cover image The Romantics

The Romantics

Pankaj Mishra. Random House (NY), $23.95 (272pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50274-3

Mishra's passionate, ambitious but not entirely successful debut follows the sentimental education of its ingenuous, sensitive Indian narrator. Twenty years old and indigent, Samar has already spent three years at the University of Allahabad when he arrives in Benares in the harsh winter of 1989, hoping to learn the ways of the Western world. In a cold room he rents from an opium-dazed musician, Samar devotes his time to reading Schopenhauer and Turgenev--the sort of big books ""that make idleness attractive,"" each filled with the promise of ""wisdom and knowledge."" When a middle-aged Englishwoman, Diana West, decides to create a social life for him, Samar is thrust into a circle of American and European expatriates. Through Miss West, the young Brahmin meets and falls in love with the ravishing Catherine, in flight from her ""oppressively bourgeois"" French parents and involved with a hopeless sitar player named Anand. The impassioned opinions of Miss West and the foreigners alert Samar to his own (perceived) inadequacies. But Samar gradually realizes that the Westerners seek an India that does not really exist, an ""Edenic setting of self-sufficient villages,"" ""consciously ethnic knickknacks"" and Ayurvedic medicine. In stark contrast to the yearning, decadent drifters is the secretive Rajesh, a campus agitator whose Brahmin admirers overlook his intellectual flaws. Samar's later travels with Catherine awaken romantic feelings previously suppressed by his own traditions, and he feels keenly the struggle between his ancestral obligations (he visits his sick father in Pondicherry) and his new emotional life. As his hopes for a relationship with Catherine diminish, he gets a chance to teach English to children in Dharamsala, where he attempts to embrace his solitude. In a denouement that strains credulity, chance encounters with the foreigners from Benares persistently destroy Samar's peace of mind. Mishra seems not to trust his reader to recognize significant events; his frequent reminders slow the book's pace considerably. Nevertheless, his descriptions of the Indian landscape are sensuous; one can smell the cumin and coriander seeds, feel the hum of large crowds in the streets. Samar's bildungsroman is a promising first novel from a writer to watch. (Feb.)