Saturday, April 3, 2010

2. “The Romantics” by Pankaj Mishra

Year of first publication: 1999
Genre: novel
Country: India

The novel begins at a riverside temple in Benares, the holy city. It is the winter of 1989 when Samar, a young college student, asks the pujari for a cheap place to live. Panditji overhears and proposes a room at what he calls “Indian rent”. Panditji spends his days in a haze of opium and only wakes up to give sitar lessons to hippie-like Western students with long hair and dyed shirts. His wife is estranged from him and claims that she has never come downstairs in fifteen years. The other tenant in the house is a middle-aged English woman, Miss West. The name reminds me of Miss Quested from A Passage to India, or is it that every unmarried English woman in an Indian novel reminds me of her? Samar is eager to read in preparation of an important exam, thus Benares is the perfect place for him: it looks like the city encourages people do spend lazy lives or seemingly meditating periods that involve a certain nostalgia for the past.
The difference between the student and Miss West’s way of seeing things is soon set, when she asks why he chose to go to university to Allahabad (randomly mentioning that Kipling wrote for a newspaper published in Allahabad, as if that was the only thing important to mention regarding the city). He reflects on the fact that after his mother died, his father retreated to an ashram and nobody questioned him. In the same way, he went to university in Allahabad because three generations of his mother’s family had gone to university there. Miss Quested reveals that she has never gone to university because her father belonged to a generation who didn’t bother to educate girls. Samar is surprised because he had always thought that prejudice against female education was a prerogative of poor societies. He also wonders if his father couldn’t afford to send her to university.
The novel comes to a turning point when Miss West decides that she wants to give a party to celebrate the fact that summer has come. Samar has never been to a party and associated it with ‘empty frivolity and moral laxity’. A group of different people joins them: there’s Mark, an American who’s studying Ayurvedic medicine and has an impressive curriculum (he claims that he was a Tibetan Buddhist, that he has travelled extensively and that he has been a poet and a dishwasher); then there are Sarah and Debbie, two women who are interested in Buddhism and meditate on the ghats of the Ganges. Debbie tells of how much upset she was when she met an Indian scholar with a British public-school accent who asked her all sorts of aggressive questions on the fact that she was thinking of converting to Buddhism. He said that westerners have ‘misconstrued’ Buddhism, that their minds are unprepared for such a philosophy of privation and they can only be ‘part-time Buddhist’. He even asked her if she has come to India because she has read Herman Hesse (ouch!). There is truth on both sides: on one hand, it is true that in some cases the interest of Westerners for oriental philosophies is just a desire to experience something new and exotic or a desire for the spirituality that has been lost in western cultures. On the other hand, in the East people have the preconception that the western mind is not able to engross their philosophies, which is not always true. At the party there is also Catherine, a beautiful French woman who has a love story with a sitar player called Anand. Samar is immediately fascinated with Catherine, as other men in the group.
At this point the setting changes, because Samar and Catherine go on a trip to Mussoorie, on the foothills of the Himalayas. Here, they are no more in a chaotic city but in the woods. They reach a shelter and the only attraction there, apart from the landscape, is a small temple, where the priest tells them his story. Catherine thinks that his life of privations is sad and Samar understands that Catherine is hungry for love. Samar’s infatuation with Catherine doesn’t end up very well, because, after a trip to Pondicherry to visit his father, Catherine leaves India with Anand. Consequently, Samar retreats to Dharamshala (in northern India, close to the Himalayas), where he teaches in a primary school, spending a lot of time alone and trekking a lot. After seven years, the city calls him back. He is no more ‘scarred’ by the experience with Catherine, but still aware that the time spent in Benares was a time of loss, when he didn’t know what he wanted. Everybody leaves Benares after having realized that something is not going well: Miss West is leaving India for good with the realization that her sentimental life is completely ruined and Catherine left India for Paris with Anand, hoping that in France he could find a job as a musician. Even Mark has finally realized that his interests in life change as quickly as his love stories.
Flaubert’s Sentimental Education plays an important role in the book. Samar gives the book (and an essay) to Rajesh, one of his friends at university. He reads it and identifies with the protagonist, who originates from provincial France and ends up being a member of the middle class. All the characters are longing for fulfilment in a culture other than their own: Rajesh, from a poor background of deprivations and suffering arrives in Benares to study and make some money, Samar finally comes to live in a big city and all the European characters are looking for something special in India. This book is of course also a sentimental education for Samar.
The Romantics is a sensitive and introspective novel, but not a sappy one. It is a good reflection on the relationship between East and West and also an interesting journey through different parts of India.

About the author:
Pankaj Mishra was born in 1969 in Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh, India). His first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Travels in Small Town India (1995), is a travelogue that describes the changes of India in the new context of globalisation. He discovered Arundhati Roy, while working for the Delhi branch of Harper Collins. He writes for many English-language newspapers, such as The Guardian and The New York Review of Books. Among his books, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (2004), which attempts to explore the Buddha's relevance to contemporary times. The Romantics (1999) is his first novel.


  1. What a poor review of the book!
    The book is far better than this review leads you to believe.....definately nothing what the books speaks of is mentioned in the review.
    Read the review of THE ROMANTICS in The Guardian.

  2. I'm sorry I'm not a professional journalist but just a reader.

  3. @Anonymous...without reading the review I would still not agree with you. No two reviews can contain the same content even if they agree on the beauty of the writing. Reviews are not suppose to praise a book or condemn one. It is an OBJECTIVE reflection of the reader and not meant to increase the sales. THis is the duty of paid reviewers and those who sell their conscience in order to flower reviews even when the really don't like the book.

    I don't think the expression of the reviewers objective thought on the book tantamounts to poor review. Some have found boring books that reviewers have found interesting...

    @Stefania...someone described one of my reviews as 'disingenious' because I expressed strongly some of the things written in it. I didn't bother much though I replied and expressed my opinion on his/her comment. I agree that people can express their thoughts but then why can't i also express mine?

  4. @Nana: thanks Nana, I appreciate your support. The irony is that I really liked the book. I don't think about my writings as reviews, but more as mere thoughts on the book. In "The Romantics" I was struck by the relationship between Samar and the Westerners he meets, maybe because I am a Westerner fascinated with the East. What I see in a book might be different from what you see, because we're different people (I am a woman and you are a man, I am European and you are African etc). If the anonymous reader wanted to tell me what he thinks "The Romantics" is really about (according to him and without copying the Guardian review), I would be happy to discuss it.

  5. Stefania, do not care about Anonymous's comment!
    I think your review does perfecty give the atmosphere of the book...
    About the meaning of the book, I believe it is a kind of book in which everyone can find his own meaning, and that why I liked it.

  6. hai già comprato il libro di Terzani? Lo vedo tra la lista dei "To be delivered"....Se non lo hai ancora comprato te lo mando io, ne ho due! :-D