The other side of the fence

The Romantics
by Pankaj Mishra

This debut from Indian novelist Mishra is at once beautiful and eye-opening. It provides an insight into different cultures in India, both native and visitor, and how they work (or don’t work) together.

The story follows Samar from university to postgraduate restlessness to his first job and in many ways is the tale of his ‘coming of age’ or ‘finding peace with himself’, but resolution is not the name of the game here and uncertainty is ever-present.

Samar is a Brahmin and, like most of his caste, by the 1980s his family has little of the old money left and can just afford to keep him until he’s 21. Until then he reads ferociously and, despite his studious quietness, mixes with quite a range of people. His neighbour Miss West is a middle-aged Englishwoman and through her Samar meets a whole host of westerners who come to India for spiritual reasons that he can never quite grasp (presumably these are the ‘Romantics’ of the title).

Mishra does a good job of encapsulating his hero’s mixture of revulsion and jealousy of these people, particularly of their money, freedom and opportunities – things he will never have. Mishra gently pokes fun at these visitors and their various reasons for coming to India – from having read a certain popular book to studying alternative medicine – but also points out the similarity between their displacement, their struggle to find a life path, and Samar’s.

I’m still not sure how much of my enjoyment of this book was based in it opening up to me a world I’ve never experienced, from a viewpoint I can never experience. It’s definitely a book that made me feel guilty for wanting to travel to far-flung places to widen my horizons when, of course, a week in Pondicherry could never tell me what life is truly like there.

Samar also has Indian friends, such as fellow student Rajesh through whom he sees a glimpse of India’s rural poor, a life lesson he badly needs after comparing himself to the westerners. His friendship with Rajesh and other Indians is markedly different from the one he enjoys with Miss West and her friends, which I found very interesting. The westerners are very quick to share the minutiae of their lives and each other’s. It takes a long time for Samar to discover that their true thoughts and feelings are kept just as hidden as his own, and cut them just as badly.

The book also includes a number of passages that lovingly describe India, particularly the Himalayas, and these could be quite moving. The author clearly loves his country. But it was the east–west relationships that really made this book the fascinating read that it was. From a glance at his website, it appears that he has written a lot of essays on this theme and other issues affecting modern India, so I shall be checking those out.

Published 1999 by Picador.

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