The novel “Run and Hide” shows the pitfalls of the impending Asian century
Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP via Getty Images
After hundreds of years of Western domination, the world is now poised for an “Asian century”. After a long period of decline, demographic and economic trends show that Asia is regaining its historic role as a global center of economic growth as well as an incubator of political and social change. The character of what the Asian century will look like will therefore have many consequences for people around the world. There are already strong signs, evident in the emergence of ethnonationalist, authoritarian and religious extremist politics across the continent, that Asia’s rise will be no less chaotic than that of the West before it.
Indian author Pankaj Mishra has devoted his career to analyzing the psychology of Asia’s rising masses, especially its young men. His latest work, a novel, “Run and Hide”, is his most searing look at the subject to date. The book tells the story of three young Indian men, graduates of the most famous technical university in the country, who rose from poverty to wealth and fame in a few decades. It’s a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of success in the developing world and a parable about the dark side of the Asian century – or centuries – to come.
In decades past, Asia’s iconic anti-colonial leaders, often educated in the West, tended overwhelmingly to the left. They fought against Western colonialism but espoused many ideas shared by Western liberals, including a belief in individual liberty, secularism, and universal human rights. It went without saying that they represented the opinions of a majority of their compatriots and that the nations they ruled, once rich and free, would be the bulwarks of liberalism. On a continent where Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping and Tayyip Erdogan are among the most popular leaders today, that assumption no longer holds water.
The book is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of success in the developing world and a parable of the dark side of the Asian century – or centuries – to come.
The three men in Mishra’s novel – Virendra, Aseem, and the enigmatic main character, Arun – represent millions of Asians successfully emerging into a life free from material need but wounded by cultural loss and filled with insatiable new psychological desires. To varying degrees, men attempt to “trample on the past”, to quote one of the characters’ favorite lines from VS Naipaul, leaving behind their ancient cultures. They embrace the unknown pleasures of wealth and travel, even as the slower rising masses in their own country turn to reaction. Humiliated by the explosion of inequality that newfound wealth like that of the protagonists has helped to create, most people channel their rage into supporting populist parties that promise revenge in their name against liberals and minorities.
In various ways, Mishra’s characters find that they are unable to survive in the new world they inhabit. Arriving at the top of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the realization of their potential – they discover that the air up there is terribly thin. Their wealth and success lift them briefly before pushing them down a path of self-destruction.
Image: Courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux
There is a political subtext of Mishra’s book that is very important for understanding politics in the developing world: suffering does not necessarily ennoble. People’s long-sublimated dark urges—for material goods, recognition, sex, revenge—often begin to erupt self-destructively within them as their material conditions improve.
In a passage from “Run and Hide”, Arun, raised by a poor and abusive father who now supports Modi, addresses the enthusiasms of a liberal friend who grew up wealthy and unwittingly devotes herself to various progressive causes. “From what I had seen of non-whites, beginning with my obsessed father libtard, it seemed safe to fear that, regardless of their skin color, today’s poor and oppressed are very likely to be persecutors tomorrow – even sooner,” he told her. He points out, with some unease, that the liberal friend’s progressive platitudes on Twitter do not, to use the example of the Arab Spring, fully explain “the fact that some brave protesters against tyranny in Tahrir Square could turn, if given the chance, into rapists.
Rising living standards in India and China have created publics with strong ultranationalist and even xenophobic views on domestic and foreign policy. These public sentiments are beyond the ability of their governments to fully respect them, even if they embrace some of these qualities. Across the Muslim world, democratic elections have repeatedly demonstrated that conservative religious parties enjoy broad mass support. Even in small Asian countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, militarized and authoritarian politics that ignore liberal freedoms and trample on minority rights have proven popular. Countries that were once deeply poor and now feel somewhat stronger have shown potential flaws just as deep as the West whose central role in world affairs they are gradually supplanting.
Mishra’s work demonstrates that the fallibilities of audiences in Asian countries are less evidence of their own shortcomings than of the community of human behavior around the world.
If Asia’s massive political awakening revealed popular sentiments that turned out to be deeply anti-liberal, that does not make Asians so different from Westerners in their political evolution. Even as it grew into the wealthiest and most developed region in the world – thanks in part to its ruthless colonial exploitation of Asia and Africa – Europe destroyed itself with two catastrophic world wars motivated by nationalism and sectarianism. Far-right parties are once again on the march across the continent as they channel popular unease among majority populations over identity and immigration. Donald Trump’s entire presidency, punctuated by a now infamous riot by his supporters on Capitol Hill, shows that the United States is deeply suffering from the same tendencies.
In this way, Mishra’s own work, including “Run and Hide”, demonstrates that the fallibilities of audiences in Asian countries are less evidence of their own shortcomings than of the similarity of human behavior and psychology across the world. world. If the Asian century – symbolized by countries like India and China, not to mention Vietnam, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Iran or Saudi Arabia – is to be less exploitative than the he Western-dominated order that preceded it will require the same scrutiny of the politics and social trends of emerging countries that we have come to accord to the West.
The 21st century will be Asian. For it to succeed, it will take a lot of painful criticism of the type that Mishra gives in her novel. The West should bring these assessments where warranted, for our own good – but primarily for theirs.