Hello, everyone, and welcome to a new installment called “Acts of Reading and Writing: Faculty Profiles.” This week we feature Dr. Pramod Mishra, Lewis University English Professor. Dr. Mishra was interviewed by Lewis student Andrea Holm. The mini-interview, that the Jet Fuel Review editors are also partaking in for the “Meet the Editors” series, is located after the profile.
Tied to Your Roots
Dr. Pramod Mishra was tucked away alone by his father’s family on a midnight train at the young age of three years old, heading towards Calcutta in North India; still, even till this day, unaware of his own birthday. He lived in the hinterlands of Nepal after he and his mother were banished from India. Coming from a less privileged location Mishra stated, “I lived five years in semi-starvation: three years in high school and my first two years in college”; yet, he was inspired by works of literature to establish a better life for himself. He even rose to become an English professor and went to many well-known universities, including Duke University.
At the age of five years old, Mishra already had a career plan assigned to him by his parents. He was taken through many rituals to become a Kabir monk. However, fate had its way and instead he attended modern school. I was surprised to find out that during Mishra’s childhood he faced multiple struggles. Even though he learned to read at the age of five, school did not come easy for him. He failed third grade and had to be held back an additional six months. He was then able to proceed into fourth grade, where he was able to become top of his class and school within six months. It was works of literature that encouraged him to try harder. During this period of educational hardships, he was reading stories from Hindu scriptures. One Hindu scripture in particular sparked his interest,the Sukh Sagar, which is a compilation of stories of the Puranas. He informed me about how the book affected him, proclaiming, “I came across a narrator, Sukhdev Muni, who was blessed to have the most knowledge in the world and was the wisest of all. I was also seven, and here I was who had failed third grade and was repeating it.” Evidently this piece of literature motivated Mishra to become like the narrator, Sukhdev Muni, a well-rounded, bright intellectual.
Additionally, he came across a book in college called, Why Not the Best, an autobiography of President Jimmy Carter. At first, he just found the title to be fascinating. One thing Mishra took away from this book was that “with money and wealth, everyone succeeds or should succeed but the challenge is to succeed and excel with nothing”; thus, “why not the best” became the motto he lived by, and he truly became the best as he turned into the person he aspired to be. I proceeded to ask him how things turned around and his response was, “Turmoil gave way to peaceful living; listlessness gave way to inspiration; distraction and laziness gave way to single-minded dedication; humiliation to determination.”
Even during his high school years reading had a great influence on his life. He read a passage from the Bible called, “The Parable of Seeds.” After reading it, Mishra said, “I wanted to be a seed that grows into a tree instead of the one that falls on the rock and gets chocked up by weeds and thorns.” This scripture had a tremendous impact on his life, as it triggered an inward sense of ambition. With that said, Mishra earned a Fulbright fellowship scholarship to study in the fall of 1989 at Northern Illinois University. He knew he wanted to major in English right away because he claims he was not good at anything else. He was a good student and learned a vast amount because he came from an educational system where reading and writing were not emphasized. Mishra received his Master’s degree from Northern, and went on to get his Ph.D from Duke University. Since English was not his native language, he found ways to learn it. Mishra told me that no one would help him practice his English so he started listening to the radio. It seems he had developed quite the English accent as he told me, “I bought a radio, after I started teaching and I listened to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and people would ask me if I had learned English in England.” To further rehearse his English, he would hold conversations with himself.
I wondered why Pramod Mishra wanted to become an English teacher, rather than doing something differently with his degree. He described how he grew up in a mixed caste, where his father was a Hindu priest and even though his family was not wealthy, they received respect because of his father’s teachings. Mishra explained how teaching was highly valued as he stated, “Teaching was the holiest of professions one could have.” He believed that by teaching he would earn the respect from others that he had always wanted and lacked. He considered the importance of English to students, as it exposes them, and creates a better understanding, to a variety of diverse cultures; it is “The ability to communicate effectively and the ability to get along with people of different kinds by understanding them and their lives and cultures.”
As a professor he has worked in a variety of colleges, ranging from the following institutions: Trichandra College, Kathmandu, Nepal; Northern Illinois University; Duke University; Augustana College; and Lewis University. He has been working as a teacher for “too many years.” He declares he catches his students reading mainly text messages. It would seem that, students can be shut off when it comes to reading and writing. He describes it as a fear students have of grammar and punctuation; he has tried to “free” students of this fear. He does so by telling them, “That ideas that go into writing don’t come from heaven or some exotic place that only the best of the best have access to, but from our own everyday surroundings.” When asked how Lewis students differ from others he said, “They’re about the same, yet I find Lewis students very good in terms of their willingness to learn, and I find them open-minded to other cultures and languages.” Mishra enjoys teaching different kinds of cultural literature: Asian-American, African-American, and literature of mixed groups, such as “mongrel cultures and peoples.” By teaching a variety of works, he encourages students to appreciate others cultures. He has even returned to India several times, bringing along students from Augustana, teaching them about the tradition, customs and literature as well as the Indian society in general. He mentioned that it was a life-changing experience for students, and they traveled not only by train but on the backs of elephants. Mishra would even like to start a travel group here at Lewis University during the spring semester of May 2015.
When Dr. Mishra is not teaching in the classroom, he can be found in a library quiet room, or at home in his study, reading biographies of Rudyard Kipling, who is a British writer who wrote many pieces about India from a British perspective. Currently on his nightstand is Charles Allen’s, Kipling Sahib and a few novels that are written in the Nepali language. He claims that he could read, “William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas,” over and over. He said that his study at home, as well as his office at Lewis University, is filled with books according to his “specialization”; thus, being literature of empire, postcolonial literature or non-Western literature, as well as American literature. Mishra notes, “My personal library is eclectic and messy”; nonetheless, he keeps books in his primary vision that consist of all kinds, including his favorite Russian authors: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and so on. He is greatly tied to his roots and does much reading and writing involving the Plains region of Nepal. He even writes on its culture, literature, history and politics. He would like to someday co-write with Pramod Kantha, who works as a professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.
Besides reading in his free time, there are three main projects Mishra is working on that keep him excited about literature. The first project is his publication column, which contains information about literature, culture and politics for The Kathmandu Post. This is actually noted as the largest leading English daily published from Kathmandu. Moreover, he has been writing memoirs of which he named, Dark Lotus. He mentioned that, “My scholarly project on V.S. Naipaul and Rudyard Kipling about the intersection of the local and the global, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan.” It is remarkable that the works of reading and writing have truly played such a significant role in his life.
Out of all of the things Mishra has read, or the films he has viewed, he has narrowed it down to two favorite quotes. The first one is from a 12th century Franciscan monk named Hugo of St. Victor, “The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.” Based off this quote alone, one can immediately come to the conclusion that Mishra’s cultural background and the different places he was raised emphasize his principles on homeland. It is apparent that through the works of literature, Mishra has been able to stay well-connected to his roots. The second quote is the opening sentence from V.S. Naipaul’s novel, A Bend in the River, written in 1979, “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” After reading this quotation, it is obvious that Mishra has a great work ethic that derives from inspiration of reading literature, especially reading works that connect to his heritage.
Dr. Pramod Mishra has a remarkable past that involved him being under the rule of an Indian caste system, where he and his mother, who had been a widow before she met his father, received years of harassment and eventually were completely exiled from the country. He had a few setbacks during his adolescent days of school, but it was through the reading and writing that all was restored. Mishra describes reading as fun and he says, “reading and writing deepens the quality of living, and therefore allows us to live many lifetimes in the one that we have been given.”
Acts of Reading and Writing: Meet Pramod Mishra
Q: What book might we find on your nightstand right now?
A: Right now, I’m reading biographies of Rudyard Kipling, a British writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1907 and who wrote much about India from the British perspective. The on my nightstand is Charles Allen’s Kipling Sahib and a couple of novels in the Nepali language.
Q: If you had the chance to co-write with one author, whom would you choose? Why?
A: Right now, I’m deeply involved in thinking and writing, among other things, about the Plains region of Nepal—its culture, its literature, its history and its politics. I’d like to work with a professor at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, whose name is Pramod Kantha.
Q: Describe your perfect reading atmosphere.
A: My perfect reading atmosphere is when I’m in a library quiet room where I can see people but nobody is allowed to talk. The other such atmosphere is at home when I’m by myself in my study.
A: My personal library is eclectic and messy. My study is filled with books of my specialization—literature of empire, postcolonial literature or non-Western literature and American literature. Then I have books that I’d like to keep within my eyesight, such as the Russian authors—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, William Styron’s Nat Turner and so on. My office at Lewis University, too, has shelves with books, including on my specialization. And then I have a huge collection important books—novels, poetry, non-fiction—in boxes that I haven’t been able to open and put on shelves. These books I have collected over the years as my knowledge of world literature expanded.
Q: If you could “re-make” any movie that was based on a book, what movie would it be? Why?
A: I’d have E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. The movie at present doesn’t represent the twenty-first-century sensibility.
A: William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Seamus Heaney’s poetry, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas.
Q: Give us a quote from your favorite book/movie (or any).
A: Two quotes: one from a 12th-century Franciscan monk named Hugo of St. Victor:
“The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land.”
The second quote is the opening sentence from V.S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River (1979): “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Thank you, Dr. Mishra!