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Poignant but Pointless

Review of The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, IndiaInk 2000.

The Romantics tells a story of love and loss in Benares. From a distance of many years, Samar recalls the winter of 1989 when he came to Benares (the town is never called Varanasi or Kashi), fell in love with a French woman called Catherine, and lost her.

Catherine is part of an expatriate circle which Samar enters thanks to the Englishwoman, Miss West. Samar and she are tenants of the same landlord. A more obvious name than Miss West could hardly have been chosen for a book that stages an East-West encounter. Sure enough, she is his passport to the world that he had hitherto only read of.

And Samar is a voracious reader. Through that winter we see him work his way relentlessly through Schopenhauer, Turgenev and Flaubert -- "the tireless autodidact", Miss West calls Samar. It is this side that he displays to the "foreigners" he meets: "I became eager to flaunt my book-learning, and I dropped names left and right: Nietzsche, Mann, Proust, James, Kierkegaard, Pascal. I was keen to demonstrate that I had read them all and, what's more, remembered everything I had read."

But to remember is not necessarily to understand. Indeed, that very gap between memory and insight is what haunts Samar. He reads Flaubert's A Sentimental Education but "the novel had passed me by, like many other books at the time: it had struck me as flat and overly long." It requires the magical touch of Edmund Wilson's essay on Flaubert's politics to make him think "I had missed almost everything that was of value in the novel.

"The protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, seemed to mirror my own self-image with his large, passionate, but imprecise longings, his indecisiveness, his aimlessness, his self-contempt. Also, the book -- through its long, detailed descriptions, spread over many years, of love affairs that go nowhere, of artistic and literary ambitions that dwindle and then fade altogether, of lives that have to reconcile themselves to a slow, steady shrinking of horizons -- held out a philosophical vision I couldn't fail to recognize."

This piece of self-recognition -- appearing midway through the novel -- foretells the lonely path Samar will take. But it is not the loneliness of a desperate lower middle class life in a small Indian town. (Coincidentally, I read The Romantics immediately after another small-town novel, Strangers on the Roof, the English translation of Rajendra Yadav's Hindi classic Sara Akash [1952]. Even stranger to remark: Yadav's protagonist too is called Samar! However, there is none of the earlier Samar's heart-grinding wretchedness in Pankaj Mishra's Samar. But loneliness there is aplenty.)

At the university too, Samar is very much on the fringes, since he actively distances himself from the criminality and violence of mainstream student life. He remembers "one afternoon in the library, sitting among the criminalish young men playing cards, the bored young women with long, painted fingernails, tracing their initials into the wooden desktop". At the university he meets the enigmatic Rajesh ("the person I knew best in this other life"), a protector of Brahmin students, a reader of Faiz and Iqbal -- and a criminal.

Of these incongruities Samar says much later: "It had taken me much time to realize the simple fact that Rajesh had been struggling to make sense of his life, to connect the disparate elements that existed in it: his self-consciousness about his Brahmin identity, the pistols in his room, the talk of illusion and the void."

His life-changing affair with Catherine and its wrenching break too remain an inexplicable wound and mystery to him.

"I had a growing conviction that I had all along been marked in some mysterious way, that after the dull, pointless years of drift, the long years of childhood and adolescence, the time during which I had increasingly felt myself homeless and unprotected and lost, I had been predestined for the moment when I met Catherine -- the encounter in which some of the richne ss of life and the world were revealed to me." Little of that "richness of life and the world" is evident in Samar's acute observations of life in small-town India.

Usually it is a Naipaulesque banality and squalor he notices: "I had got up early, awakened, more often than not, by ... radios blaring devotional music, crying babies, wet laundry being slapped against the bathroom floor, the voices of people queuing up before the municipal tap in the alley below, water cannonading into plastic buckets." And when he steps out, "rubbish lay in uneven mounds, or was strewn across the cobblestone floor, firmly sticking to the place where it had been deposited by an overflowing open drain. After every twenty metres or so, a fresh stench hung in the air."

But finally none of this comes together: our "Edmund Wilson in Benaras" refuses life and retreats to Dharamshala as a primary-school teacher: "this detached, eventless life wasn't very far from matching the old Brahmin idea of retreat", he says. He turns out to have only dimly understood Miss West, Rajesh and Catherine: "whenever I recalled my time in Benares, I felt that it was a task I had shirked, that I had understood very little and misunderstood much during those months there. I was haunted by the sense of having left something incomplete."

The Romantics, is a poignant but oddly pointless novel.

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