[3 September 2007]
My reports are written from Sydney, Australia, and this week there are banners up around the city (with a Microsoft logo at the bottom!) that say “21 World Leaders, 1 Great City.” World leaders are gathering for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. China’s leader Hu Jintao is already here, George Bush flies in tonight, and in the Sydney Morning Herald today Paul Keating, who was Australian Prime Minister during the 1990’s, explains why Russian leader Vladimir Putin is included. The quirks and strange specificity of trade and diplomatic agreements make sense when they’re written but the promises or threats that inspire their creation mutate over time and no longer adequately cover the original intent, and so India isn’t a part of the APEC group. Due to a peculiar rule of new countries being added every ten years India may be at the next APEC gathering, but its omission, now, seems a great absence. Thinking of India reminded me of the importance of that part of the world, and Pankaj Mishra’s illuminating and tenderly respectful books and magazine articles about his travels through Nepal, Kashmir, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, often during turbulent times. His new book, to be released later this year, I think, is based on his recent travels and lifelong interest in China.
“I have been interested in China for a long time, and I feel I ought to know more about it,” he said in an interview last year. “People talk of India and China in tandem now. Much is made of their rise as superpowers. And, yes, both countries have ambitious middle classes longing for international recognition. But I am not sure if the two countries have sorted out the great social, political and environmental problems that they face. Or have reckoned fully with their ancient traditions in their search for a suitable modernity. I think many of this century’s big questions are going to be addressed in these two countries, and I feel I have neglected learning about China for far too long.”
Pankaj Mishra’s An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World is a mix of travelogue, memoir, journalism, and a reconstruction of the life of the person who may have been the Buddha, from what can be reconstructed, and from the perspective of Western writers being inspired and influenced by Buddhism. Published in 2004 it remains a strong, clear, fresh and wise view of a troubled and misunderstood region of the world. The Indian author Pankaj Mishra lived in the small towns that the Buddha travelled through and lived in, and also Dharamsala, the home in exile of the Dalai Lama. But while he was there he read Western authors and was particularly inspired by the American critic Edmund Wilson. “An End to Suffering” is a small miracle, a book to constantly re-read. In an interview for the Loggernaut Series, he was asked to what extent his insights are personal, and to what extent they have a wider cultural reach.
Mishra: It has been easier for me to have a more complex idea of life in the West. But I think one of the problems we continue to suffer from is that despite the Internet and cable TV, growing numbers of writers, and improved communication systems, people in the West still don’t know enough about how people live in the rest of the world—they still depend on simple concepts of Islam, Muslims, Hinduism etc. So concepts replace the reality of lived lives, real people, and these concepts promote great misunderstanding. That’s where the role of writers is even more important than it used to be.
The Believer Magazine asked Pankaj Mishra what he thinks the different responsibilities of the reporter, novelist, and essayist are.
PM: Well, I feel the responsibility of the novelist is to create a very complex world populated by very complex individuals and to deepen that as much as possible. I don’t think the responsibility of the reporter or journalist is fundamentally different, but I think the reporter or journalist is well served by having a responsibility to the powerless, to use a much-abused cliché. The voice of the powerless is in some danger of not being heard in the elite discourses we now have in the mainstream media. This is something that I’ve learned late. Obviously, I write for a very elite audience, but is there something else that I’m also responsible to? People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering.