacitly implies that under the ancien regime the aristocrats were distinguished by their virtue and that they owed their rank and their revenues to their moral and cultural superiority. It is hardly necessary to debunk this fable. Without expressing any judgment of value, the historian cannot help emphasizing that the high aristocracy of the main European countries were the descendants of those soldiers, courtiers and courtesans who, in the religious and constitutional struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, had cleverly sided with the party that remained victorious in their respective countries. While the conservative and the “progressive” foes of capitalism disagree with regard to the evaluation of the old standards, they fully agree in condemning the standards of capitalistic society. As they see it, not those who deserve well of their fellow men acquire wealth and prestige, but frivolous unworthy people. Both groups pretend to aim at the substitution of fairer methods of “distribution” for the manifestly unfair methods prevailing under laissez-faire capitalsm.”

In a manner eerily reminiscent of the inanities of the 19th century eulogists of the past, Indian intellectuals now pit the liberalized India against its socialistic past. The abstractions are the same. The concretes differ.

Pankaj’s ancestors were thrown into penury by some legislation or the other, and he probably grew up listening to the moans of the adults who spoke resentfully of the nouveau riche. This perhaps got permanently etched into his subconscious. This, he will never tell you.

Observe. This is how Pankaj ends his critique of Patrick French’s saner work on India:

“Some of the best works of narrative non-fiction in recent months—Rana Dasgupta’s Granta essay on Delhi, Siddhartha Deb’s article in Caravan on Arindam Chaudhuri and Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing—have plunged us into this teeming universe of euphoric desires, resentments and fears, the cities where thousands of Gatsbys and Babbitts are reinventing themselves madly in a manic quest for status and prestige. If there is one thing the Radia tapes reveal most clearly, it is that writers and journalists have only begun to capture the particular exuberance, tawdriness, cruelty and melancholy of India’s own Jazz Age. French’s book manages to remain unaware of this country, even as it heralds the New India where adivasis may not have potable water but can drink Sula wine.”

But, what does Rana Dasupta’s and Siddhartha Deb’s narrative non-fiction have in common? They same resentment and pettiness that drives Pankaj Mishra. It is not surprising that Pankaj Mishra’s “Butter Chicken In Ludhiana” was inspired by Thorsten Veblen’s “1899 work, “The Theory Of The Leisure Class”.  Like Mishra, Veblen sneered at the development in the 19th century United States. Like many such mediocrities, this dude too was surprised by the success of his work. But, the critics called Veblen “more than a little mad” in the United States where such nonsense rarely goes unchallenged.

Now, it is fashionable to call foreign journalists and thinkers “Curzons without an empire”, but the truth is that the best analysis of India has come out of them. Unlike Mishra’s Bloomberg rant, Patrick Foulis’ article on Modi in The Economist is well-written, and, I think, largely true. I have never read a sane thinker who believes that the British ruined IndiaMishra seems to believe in that sort of nonsense. But, then, I haven’t really seen anyone criticizing Mishra’s views on society, politics and economics. The criticism is often not directed at some view of Pankaj Mishra or the other. They hint that he does not  even have point.

Yes. What is the guy even trying to say?


  1. omar

    I dont think fraud is necessarily the best word. It is indeed POSSIBLE that Pankaj is a conscious fraud, but it is more likely that he sincerely believes his bullshit. It’s not difficult to believe what so many well-bred, well-educated people around you seem to believe. These attitudes are mainstream in the humanities departments of the best Western universities and there is an entire ecosystem where writers write like Pankaj, readers read like him and everyone discusses literature and culture using the same terms. Why do you think someone like Spivak has not been laughed out of her job? Instead, she is a star…and more important, she hold the “moral high ground” in a closed little world where nobody believes in morality but everyone has an absolutely crystal clear sense of moral superiority….
    Its a communal disease and his individual responsibility may be limited. Maybe he should be described as a victim rather than a fraud….a victim of this world:

  2. Omar,

    Thank You. I never believed that Pankaj Mishra is consciously defrauding people. I am sure that he is “sincere”, like most such intellectuals are. It is pretty much within the mainstream. But, if we judge someone by how sincere he is, we are setting the bar way too low. I think that someone who is sincere is more harmful, perhaps even more malicious than someone who is consciously lying. Rationality is a choice. Pankaj Mishra is not a teenager, but a middle aged intellectual. There is nothing which stops him from reading an elementary text on economics—and other social sciences. Someone who sincere believes in nonsense has convinced himself that what he believes in is true. But, someone who consciously lie might as well be lying because is fed up, and has stopped trying.

    I had not heard of Gayatri Spivak before. Will read more about her.

  3. omar

    Dont bother with trying to read Spivak. She writes the most tedious nonsense on the planet. It is much more fruitful to try and come up with theories about why her brand of nonsense makes her an academic superstar. If I was a psychologist, a philosopher and public intellectual, I would like to attempt an answer to that question. It may teach us something about modern society or about frauds and con artists in general. It is an amazing performance…

  4. Omar,

    Yes. That is what I have been thinking about for very long. Not just about people like Mishra, Roy and Sen, but also about the people who are good at coalition politics in human subgroups. I really loved your statement that she hold the “moral high ground” in a closed little world where nobody believes in morality but everyone has an absolutely crystal clear sense of moral superiority. Evolutionary psychology seems to explain this to an extent.

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