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Evocative prose

IT IS almost impossible for any book which has had a deafening media build-up to come up to readers' expectations. The sound and fury of the publicity colours the reader's response and Pankaj Mishra's first novel, The Romantics, is a no exception.

This is a book that needed a quiet debut for the reader to react to the sensitivity of the writing which has a gentle reflective quality about it.

The Romantics traces the emergence of a young man from his cocoon to the world outside. It is not a book to lend itself to self- conscious readings at elite gatherings for it deals with a life beyond the ken of the sophisticated urban literary buff - the aspirations of countless youth who wish to break out from the narrow, stifling confines of a small town existence.

Ideally, it is to be read on tranquil, solitary evenings or on uncrowded, long railway journeys where time and space are freed from their circumscribed boundaries.

At a time when other writers are battling the torrents and rapids with their verbal acrobatics and scorching emotionalism, the young writer chooses, as it were, to row placidly on the broad browed river on whose banks the story is set. His prose is evocative and unsensational; limpid and unhurried as it flows along.

Transition is the essence of the novel. The transition of a youth from a sheltered life to a cosmopolitan experience, from innocence to awakening and knowledge, from emotional passivity to the pain of hurt and rejection.

The journey of 21-year-old Samar is narrated in the first person and the reader is led into the mind of a young man who reaches out with tentative, yearning fingers to feel and touch a world beyond the familiar.

After graduating from Allahabad University, Samar arrives at the holy city of Benares "to lose himself in books and solitude." As a tenant inhabiting a room in a crumbling riverside house, he comes in contact with his neighbour, the middle-aged Englishwoman, Miss West. She introduces him to a number of Westerners, among them the lovely French woman Catherine. Just as Samar's intellectual horizons widen with his visits to the Benaras Hindu University and his acquaintance with the works of great writers, his social circle also expands. But introverted and unsure, he is not equipped with the resources to face the challenges that such interaction brings. He gets emotionally involved with Catherine. With his inexperience and lack of emotional strength, he gets scalded by her rejection and retreats into the uneventful, cloistered life of a primary school teacher in the Buddhist Himalayan town of Dharmashala.

When Samar goes into exile for seven long years, the reader is baffled. There is nothing in the portrayal of his emotions or his flat and fleeting sexual encounter to show that this is the Grand passion or justify the agony of the Great Rebuffal.

The novel has a leisurely air and a ring of the Raj. These are characters and situations we feel have met and interacted with before. The young Frenchwoman in love with a struggling Indian sitar player, the middle-aged Englishwoman with her collection of sun-dappled photographs, the shabbily attired American who is just "passing through" and the handsome rolling stone who has been poet,painter, Tibetan Buddhist, carpenter... These Western characters never rise above stereotypes. They are personalities we encounter in our brush with the West. It is precisely because they are so predictably real that we are not stirred by them or involved in their dilemmas. Miss West's presence in Benaras "in a tiny room on the roof where she appears to do nothing all day except read and listen to Western music" is strangely familiar. And at the end of the novel when we learn about the characters in greater detail, there is no element of surprise in the paths they take.

The Forsterian echoes are strong. Miss West has shades of Miss Moore and the description of the physical beauty of the boatman is similar to that of the punkahwala.

The great sadness in the end, the futility in the striving, the inability to connect reminds one of the final scene in "A Passage to India". The clash between the cultures and the lack of connection is pervasive. The sadness is reinforced by Samar's helpless inadequacy in dealing with the realities of life despite arming himself with intellectual knowledge.

The locales also appear hand picked for their spiritual aura and appeal to the West. The father turns to Pondy, the son retreats to Dharmashala. When Samar thinks of Benares, it has associations of the last rites performed for his mother, "the priest ...waving incense sticks over the rose petals bobbing on the ash-smeared water". The priest in Kalpi seeks to live in the Himalayas as a refuge from the futility of life. To the Indian reader, it is all stating the obvious.

Mishra fares better with the Indian characters. The depiction of Rajesh and the student community has the immediacy of first hand experience. Their discussions and struggles are detailed with the knowledge of close association.

There is always a feeling of great potential working beneath the surface, of emotional intensity that fails to break through. Often, while reading the novel, the reader feels poised on the edge of powerful writing and revelations but is disappointed as Mishra reverses into familiar territory.

The Romantics is a book likely to find an answering resonance from those in small towns as it reflects their experience.

The novel is beautifully structured and has a mellow beauty. It is almost as if when everyone is flashing De Beers diamonds, Mishra traps the quiet luminescence of the moonstone in his theme and style. This is both the strength and the failing of The Romantics.


The Romantics, Pankaj Mishra, IndiaInk,

Rs. 395.

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