The Romantics: A Novel

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9780375502743: The Romantics: A Novel

On the banks of the Ganges, the holy city of Benares groans and heaves along the fault line where modern India presses against its living past, as pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters while the bodies of the dead await by the thousands their turns on the burning ghats. Into this city comes in all innocence young Samar to complete his university studies and take the civil-service examinations that will determine his future. An uprooted Brahman, bearing the responsibilities of his caste but shorn of its privileges, Samar, obsessed by the intellectual culture of the West but shaped by ancient obligations due his ancestors, finds himself suspended between conflicted worlds. He is the classic young man from the provinces, propelled by curiosity and passion beyond his comprehension. He will emerge with a story to tell: a story of lost illusions and the joy and pain of love.
        
On his journey of self-discovery, Samar is accompanied by two guides: Rajesh, an impoverished fellow Brahman, a hanger-on at the university who has mysterious powers over a band of student malcontents that has made him its leader; and Miss West, his neighbor in the ramshackle lodging where he has taken a room. Miss West--English, fortyish, her good looks so far intact--will introduce Samar to her circle of Western friends who have come to Benares seeking a culture more resonant than their own. From Rajesh, Samar will discover the dead end to which that culture has come.
        
When he arrives in Benares, Samar knows Miss West's world only through the books he has read. By the time he is ready to leave the holy city, Samar's Brahman reserves will have been tested to the breaking point by Miss West's beautiful friend Catherine and by the horror to which Rajesh has exposed him. He survives by the grace of character and intelligence with which his brilliant creator--one of the most promising talents of his Anglo-Indian generation--has endowed him in this astonishingly mature first novel, the harbinger of a major literary career.

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Review:

In Pankaj Mishra's debut novel, East not only meets West, the two forcibly collide, causing all manner of bruises and contusions. The hero and narrator of The Romantics, a young Brahmin student, has come to the Hindu holy city of Benares to study at the university. Samar's shelves are laden with tomes by Schopenhauer and Turgenev; his dreams center around passing the rigorous exam that will admit him into an Indian Civil Service originally created and shaped by the British Raj. His next-door neighbor in the cheap apartment he rents from an opium-addicted musician is British, and it is through her that Samar first experiences Western thought and culture outside the covers of a philosophy book. Diana West is well connected in the expatriate community, and soon she has introduced her naive protégé to other foreigners in search of something that eluded them at home. There is Mark, an American studying Ayurvedic medicine following various careers as "poet, dishwasher, painter, Tibetan Buddhist, carpenter, and traveler through such remote lands as Ecuador and Congo." There is his girlfriend, Debbie, who is considering converting to Buddhism, and Sarah, a German girl who already has. Then there is Catherine, a beautiful French woman in love with Anand, a poor sitar player with dreams of making it as big as Ravi Shankar. Suffice it to say that Samar finds this cast of characters both alluring and perplexing, and the juxtaposition of his life among the expatriates with his days spent with fellow Indian students only adds to his confusion. And then there is his unquenchable attraction to Catherine...

Pankaj Mishra has taken on an ambitious subject--the attraction and almost equal repulsion that the East and the West feel toward each other. At his best, he evokes his homeland with an aching immediacy:

A thin crimson-edged mist hung over the river when I walked out of the house. The alleys leading to the main road would be empty, the houses sunk in a blue haze, still untouched by the sun, which had already begun to tentatively probe the façades of the houses lining the river. Rubbish lay in uneven mounds, or was strewn across the cobblestone street, firmly sticking to the place where it had been deposited by an overflowing open drain. After every twenty meters or so, a fresh stench hung in the air.
He also masterfully exposes the almost absurd gap between the reality of India as Samar experiences it and the romantic notions that his foreign friends bring to it with their "self-consciously ethnic knickknacks" and their fleeting enthusiasms. One wishes Mishra had a little more faith in his considerable talents and the intelligence of his readers. Where he falls down is in the excessive explanations he provides of his characters' thoughts and motivations. They are, by and large, unnecessary; heartbreak is in the air the first time Samar meets Miss West, and by novel's end his cast of romantics are certainly sadder, if not all wiser. --Alix Wilber

From the Back Cover:


"The relations between a bright young student in Benares and two foreign women, India lovers, are among the many treasures in this brilliant novel."
--Elizabeth Hardwick

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