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The Romantics

By Pankaj Mishra
Random House. 260 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Marie Arana who is the editor of Book World; she can be reached at aranam@washpost.com.

Sunday, March 5, 2000

About half-way through E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, the well-meaning Indian doctor Aziz takes his new friend, the emotionally fragile young Englishwoman Miss Quested, on a day trip to the Marabar caves and is accused of "insulting" her in the shadows of that cramped stone. The British Collector, a nervous, birdlike, and fanatically colonial little man, vents his outrage: "I have had twenty-five years' experience of this country," he sputters, "and during those twenty-five years I have never known anything but disaster result when English people and Indians attempt to be intimate socially. Courtesy, by all means. Intimacy -- never, never."

Put a callow student in Dr. Aziz's place; transform Miss Quested into an older Englishwoman with all the heartbreak behind her; make the intimacy be at the instigation of a beautiful, slightly unbalanced Frenchwoman; replace the British Collector with a new India, teetering under the millstone of its caste system -- and you have this extraordinary debut novel, The Romantics, a supernova in the wan firmament of recent fiction.

If comparison to the venerated Forster seems exaggerated, stand back. Before the present review is over, this novel by an unknown 30-year-old from New Delhi will have spurred mention of two more masters of nuance and dislocation, Anita Brookner and Paul Bowles. The comparisons are not frivolous; there are reasons for the claims.

The Romantics begins with Samar, a university student, arriving in Benares in 1989 to study for his civil service exams and immerse himself in the literature of the West: Among the material he will read are selections from Schopenhauer, Turgenev and Edmund Wilson. Samar is innocent, unfledged, untutored in the ways of the world. Benares promises him change and chance, sitting as it does on the shore of the Ganges, where the dead are brought to burn on ghats, where the living come in hopes of rebirth. It is the abode of Shiva, god of perpetual creation and destruction, a place where cycles are shattered, spirits are rehoused, identity is reconfigured.

A Brahman from a long line of conservative intellectuals, Samar feels the responsibility of his high birth even though his caste has been stripped of privilege. He takes his self-imposed studies seriously. Penniless, adrift, his family fractured by death and circumstance, he moves into an old musician's rooming house, where he meets Miss West, an Englishwoman of a certain age. Miss West's odd manner and discomfiting vacillation from English primness to Bohemian excess fascinate the young man, and, in time, he is drawn into her exotic circle:

"The perception that Miss West with her clean high forehead, hazel eyes, slender neck, and straight blond hair, now flecked with gray, had been at one time very beautiful came to me only later, when I was more accustomed to the physiognomies of white Europeans. Her presence in Benares, in a tiny room on the roof, where she appeared to do nothing all day except read and listen to Western classical music, was a mystery to me. I thought it had to do with some great sadness in her past. It was a large judgment to make on someone I didn't know at all. But the impression -- seemingly confirmed by the serene melancholy she gave off as she sat on the roof, a Pashmina shawl draped around her shoulders, and gazed at the river for long hours -- this impression came out of the mood I lived with . . . as I lay huddled under multiple quilts in my chilly damp room, trying to read The World as Will and Idea."

Slowly, surely, Miss West weaves Samar into her life, introducing him to "parties" -- bizarre occasions that are beyond his experience. "All around me, people spoke, laughed, ate, drank; and watching them, I became increasingly aware of the strangeness the occasion had for me. Was this what always went on at parties? I wondered: the easy exchange of confidences, the casual display of personality, the quick amiability and seemingly inconsequential chatter about things that appeared important."

As it happens, it is at one of Miss West's parties that his life is altered forever: He meets the lovely Catherine, daughter of a Paris banker, who is trying to "find herself" in the relative poverty of Benares, living with her current boyfriend, Anand, a struggling Indian sitar player. Catherine's tall beauty instantly captivates Samar, and he becomes obsessed with her, fastening onto every detail of her otherworldly habits. He welcomes the opportunity to accompany her around Benares, falls into a routine of visiting her and Anand in their apartment and spending bewildering evenings with her Parisian friends.

Like the heroine of Anita Brookner's Look at Me, Samar is unaccustomed to easy conviviality but becomes addicted to its superficial banter, its cosmopolitan sophistication, its appearance of good cheer. He grows giddy in the company of his new friends, mimics their manners, and wonders what they could possibly find amusing in him. Throughout, the older Miss West observes Catherine and Samar with interest, as if they serve to illuminate some enigmatic corner of her own life. Throughout, too, Samar's India seems to be going through its own changes, questioning an entrenched social structure, courting a violent outcome: A young fellow Brahman he comes to know through schoolmates is stockpiling guns and appears to have guerrilla aspirations.

There is, in short, romance all about, but what has wormed into Samar is love, although it takes time for him to recognize it, so inexperienced is he in matters of the heart. As he reads his books, ponders his rebellious new Brahman acquaintance, and chases after the mysteries of the West, he falls helplessly, irretrievably in love with Catherine. He follows her at first along the shores of the Ganges, but eventually climbs up with her into the Himalayan ether, where chance completes the transformation.

And this is where Paul Bowles comes in: Like the American threesome in Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, pulled seductively, inexorably, and -- in the end -- tragically into the heart of Africa, Samar is titillated, mesmerized, then entirely possessed by another culture, another morality. The twist for us, in Mishra's Romantics, is that it is the West that corrupts, becomes the fata morgana -- the shimmering phantasm that toys with a sensibility, curls into an innocent's brain.

Most thrillingly, this supple first novel offers continual evidence of the quick intelligence behind it. Mishra's humanity and emotional clarity are rare in so young a writer. But it is his prose that is so winning. When Samar reaches the heights of Kalpi with Catherine, he looks back over his shoulder at this: "There were more flocks of yaks on the winding road here, each flock carrying its own little cloud of dust as it scampered to the side of the road. Tiny monkeys with red, hirsute faces crouched and gawked at the passing traffic. The sacks of mail were heaved out and thrown onto the ground before tiny red-painted post offices. Little hamlets lined the road, houses with slate roofs and neat dung-paved courtyards with rose bushes and tulsi plants. . . . . I once turned to see Catherine waving back delightedly, her hair blown back by the wind, the tip of her nose red, her eyes streaming, a smile of pure happiness on her face."

Mishra offers us India with more than courtesy. He does it with welcome intimacy.

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© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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