‘Bland fanatics’ and their blind spots

Mohua Mitra | Updated on September 10, 2020

Black, white and grey: Mishra attempts to explain today’s hatreds, hopes, aspirations and fears in his latest book

The title of Pankaj Mishra’s new book refers to Western intellectuals who assumed that their societies were the summit of human achievements and sought to forge them elsewhere

* India with its overwhelmingly rural population has to find its own way of being modern

* Writers should not become too self-conscious about what they do

* When you write against the ideological orthodoxies of your time, you should always expect a high degree of hostility

Pankaj Mishra’s Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire has just hit the market in both avatars — the physical as well as the e-book version. In an exclusive interview with BLinkfrom his home in Mashobra near Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, Mishra throws light on contemporary crises such as Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the calamitous response to the pandemic as well as predicaments that have been crippling the world. He discusses the resurgence of new forces and political ideologies, and how the neglected and dispossessed are suddenly transforming the world we knew.

The speed of the internet has whisked us all out to cyberspace, to live permanently in the future. Mishra, however, is not blinded by the utopian glow of cyber-capitalism and liberal philosophy which have come to stalk societies with some fantastical plans to universally escalate production and consumption. He is not swept away by the promises of a better future by the liberals or those posed by the unfolding cyber era. Instead he rips apart the vernacular of Anglo-American modernity sweeping across continents, radically altering the way much of the world’s population understood society, economy, nation, time, and individual and collective identity.

In Bland Fanatics, Mishra also brings to the forefront the “frustrating struggle” faced by the few with access to the mainstream media — the ones he names the “uniquely privileged”. They tried looking beyond the high-flying rhetoric of liberal politics and economics and instead spoke a different language. The bards of a new universal liberal empire almost entirely suppressed Asian, African and Latin American voices. And these “uniquely privileged” who had crossed over to lend voice to this silence found that it obliged them to “first of all, clear the ground of misrepresentations and downright falsehoods that had built up over decades.”

Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race and Empire / Pankaj Mishra / Juggernaut / Non-fiction / ₹599


In his book, Mishra describes how “reality” hit him hard when he visited the Kashmir Valley more than two decades ago with many of the prejudices of the liberal Indian “civiliser”— someone who placidly assumed that the residents of the Valley were much better off being aligned with ‘secular’, ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ India. But he discovered that India, the world’s largest democracy had descended into a form of religious “supremacism” and “racist imperialism”.

Bracing, illuminating, deeply researched and original in his attempt to explain today’s hatreds, hopes, aspirations and fears, Mishra’s approach is urgent, unapologetic, provocative and profound, pushing boundaries beyond the comfort zone.

Critics have underlined the penetrative air that marks his writings. Samuel Moyn in The New Republic maintained that he “reads like a brilliant autodidact, putting to shame the many students who dutifully did the reading for their classes but missed the incandescent fire and penetrating insight in canonical one has discerned better than Mishra just how far we still are from the top.”

Mishra’s responses here have the same penetrating and disquieting air.

You were raised in a middle-class Indian family in Uttar Pradesh. Did you grow up with communist ideologies? You graduated in commerce before moving on to English literature. How did your family and your education (later at Jawaharlal Nehru University) shape your views and writing?

I didn’t grow up in a left-wing family. Quite the contrary. We had RSS members and sympathisers in the family, like many North Indian upper-caste families. But in both Allahabad and at JNU, I encountered people with left-wing sympathies and intellectual orientation. I think I benefited a great deal. The most important critique of the modern world has come from the left and you don’t have to subscribe to it fully — and I don’t — to recognise this.

The world is going through a huge crisis as well as a transition at the moment. How is your world, at home in the tiny Himalayan hamlet Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh, tackling this? The common perception is that life in the hills, amidst nature and with plenty of open space, is a blessing during this pandemic and lockdown. So has the crisis actually affected your thoughts, writing, priorities and world view?

No, I have always insisted that India with its overwhelmingly rural population has to find its own way of being modern. And that large-scale urbanisation on the Western and Chinese models was unsustainable in India for both political, environmental and health reasons. Deeper investments in agriculture and small-scale industry are needed — what could make life viable for the tens of millions of people forced to leave home and live degraded lives in the big cities.

“Kitschy, clamorous and ostentatious ... a vivid picture of people rushing headlong to their tryst with modernity” — this is how your new e-book describes your debut book you published as a 26-year-old. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India (1995) is a delightful story of people and places. Yours has been a long journey with seven published books, and now the eighth and the latest, global acclaim, several awards and shuttling between London and Mashobra. How would you reflect upon this journey?

I think it is best left to others to describe this journey. Writers should not become too self-conscious about what they do. They will lose their ability to learn new things and to outwit themselves — which is their primary duty.

The essays in Bland Fanatics were written in response to the Anglo-American delusions that climaxed in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and, finally, a calamitous response to Covid-19. Do you find ready takers of your reactions to these delusions and seduction of the postcolonial world? Your newspaper columns must have invited enthusiastic but, at the same time, a varied response?

When you write against the ideological orthodoxies of your time, you should always expect a high degree of hostility. That has been my experience for nearly all my writing life. But then I am writing to describe an experience of the world, and to analyse it as scrupulously as I can; I don’t write to garner praise.

What does a ‘good government’ and, subsequently, ‘good administration’ signify for you? Has this undergone a change under the current circumstances of a health emergency?

All postcolonial governments started with the assumption that they had to deliver on all kinds of fronts to their citizens. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this basic fact and started to entrust important public services to private individuals and corporates. The result is a profit-driven health system, which cannot respond to a pandemic.

You have explored and commented on the effects of the Anglo-American style of deregulating, of unfettered markets operating without government intervention. Could you share your views here?

The consequences of entrusting everything to the market can be seen today in two of the wealthiest societies of the world. Britain and the US cannot even secure basic medical supplies for themselves.

Who are the ‘bland fanatics’ in your book and how would you classify them in a few words? The introduction refers to a form of Sunni jihadist ideology in “Salafist totalitarianism” and goes on to say how “Islamo-fascism projected the illusion of profound knowledge”. Would you elaborate on this?

The title refers to powerful and arrogant, and also deeply ignorant, Western intellectuals who assumed that their societies represented the summit of human achievements and sought to forge them in other countries. They also had the habit of terming anyone opposed to them as ‘illiberal’ or ‘fascist’. Today, their bluff has been called as the cruel realities of their own societies lie exposed.

Has democracy failed in India? Has the current situation shown up a different face of the country and its people?

No, it’s the same face. The current government has done away with comfortable upper-caste and middle-class illusions about the nature of Indian democracy. We can see the failure of democracy much more clearly, with the judiciary and the media rendered completely spineless.

Chart a course: Mishra observes that India, with its overwhelmingly rural population, has to find its own way of being modern   -  SHAJU JOHN


Without proper social security and public welfare schemes, does India stand a chance of rebuilding its flailing economy post Covid-19?

No, it cannot happen. I worry a great deal about what will happen in India. We are very poorly equipped for the dark future ahead.

Many sectors have been facing a bloodbath. The print media has been gasping for breath and the book publishing industry has also been going through unprecedented difficult times. Would you say it’s ‘courageous’ of you and the publishers to launch your new book at this tricky juncture?

The book has been in preparation for a long time, and it’s riskier than most books as it directly addresses the crisis we are in, and identifies the people responsible for it.

Which countries, according to you, could be the role models of a post-Covid-19 world?

There can be no all-encompassing role models. We have to learn from a range of different countries, from Germany and Greece to South Korea and Taiwan.

Mohua Mitra is a creative writer, freelance editor and translator based in Delhi

Published on September 09, 2020

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