The Romantics, A Novel

RomanticsAfter so much non-fiction and short stories, from my sick-bed this last week, I was trying to think what I had on the shelf that I could just sink into, a good novel and I thought briefly about Amitav Ghosh’s The Sea Poppies, which I know is there somewhere, but too high on the shelf, too heavy in hardback and so my arm reached out and landed instead on Pankaj Mishra’s  The Romantics.

This wasn’t just about needing to lose myself in a story, I wanted to escape to somewhere exotic but familiar and Mishra offered a view from a rooftop apartment in Benares (Varanasi) India, that instantly awakened pleasant memories, but did so via a young Indian protagonist whom I knew would give me another perspective to life there.

The Romantics is a story about a lost young Brahmin, Samar, whose family for centuries followed the same traditions, having been favoured by a sixteenth-century Mogul emperor who granted them land, passing on their legacy with little thought to the past or the future, tending their land at the foothills of the Himalayas somewhat oblivious to the subsequent twists and turns of history.

My own knowledge of the past went only back as far as my great-great-grandfather, in the last century, but I can’t imagine his own ancestors deviated much from the well-worn Hindu grooves in which he and his son and grandson spent their own lives: studentship in Benares, adulthood and marriage, late-middle-age detachment and then the final renunciation followed by retreat to the Himalayas.

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The Ganges, Benares

With India’s independence this well-trodden familial cycle was thrown into disarray, lands and accumulated wealth lost, his father became just another citizen seeking employment. Samar has finished his studies but faces an uncertain future after the premature death of his mother and his father’s announcement that he wishes to spend his last days in Pondicherry.

Samar makes Benares his home and befriends Miss West, an English expatriate, and others who are ‘passing through’, idealist Americans, Buddhist contemplatives and the young Frenchwoman Catherine whom he falls in love with, despite her living with a young local sitar player, whom she imagines she will transition to Paris with.

The reality of my position was made more apparent by Debbie’s reply when I asked her what she was doing in Benares. ‘Passing through,’ she had said, and the words had stayed with me. They had suggested a kind of perpetual journeying through the world, a savouring of life in a way I had no means of knowing, the life itself seeming – as it did in the pictures in Miss West’s room – unimaginably adventurous.

He also makes the acquaintance of Rajesh, a fellow Brahmin, whom he suspects of being involved in shady political or criminal dealings; Samar passes his days between these two cultural thresholds, participating fully in neither, observing himself and others yet not quite able to stop himself from complicating his life unnecessarily, not so different from them all.

CIMG3772Through Samar, Mishra writes with a quiet equanimity which permits us interesting insights into the lives of all the characters,  though his insights do little to prevent him making similar mistakes. Eventually he leaves, after an extended visit to his sick father and finds himself a job in Dharamshala where he will settle, until something reminds him of the past and once again, he will give in to a baser instinct.

The perfect escape novel and always interesting to read about the stayers, young people who went to visit India or any other country vastly different from their own, who end up for one reason or another staying.

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16 thoughts on “The Romantics, A Novel

  1. I went through a phase of reading books set in India – and kind of went a bit mad and over did it reading dozens. This is one of the ones I read and enjoyed.

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    • It’s great that there is so much choice and I particularly enjoyed this because it felt like an authentic voice and indeed it seems to be a little autobiographical from what I have subsequently read about the author. There is so much written from the outsider’s perspective, it is interesting to get another perspective, I remember when reading Shantaram last year, that it was the conversation between Prabaker and a man at a roadside teashop asking questions about his European companion that intrigued me. We never know how different we are until seen through other’s eyes.

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  2. I’m sorry I didn’t know about this last year when I ran a summer school on literature set in India. It would have been an unusual addition to the syllabus.

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    • Keep an eye out for it for another time perhaps. There are some really interesting literature references and in particular Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, which is why I chose to put one of his quotes next to this review.

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  3. It sounds interesting, and nice to take new reading journeys. Due to lack of employment, I’m re-reading old novels, currently a trio of Barbara Taylor Bradford works, light escapist stuff.

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  4. Nice review, Claire! I read ‘The Romantics’ many years back and I remember liking it for Pankaj Mishra’s prose and for what you have beautifully described – “Samar passes his days between these two cultural thresholds, participating fully in neither, observing himself and others yet not quite able to stop himself from complicating his life unnecessarily,” After reading your review, I want to read the book again.

    Sorry to know that you are under the weather. Hope you get well soon.

    I discovered your blog through Stu’s (Winston’s Dad) blog. Your blog looks great! Looking forward to reading more of your book reviews in the future.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment Vishy, yes, I found Pankaj Mishra’s prose very readable and his insights interesting and I like the slightly flawed character, so realistic and perhaps something of a consequence when one’s life is no longer mapped out so clearly as it was in the past.

      I am much better now thank you, but was not impressed that even reading was impossible for a few days! Thank you so much for venturing over from Stu’s wonderful blog, I love seeing what he is reading, works in translation are a real treat and I am impressed with your own reading, especially all that French literature. Bonne Continuation as we say here. 🙂

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      • Glad to know that you are better now, Claire. Nice to also know that you can get back to reading now. Yes, Stu’s blog is wonderful – he posts on translated fiction are really a pleasure to read. I like that phrase ‘Bonne Continuation’ 🙂 Thanks!

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  5. I am glad you are better now. I thought it would be impossible I would ever be too tired to read, but here I am, I couldn’t hold a book more than half an hour because of stress! 🙂

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