"How one becomes what one is" is the subtitle of Nietzsche's last book, Ecce Homo. I remember how it puzzled me when I came across it for the first time as an undergraduate student at a decaying provincial university in Allahabad, north India. It didn't seem to make sense. How was it possible to become what one, in some sense, already was? And the possibility of even knowing what one was seemed remote at that time. I had no idea of the person I was, or could become - and this ignorance went deeper than the usual uncertainty and confusion of adolescence. I knew little of my past - the landowning ancestors who for centuries had lived without the idea of an intellectual life, whose lives had been shaped by myth and ritual, from birth to marriage to death - and this past seemed a burden in the semi-modernised India in which I had to find a place. My real longings - to make myself a writer - lay suppressed under the more urgent desire to live a life free of privation.
I felt the extreme lightness of my inheritance - some random, disconnected reading, an abstract and uncertain knowledge of the world - and sought ballast in yet more reading. The more famous the author, and the more difficult the writing, the harder I tried. There were failures; sometimes there were lucky breaks in the form of writers or books that seemed to echo my own timid thoughts and preoccupations. This is how, with little reading in philosophy and little knowledge of European history, I first came to Nietzsche.
Recently, an English friend described the sight of fellow students at Cambridge parading copies of The Nietzsche Reader under their arms. But I wasn't aware then of Nietzsche's reputation as a great adolescent favourite, and few students around me at university would have known who Nietzsche was. I didn't understand most of what I read; the short aphorisms about death and boredom were easier to grasp than the elaborately conceived attacks on Christianity and Kant. More than what he wrote about, it was the image he presented of the solitary thinker, struggling with what Thomas Mann described, in Death in Venice, as the "tasks imposed upon him by his own ego and the European soul" that attracted me.
Nietzsche on India was worthless to me. He had followed the German Romantics in idealising Indian social and philosophical systems, of which his knowledge was necessarily limited. It was easy to see even then how his impatience with Christianity and fellow Germans, and his own longing for nobility - he claimed a Polish aristocrat as his ancestor - had led him to attribute excessive virtue to the caste system, which by then had been a decaying practice for centuries.
To read him now, or about him in Lesley Chamberlain's excellent Nietzsche in Turin (Quartet, £7), is to have a sense of the lonely, sick, unloved man behind the intellectual and physical toughness he held up as an ideal: the son of a Lutheran pastor in provincial Saxony who, starting with very little, transmuted all his infirmities into a philosophy of health and power and a radical scepticism about the world.
But to know this when I first read him might have confused me. For, in the beginning, he was part of my dazzlement with Europe, or an idea of Europe he appeared to embody: the seriousness and risk of individual inquiry that over centuries had progressively refined a high civilisation.
In India, one idea of that Europe still lay around us, in the schools and universities, the political and legal system, the cuisine and the clothes that the British had introduced to India during 200 years of colonialism. (Even in that relatively backward part of India, it was hard to find anything that did not have its origin in Europe.)
But these imported ideas and institutions of Europe - an attempt to create a new class of educated Indians out of contact with the best that was thought and said in the world - had been allowed to decay. By the mid-1980s, the university where I was reading Nietzsche for the first time, which had once been known as the Oxford of the East, had been undermined by the pressures of population and poverty. So it was with almost every institution born of the 19th-century Indian-British attempt to create a new, European-style civilisation in India. At first sight, this decay wasn't apparent because the many achievements of the colonial past were cancelled out for me, born a whole generation after independence, by the nationalist passions of my school textbooks, where colonialism was presented as the last and sorry phase before the eventual victory of the idea of India, the India hallowed by great names and achievements: the discovery of zero, Sanskrit literature, the Mahabharata, Buddhism, Mogul art and architecture, Gandhi, Nehru, non-violence, spirituality, democracy, nuclear bombs and military victories against Pakistan.
All of these contradictory ideas formed an exalted idea of India - the India we were told we lived in but couldn't quite recognise because what we lived with was the chaos and conflict of a ravaged and wretchedly poor country. And what we still sought shelter in were the institutions that an alien people from a dynamic civilisation coming into India had created in the process of consolidating and expressing their power: the incomplete projects of colonial modernity - industrialisation, education, transport and health systems - that had given an old stagnant subcontinent a future in the modern world.
But the British hadn't conquered India for the benefit of Indians. At one level, their engagement with India had followed the lines of a fantasy: of a people given new ideas about themselves in an alien and subject country, the dreams of omnipotence and continuity, which were conveyed by the imposing solidity of colonial architecture, by the detailed land surveys, elaborate population censuses and the labyrinthine civil and military bureaucracy.
The British had also bequeathed a complicated identity to the small minority of Indians they moulded in their own image and taught to rule. This Indian minority, which transformed and expanded itself into the post-colonial elite, and took over the grand bungalows, offices and clubs, also inherited the fantasies of the Raj, along with the moral high ground of the freedom movement and the greatness of classical India - the forgotten past that, ironically, the British had discovered in the 19th century.
Fantasy upon fantasy, it was the heady mix we got in our school textbooks: the new Indian identity based on the vision of an India miraculously remade, proudly self-sufficient and whole. The self-deception of peoples and civilisations, the improvised modes of being that harden into morality, into collective myths and delusions - that was Nietzsche's great theme. While he was distrustful of nationalism, he would have taught, had he lived longer, a more radical suspicion of it. In a post-colonial society, the self-deceptions of nationalism existed at every level. The dependence upon the west never really ceased: it led to a hundred inferiority complexes and ambivalences; to resentment and the jingoism of nuclear bombs; to the mimicry and confusion of modern Indian art and architecture. At the same time, the proclamations made at the time of independence replaced messy realities: to proclaim India as democratic, secular and socialist became the same thing as India actually being democratic, secular and socialist. The sheer force of belief and rhetoric alone seemed to take India to the future once set out for it by the liberal current of British colonialism.
Language played no mean role in this. English became the crucial language in India after independence but, although it was an oppressive necessity for millions of educated Indians waiting to come out of a long darkness of illiteracy, it was only available in elite institutions. Shorn of nuances, its underpinnings of irony and understatement, it degenerated into a kind of techno-speak or gabby vernacular. It became yet another barrier to self-knowledge and identity.
Self-knowledge and identity are luxuries in a poor country and weren't really necessary at a level of security, where large salaries were regularly drawn, servants easily available and children educated at British-style public schools and Oxbridge. But to those of us who lived far from the grand schemes and illusions of New Delhi - amid the ruins of the unfinished projects of colonialism, unable to afford the elite's mutual protection and self-cherishing - it was hard not to feel confused, bewildered and cheated.
The high-sounding words emanating from the politicians and bureaucrats of independent India could no longer be matched to the realities of corruption, crime and anarchy. The civilising impulses of the colonial past had died out altogether and the institutions that incarnated those impulses had lost their original purposes. By the time I got to the university where I read Nietzsche, it had ceased to be a place for higher learning. Instead, it had become a battlefield for rival caste groups, a setting for the primordial struggles of food, shelter and terror. It was of some consolation, but not enough, to read that "life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, imposition of one's own forms, incorporation, at least, at its mildest, exploitation".
First colonial, and then post-colonial, modernity had expelled us from our feudal past, had shaken up the little self-enclosed worlds such as the one my Brahmin ancestors had lived in for centuries, with, in Nietzsche's words, the perennial "cheerfulness of the slave who has nothing of consequence to be responsible for, who does not value anything in the past and future higher than the present".
There was no going back - that world of our ancestors had disintegrated fast. The caste system could no longer be a source of identity and security. Brahmin or not, you had to make your own way in the world, with all your inherited and self-created disadvantages: the shame of being poor and ignorant, and of belonging to a backward-looking community, of not fully possessing a language, of not having any clearly defined gift or talent.
It was in these circumstances that I read the enigmatic words "How one becomes what one is". Only now have I managed to figure out their meaning. And this required not only becoming a writer, but also an acknowledgement of my diverse inheritance: the feudal Brahminical past and the half-learnt ways of another civilisation. It required the acquisition of a language, English, that offered the possibility of social inquiry; it required a recognition, implicit at first, of the many ways in which we had been shaped by the west in the past two centuries, the ways its civilisation had created, along with much random destruction, a new sense of human possibility wherever it had travelled.
Everything was related, part of a pattern: the mixed cultural legacy, the longing for knowledge, the struggle to be a writer. But the pattern had to be looked for; and the looking, and the greater awareness it demanded, was precisely that process of becoming what one is.
Proust's narrator uncovers the same relation between self- discovery and self-creation when he wrote, of fashioning a work of art, that "we are by no means free, that we do not choose how we shall make it but that it pre-exists, and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have to do if it were a law of nature, that is to say, to discover it".
To become who you are, then, was to recognise the many fragmented aspects of your identity and to see that process of incorporating the past into the present as an ongoing one - a ceaseless refining of self-awareness to which Nietzsche, whom Freud thought knew more about himself than anyone who had ever lived, remains a valuable guide, even in those remote places where he would never have expected to find readers.
Pankaj Mishra's first novel, "The Romantics" (Picador), will be reviewed next week in the "NS" as part of a fiction special