A personal odyssey - as Odysseus would have been the first to remind us - can take years. The young Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra has been engaged in writing this book for more than a decade, and in the course of that time it has repeatedly changed shape and identity as he himself has matured and transmuted from the young Delhi-educated student of the 1980s.
One of the most significant acts of his life took place in 1992 when he decided to uproot himself and go to live in a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas. His ambition then was as disarmingly simple as it was ungraspable: to discover quite what it would mean to become a writer. But what sort of a book would he write once he had displaced himself and given himself the kinds of conditions - a certain level of physical security; a certain degree of separation from the world - necessary to achieve that goal? A novel? Or perhaps a book of travel writing?
As time passed, Mishra became increasingly interested in the figure of the Buddha. He pursued lines of enquiry into the Buddha's long journeys across northern India. Mishra himself started out in a spirit of crisp rational enquiry. As he immersed himself in the teachings of the Buddha and his many followers, alternative ways of looking at the truth began to take root. The Buddha's teachings, it seemed, represented a cure for human suffering which, unlike Christianity, Marxism and Islam, had not involved radical and often bloody re-structurings of society. The Buddha's view of human identity as a construct also appealed to Mishra because it seems to rhyme with his own powerful feelings of flux and incoherence whenever he strove to analyse the elusive nature of the self.
Mishra is on the move throughout this book, from the foothills of the Himalayas to California, to London, all the time refining and reflecting upon what he is reading and striving towards. The book incorporates his readings of philosophers of the West and the East, economists, historians. All the time that he is declaring that he is unclear about exactly what kind of a book he wants to write, he is, little by little, producing this long, serendipitous and digressive portmanteau of a book about the doubts which one faces as one learns and grows and endeavours to become a writer. So the book is taking shape with a seemingly casual and impressive ease, even as it is declaring that it does not know where it is going or where in the world it may end up: wheezing and begrimed in some siding somewhere, or among those sleek, clean-lined locomotives of modernity.
Mishra's prose has an unforced elegance. In fact, the book disappoints in one aspect only: there are too few encounters or meaningful engagements with real people. It is such a seemingly easy regurgitation of one man's voluminous reading, such a skilful interweaving of politics, history, philosophy, travel and religion that one almost fails to notice the lack of the human touch. A few characters wander across its pages, of course: Mr Sharma, the man who owns the house in which Mishra lives in the Himalyan foothills, for example, and an American called Helen who becomes a Buddhist nun. In fact, Mishra's response to the discovery that Helen has become a nun is itself telling: he turns away as he sees her approach, hoping not to have to engage with her. Why? Because, at that moment, he rather despises her for that peculiarly American ability to adopt or reject particular lifestyles as if they were so many garments to be worn or discarded at whim. This smacks of arrogance on Mishra's part - and it is disappointing to the reader.
A moment of unexpected tension is reached when Mishra interviews the brother of the killer of Mahatma Gandhi. Surely, we believe, this will develop into a highly significant narrative moment. In fact, the encounter is despatched in a couple of paragraphs.
At the book's close, it is the Buddha who has for Mishra come to represent enlightenment in this benighted world of terror and perpetual warfare. It is the Buddha who seems calm and clear-sighted, having jettisoned all the usual baggage: theology, god, soul and the sweet expectation - or numbing dread - of the idea of eternity.
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