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From Barnes & NobleA Private Affair
Pankaj Mishra's remarkable debut, The Romantics, is that rare novel in which the nature of the story perfectly matches the means of its telling. In precise, brooding language, the narrator, Samar, relates his own tragic romance and demonstrates his struggle for self-understanding. At times, his tone and descriptive power seem akin to an outsider's celebration of the "exotic," yet, ironically, he is a native Indian—a Brahmin intellectual trapped in a homeland where he does not feel at home. His very language betrays the contradiction he lives. Here, for instance, is the scene at the Shivrati festival in Benares, India's holiest city:
All around me, and in the distance, swarmed a crowd of pilgrims, with not a patch of uncovered ground to be seen anywhere...ash-smeared mattlocked Naga sadhus with gleaming tridents, their long penises slackly swinging as they walked...past the coconut and flower sellers, the anxious-eyed cows, and the fat priests under their tattered straw umbrellas, to the river, throwing rose petals over their heads, up toward where the monkeys balanced on electric poles, quiet and watchful.Samar's mother has recently passed away, and his father, following "an old rite of passage: the withdrawal from the active world in late middle age, the retreat into self," has retired to a distant ashram. Finished with college, Samar lives on a small allowance and studies "big books" by Western writers such as Schopenhauer, Turgenev, and Flaubert. "I wanted to read," he says, "and do as little as possible beside that." Still, while he enjoys "an exalted bond" with each writer, he eventually finds that "the substitution of books for friendship...seemed to work less and less."
Samar, by no means socially adept, becomes friends with his middle-aged English neighbor, Miss West. Once a great beauty, and still well preserved, Miss West introduces him to her friends, Western "seekers" who enjoy discussing their private affairs as much as enacting them. "Faced with such mature experience of the world," he admits, "I felt the fragility of my own personality, my lack of opinions and taste." The very notion of private affairs seems to fascinate Samar, as does his suspicion that Miss West harbors a mysterious sadness in her past.
His own private affair arrives in the form of Catherine, a young French friend of Miss West's. Catherine lives with her Indian lover, Anand, and has plans to help him pursue a musical career in Paris; despite this attachment, she and Samar become friends. He frequents Catherine's house, fearing that his eagerness to visit "has something coarse in it, and unhealthy." He cannot help himself.
When Miss West abandons a vacation at the last minute, Samar and Catherine (Anand has conveniently been left behind) are left to travel to the Himalayas with no chaperone. Soon, amid Catherine's endearments, Samar clumsily loses his innocence, and he claims "a growing conviction that I had all along been marked in some mysterious way, that after the dull, pointless years of drift...I had been predestined for the moment when I met Catherine—the encounter in which some of the richness of life and the world were revealed to me."
Yet when the two return to Benares, Catherine swears Samar to silence and continues to plan her future with Anand. Samar becomes a patient prisoner to Catherine's moods and begins to suspect that "the person with very ordinary concerns was more authentic and tangible than the person who had bestowed her gift of tenderness and happiness on me." Their intimacy, despite his continued hopes, is never renewed.
It is sometimes difficult, as a reader, to know how seriously to take this romance. We do not have Catherine's thoughts, but only her endearments, which (even Samar acknowledges) come to her very easily, as if practiced. We see only the effect of the romance on Samar; his feelings—even if misguided, or not truly reciprocated—are real. This inequality raises the question that resonates throughout The Romantics: If one is a "romantic," how can the world within be brought into alignment with the world of others?
After his tryst with Catherine, Samar's interest in all else dwindles. His disengagement shows especially in the novel's uneven subplot, which attempts to document his friendship with Rajesh, an Indian student with obscure political connections. In fact, the narrative and its language falter whenever Samar attempts to describe India or Indians without the company of his Western friends. At these moments, Samar loses the romantic sensibility that he enjoys when witnessing his country through their eyes. He can never be a Westerner (for instance, he is mistaken for Catherine's tour guide), yet he cannot seem to become interested in India.
Living between these worlds, and unable to realize his dreams, Samar's "romanticism" verges on delusion. If, as he claims, the world's richness has been revealed to him through Catherine's love, how can he translate this revelation to his readers? The answer is this novel, where contradictions flourish and the descriptive power of the prose is intoxicating, controlled, and sure. Here, on display, is the state of Samar's mind, the honest and perplexing atmosphere of his sensibility. (When he tries to explain his thoughts, however, he tends to turn clumsy and intrusive.)
"The world is maya, illusion," he says, remembering "one of the very first things my father told me. But it is a meaningless idea to a child, and the peculiar ordeals of adulthood take you even further away from true comprehension." Samar responds to his ordeals by following his father, and renouncing the active life—he leaves Benares to become a schoolteacher in a Himalayan village. Whether or not he has cast off his romanticism, or his attachment to Catherine, time passes nevertheless and cannot be turned back. He concludes his story by claiming to have achieved calmness, but this is difficult, if not impossible, to believe. His emotion shows on every page of his retelling, and the ideas he's raised will not allow readers to forget, either; like the prose itself, the questions remain provocative, alive, and tingling long after the book is closed.
Peter Rock is the author of the novels Carnival Wolves and This Is the Place. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, he now lives in Philadelphia. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author
Pankaj Mishra was born in 1969. He is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, The New Statesman, and The Times Literary Supplement, as well as several Indian publications. He is currently editing an anthology of Indian writing. He divides his time between New Delhi and Simla.