August 03, 2020
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Missing A Small Beat

A delicate, subtle debut that belies the hype which heralded it

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Missing A Small Beat
The Romantics
By Pankaj Mishra
IndiaInk Rs 395, Pages: 277
Pankaj Mishra's book The Romantics comes bearing a burden of anticipation. And on that count, it disappoints. It doesn't have the kind of inspired explosive moments and emotional combustion its Rs 2 crore advance led one to expect. Rather, it is a quiet but compassionate book in which Mishra's triumph lies in fleshing out the trembling inner life, imprecise longings and inchoate ambitions of Samar-an archetypal small town boy, intellectually precocious, but emotionally naive, who struggles to make his way in the world through books.

At the heart of The Romantics lies Samar's crippling infatuation for a Frenchwoman, Catherine-a beautiful, but shallow narcissist, the daughter of a leading banker in Paris, who's basically camping in Benares in a show of defiance against her "bourgeois" parents, and who lives rather incongruously with Anand, a down-and-out wannabe sitarist (her pet project for the time being).

Newly arrived in Benares from provincial Allahabad, full of intimations of a larger, richer world, Samar is brimful with vague, undefined hopes and very vulnerable to anything that might offer meaning to his life. He spends chilly mornings (and later, long afternoons at the Benares Hindu University) plodding through Schopenhauer and Turgenev, looking up impatiently now and then-eager for self improvement-at the row of Kierkegaards, Prousts and Pascals that await him on the peeling windowsill of his rented room. These are to be his intellectual pickaxes, his guarantors in the charmed world to which he craves entry.

But none of them prepare Samar for the real world. Neither for the barely-concealed violence of student politics in the university. Nor for his encounter with Catherine. Narrated in the first person by Samar, bewilderment, in fact, is the book's dominant emotional tone. Unable to recognise Catherine for the callow opportunist she is, Samar reads too much into her careless affection and her subsequent, almost brutal, selfishness pushes him into years of restless exile, self-doubt and emotional torpor.

This play-off between cultures; this attraction for the exotic; this collision between deluded, bookish notions and stark reality is key to the book. Mishra explores this perceptively in Samar's hesitant, sometimes circus-like interaction with the ragtag menagerie of foreign expats his English neighbour Miss West introduces him to. And vice versa. None of them really ever "get" each other. Samar's obsession with Catherine too is of a piece with this general clash of cultures and is reminiscent of the American heiress Isabel's gullible attraction for the urbane but cruel European, Gilbert Osmond in Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady.

But unfortunately, though The Romantics is faithful to the author's vision, for the reader the experience is disappointingly tepid. The problem mainly lies in Catherine's character and the way Mishra builds up the relationship between her and Samar. Their lustreless trip to Kalpi, the fumbling sexual episode that follows, make the book's emotional core ring strangely hollow. This is a tricky question though, because the book's intention requires their encounter to be inconsequential. It's Samar who builds it all up. But the problem is we never experience his exalted vision. And so we cannot experience his ache.

Catherine is consistently unattractive for the reader. She remains a weak narcissist, weeping and sulking in corners in between spells of brittle gaiety. And since Samar's the narrator, disastrously, we see her as such through his eyes-belying the force of his stricken passion. Then too, Samar speaks of "soldiering on" at books he can't understand. This seems to mock his own earnestness. But though ostensibly written seven years later, nowhere does Mishra hint at a Samar grown older, more urbane. It's these conflicting overlays that mar the book.

In the final reckoning, The Romantics is about a fleeting sexual encounter, an obsessive infatuation and a long, slow disillusionment. One's tempted to suggest that given its eventless plot, it might've worked better as an intense short story. But Mishra redeems his book's slow tempo with the seriousness of his enquiry. He holds up a mirror in which a society can recognise itself. In a sense, Samar's story is the story of innumerable young, small-town men, who, hungry for significance, and at odds with their destiny, struggle to make sense of an alien cosmopolitan world through borrowed intellectual tools. And lacking emotional sophistication-fail. Samar, however, works better for me as a literary idea than as a character.

The Romantics is a subtle, sensitive book, but Mishra relies too much on the perceptive reader. Often, what he means to be resonant spaces, become absences.

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