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THE ROMANTICS by Pankaj Mishra

THE ROMANTICS

By Pankaj Mishra

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-375-50274-2
Publisher: Random House

A young Indian intellectual’s disillusioning experience of the —romantic— ideas that lure Westerners to the East (and vice versa) is plaintively traced in this well-wrought first novel, a compact bildungsroman graced by ironic echoes of Forster and Flaubert. Samar, a Brahmin college student who acknowledges that he has little life outside the books he compulsively reads, encounters in the city of Benares several acquaintances who, in their separate ways, begin coaxing him out of his shell. Diana West (a symbolic name, n’est ce-pas?), a moneyed Englishwoman in love with India, introduces Samar to her internationally mixed circle of friends—notably, beautiful Frenchwoman Catherine and her lover Anand, a competent (if unexceptional) sitar player. A brief trip into the mountains (inviting comparison with the Marabar Caves incident in A Passage to India) throws the inexperienced Samar and the worldly Catherine together, resulting in the loss of his innocence and of her self-confidence and devotion to Anand. Simultaneously, Samar’s cautious friendship with Ranesh, an enigmatic loner with vaguely political affiliations and perhaps ambitions, introduces him to student demonstrations and overt violence, paradoxically deepening his wish to retreat into —a simplified life and world——embodied in the quickly glimpsed figure of a farm boy tending a herd of cattle. In the novel’s muted second half, Samar is called back home by his father’s illness, wills himself to forget Catherine and the seductive allure of Benares, and begins a career as a schoolteacher—all in a long falling away from the dangers—and rewards—of a life of active involvement with other people’s enticing, intimidating imperfections. Samar’s careful withdrawal from the messes that Catherine, Ranesh, and others have made of their lives is explicitly shown to be a result both of wisdom and of cowardice. A work of admirable subtlety and high intelligence, with an unfortunately low emotional temperature. It analyzes its promising content brilliantly while dramatizing it only imperfectly.