Pankaj Mishra tells me that he is no fan of literary festivals. “At literary festivals, the published word is somewhat replaced by the personality of the writer; something is lost in the public nature of these events.”
I am stumped. But not for long.
We are sitting on the rooftop of his office, beneath open skies and a view. It had been his suggestion, to catch the light of the afternoon sun, precious to Londoners. To meet Pankaj I have taken the Northern Line on the Underground and gotten off at Archway. The main road is bustling, as expected, and checking the address again on my phone, I duck down an off-street to an imposing block in the midst of suburban quiet. It is a set of working studios that house various professionals, and I recognize the names of some writers and journalists on the intercom panel. Pankaj’s office has no staff, only books, neatly organized on two sprawling shelves run the length of the walls. A Mac sits on the desk.
“But you have never been to Dhaka. The Hay is an opportunity to be in Dhaka,” I say. It is a line I have used successfully with another writer, equally opinionated.
Pankaj agrees. “I’m interested in your festival because I always wanted to visit Dhaka.”
Pankaj Mishra’s latest book challenges most Western assumptions about the intellectual traditions – usually its considerable lack – in colonial-era China, India and the Muslim world. From the Ruins of Empire is fluent, erudite and at times combative explication and celebration of thinkers who lived in an intellectual tradition of their own. It is a combativeness – perhaps a necessary assertion of an intellectual vigorously opposed to latter-day imperialism – that Pankaj has displayed in his very public wars with the likes of Salman Rushdie, the conservative historian Niall Ferguson, and writer Patrick French. Cricketer turned politician Imran Khan too came in for a few glancing blows. Bangladeshis will delight in his review of Gary Bass’s book on US policy in 1971, The Blood Telegram, in the New Yorker.
Walking up two flights of stairs, Pankaj tells me he recently moved into the office. He says he divides his time between London, New Delhi and Mashobra, a small village in Shimla. It’s oddly mysterious to him that New York got enlisted in his bio. Indeed, he frequents the Big Apple, enjoys the city and its many bookshops, writes for publications there: The New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, n+1, etc., but doesn’t spend time any more than required.
What is it about Dhaka that interests him? “I’m really interested to connect with the young people there, whose views are not accessible via newspapers, or the Internet.” For someone who grew up entirely in India, and enjoys travelling, it’s an anomaly Pankaj hasn’t visited Bangladesh. “It’s a neighbouring country you think is easy to get to and you end up not visiting, which is a shame. I haven’t been to Sri Lanka either.”
Pankaj does not speak Bengali, but does understand it when he hears it, a pleasant surprise since he grew up – far from Bengal – in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh (and briefly Kanpur), before finishing with studies in Allahabad and Delhi. “We – my sister and I – had lots of friends who were Bengalis, and we would spend summers in Ballygunge in Calcutta to visit my maternal uncle. Tagore and Sharat Chandra were the first two authors I read when I was very young.” And what about Bangladeshi writing in English? “Unfortunately not, only because I haven’t come across any, except a book with Kissinger in the title…” As Pankaj struggles with the name I help him: Good Night, Mr Kissinger & Other Stories (by K. Anis Ahmed). It was recommended by Nadeem Aslam, a friend, who is also a guest at Hay Dhaka this year.
I ask him what he thinks of the books he read on our liberation war. “The ultimate book on 1971 has not been written yet, and it needs to be written by a Bangladeshi, because only a Bangladeshi can bring all the narratives together.” Pankaj finds the Bengali nation “engaging and interesting”, and “intelligent and forthcoming.”
There is much warmth and friendliness about him that belies the intellectual pugnacity. Again I return to the subject. Pankaj – not one to beat around – immediately paraphrases Chairman Mao, replacing the word revolution: “Writing isn’t a dinner party; if you compromise the truth and write to make friends, to open doors, to go places, your output won’t ever be any good.”