I did not want to tell you all this when you first interviewed me for your book—the melodrama, the squalor of melodrama that outlined our adult lives for us well before we started living them. Even afterwards, I gave you the broadest details about my relatives, my home and its surroundings. I think you assumed, with the anxious but brusque sympathy of the very rich for the non-rich, that I and Virendra and Aseem had been the victims of great poverty.
In retrospect, this was one of the imprecisions in your book that I failed to correct, even though I read many drafts of it. I grant you that a life shadowed by debt, in which new clothes and other avoidable expenses are forgone, postponed to an imagined future of financial ease, may be, in its self-imposed deprivations and continual wanting, more soul-crushing than the life in which there isn’t enough to eat.
There is too much shame in it, too many raw nerves about how one speaks and dresses. And then there is the gnawing fear that our pretensions to bourgeois respectability could be exploded any minute. Still, the utterly wretched and the truly destitute do not have our advantage: faith in a future windfall. Even back then, we did not consider ourselves poor. The word was reserved for those tenants of the railway platform at night, some of whom escaped their lives of shiftless futility by prostrating on the tracks before the couple of diesel-engined trains that whooshed past the station; the sight of rats nibbling on a mangled and coal-blackened corpse one murky dawn haunted me for months.
When it rained heavily, the power went out, and much of the town was flooded, trapping its residents in knee-deep water. The sound of the rain was comforting within our solid walls; the paraffin lamp cast a soft and yellow light on everything; and the full and muddy gutters outside always gurgled with a thrilling possibility: that school would be closed.
We had at home two sets of clothes each. I also had a pair of shoes as defence against the hookworms and leeches that frequently tormented my chappals-clad sister; and, though we slept on the floor, our pillowcases were exquisitely embroidered by my mother, with bright red roses and green stems. Every morning before school until I was twelve or thirteen my mother put one of her embroidered hankies in my shorts pocket, then sat me down and carefully parted and combed my hair, finishing off with a kiss on my forehead.
I remember you speaking once of your own mother: how she had divorced your father soon after an Islamic fundamentalist shot a bullet into his spine, incapacitating him for life. ‘She took legal custody of us,’ you said, ‘but then sent both me and my brother to boarding school in England. And while we were struggling there, trying to cope, and my father was in a wheelchair, she married this corporate honcho in Mumbai. I was lucky to have a wonderful aunt and uncle. They basically brought us up, came to see us in England, took us on holidays in Europe and America.’
You showed me a photograph of you with them in Disney World, and I told you how moved I was by this disclosure, one of the very few you made about your past. Yet there was another feeling I didn’t confess to.
A holiday, when I was growing up, was a day when I did not have to go to school. Holidays of the kind you took were beyond ambition; and to see you in that photo with yellow-brown tints and a white crease, all of fourteen and extremely sad under a big straw hat next to Mickey Mouse in Orlando, Florida, was to see, with a little shock, emotional deprivation right in the heart of unthinkable privilege.
It was naïve of me to be so shocked. And, perhaps, it would be naïve, too, to make too much of the material deprivations and the moral shabbiness I grew up with.
I suffered them together with Aseem and Virendra, and our desire to escape them determined much of our lives, especially Aseem’s, who developed a strong dislike for his parents’ regressive politics and social illiberalism, and, like many self-made people, edited them out of his life.
Still, I recognize my childhood setting as a place that spoke to me intimately; and it provides, receding into my increasingly unshareable past, many moments that detach themselves from the noise of time to whisper of enchanting and irretrievable things: like the one rocket we buy at Diwali that flares into life with a gratifying hissss and then soars up and up, and then when green and red sparks tumble down, all our smiling upward faces briefly glow.
Long after our IIT stint, Aseem would remind me of growing up near lonely railway stations on branch lines; this nostalgia was the only romance about the past he allowed himself. ‘Remember, boss, the most exciting event of the day was the passing of the trains. I wonder, now, how I managed to pass so much time. But we did, and happily.’
Yes, with nothing to do we found in everything an outsize significance—the quality of the air, slight changes in temperature, distant sounds, patches of sunlight, patterns on flagstones, and even torn scraps of Navbharat Times and Hindustan hopping absent-mindedly on the platform.
One reason I felt close to Aseem is that I knew he had once possessed the same alertness to a landscape cleansed by a downpour, the train carriages shining like new, the white clouds of smoke from the steam engine especially soft; to the breathing and purr of the paraffin lamp, glowing in one corner like a warm golden animal; the heady scent of sharpened pencils and new rubbers; to the kirana shop, actually a gloomy grotto, smelling damply of kerosene and Lifebuoy soap where a smooth-jowled lala sat as a deity in the dark; to the rumbling and jangling of donkey carts and bullock carts, their iron-rimmed wooden wheels wobbling over the potholed road; the whistling and cracking of long whips with knotted ends; to the perennial wetness of the ox’s muzzle and the halo of flies around the mare’s head; and the soapy water slowly eddying in the shadow of the nullah’s bank.
How enticing were the sheet of gauze paper that covered the flamboyant frontispiece in many English books at the school library, the multi-hued balloons billowing and rubbing against each other high above their vendor, the transistor radio with the perforated leather case that my family finally acquired in a rare fit of keeping up with the Joneses, the thela of soft drinks that ragged hawkers trundled down the lane, bottles filled with syrups in dazzling floral colors, or the soft foil and intoxicating smell of a Gold Flake packet that I would pick up from the ground and crush to my nose.
Such useless possession brought the ecstasy of treasure-hunting to those who had so little. Still, lives driven by want cannot be reduced to it; they will still contain a range of human emotions. How much joy I extracted, for instance, from drawing houses on a slate and building a railway out of matchsticks. How scary were the nightmares about churails with feet turned backward blazing through the thick blackness—an apparition that for years represented pure terror before being tamed into nights without electricity.
And what a great dream of tranquillity I used to coax out of the only decorative item in our home: the calendar with a picture of the Himalayas, white cones above a green valley, straining against a radiant blue.
I longed to be nestled somewhere within that vast Himalayan landscape. Many more years passed in Delhi before I found, miraculously, my sanctuary in Ranipur, a small village in Himachal Pradesh. We finally saw the last of Deoli when I moved to Ranipur, bringing my elderly mother with me. Yet, leaving our home, the setting of so much anguish, I was overcome by an immense sadness.
Claiming that I had left something behind, I ran away from my mother as she perched on the back seat of a tonga, clutching a bedroll, surrounded by bits of lumpy luggage fastened with rope, rigid with apprehension at the thought of travel, and now terrified that she would be abandoned by her son just as pitilessly as she had been by her husband.
The emptied room had an unfamiliar hushed air. I stood looking this way and that, at the signs of our old life that at this moment of parting suddenly seemed enigmatic and suggestive: a familiar dark shadow created by my sister’s oiled hair on the wall, a vacant rectangle left by the calendar of the Himalayas, a perfect fingernail of peeling paint I was careful never to touch, the wavering indentation on the abrasive stone floor that I always avoided stepping on.
In a small pile of discarded things in one corner was a child’s shoe on its side, its strap torn. Was it mine? The knife scratches in the frame of the door with which my mother had once recorded my growth in height had grown faint. And how had I never noticed the scuffed wall near the door, rubbed by years of passing hands and elbows?
All this, whether known or unseen, would soon be irretrievable. I wondered if I could bear to part with the only reusable thing not packed by my mother: an unstoppered Thums Up bottle which I took to the open-air latrine near the nullah and which now stood in one shadowed and silent corner of the room.
I left the bottle behind, in that place where I had known myself to be unconditionally loved by my mother, and where other lives would now assume their distinct shape, leave their own marks, and be betrayed in turn.
Aseem used to say that to be modern is to trample on the past; it is to take charge, to decide being something rather than nothing, active rather than passive, a decision-maker rather than a drifter, in a world which, he never tried of repeating, is what it is.
You had your own, much less masculine take on this: you were never homesick, you used to say, because you never had familiar things during a life constantly improvised in unfamiliar landscapes.
But, sliding away from the barracks, seated backwards on the tonga, and helplessly confronted with what we were leaving behind till a bend in the lane, I felt my mother’s hand on mine. She was looking at our receding home. Tears were streaming down her face, from high on the curve of her cheeks, where I saw for the first time a net of fine delicate wrinkles.
Going past the temple, where a new pujari with no known depravities sat under the neem tree, past herds of sluggish buffaloes and bullock carts on the dusty road, further away from the rutted path that led to the nullah, I felt fear rather than relief—what now seems a chilly breath from the future, a premonition of a world growing ever stranger, demanding constant treason against the past.
On the subsiding bank of the nullah, where I have my earliest experience of solitude, I also have my first clear visions of beauty—something that substantiates the strange sensation I have at school while reading a line of nature poetry in a textbook, the emotion that comes over me when I come across a stray sentence about a still lake mirroring the sky, the emotion I then hunger for.
Our outdoor latrine, where I look up from my ablutions at a late passing train at dawn, enchanted by the golden ribbon of lighted windows, was also the place where the local dhobis wash clothes, next to where the current runs swiftest over smooth stones, bending tall slender grasses together into a flowing watery mane.
Bringing down the twisted wet hanks on black rocks with a deep grunt, they seemed to be trying to beat the cheap clothes of the indigent to death; they then seemed bizarrely solicitous of the battered garments as they spread them out to dry.
These lengths of white dhotis, kurta-pyjamas and multicoloured saris lay spreadeagled all day. I would go back there in the early evenings to watch the dhobis raise their fallen adversaries from the rocks and fold them respectfully into a pile. By this time the heat of the day had burned away the reek of excrement, a dense silence had settled on the dust-stiffened, discoloured bushes, broken only by the one-note whining of mosquitoes, and far in the distance, thin mirages shimmered above the black steel of the tracks.
A train would pass through, the engine furiously expelling red-hot embers as it ground past, and I’d wait for the stray blue sparks, as sudden as flashes of lightning, spat by the retreating wheels of the forlorn guard’s van.
There I would stand, until the dust set whirling by the train settled down, and pink-
Tinted clouds turned to copper-grey, and listen—to what exactly? Everything—the big-bellied clouds, the clacking of dry reeds, the coils of black smoke abandoned by the train, and even the licorice smell of cinders—seems so solidly present, unlike my liquid self, and to speak so eloquently and urgently of something, but the language in which everything speaks is unknown to me.
Excerpted from Run and Hide by Pankaj Mishra. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Pankaj Mishra. All rights reserved.