Pankaj Mishra is one of the most promising talents of his generation, and this stunning, universally praised novel of self-discovery heralds a remarkable career.
The young Brahman Samar has come to the holy city of Benares to complete his education and take the civil service exam that will determine his future. But in this city redolent of timeworn customs, where pilgrims bathe in the sacred Ganges and breathe in smoke from burning ghats along the shore, Samar is offered entirely different perspectives on his country. Miss West and her circle, indifferent to the reality around them, represent those drawn to India as a respite from the material world. And Rajesh, a sometimes violent, sometimes mystical leader of student malcontents, presents a more jaundiced view. More than merely illustrating the clash of cultures, Mishra presents the universal truth that our desire for the other is our most painful joy.
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