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Modern India seen through a muted lens
on 10 April 2016
The narrator, Samar, is a disillusioned Brahmin student preparing [in a desultory manner] for the Indian Civil Service exams in Benares. A compulsive reader, he is drawn to Flaubert’s ‘Sentimental Education’, which he describes as having ‘long detailed descriptions that go nowhere, of artistic and literary ambitions that dwindle and then fade altogether... a sense of life as a drift and futility’
This description exacts fits Mishra’s debut novel, a sepia-tinted story about the clash of Eastern and Western life and attitudes. Indeed, the book’s front cover reinforces this muted, early 20th-century atmosphere. The excerpt might also be described as a coming-of-age novel were it not for the fact that Samar remains anchored in adolescent naivety and aimlessness throughout.
Flaubert’s protagonist, born in provincial France, eventually achieves his ambition of entering the middle class. Here too, the characters seek happiness in a different culture that they judge more rewarding – Samar through his relationship with Catherine, a young Frenchwoman, and an assortment of Europeans and Americans through their search for spiritual fulfillment.
The book, published in 1999, is set in the India of the 1990s but it would be easy to overlook this as the central character observes university life, Europeans and Americans, his ill father and locals with a stifling sense of detachment that only serves to undermine the book’s story. References to modern ethnic and religious conflicts, student demonstrations, India’s economic development, caste diversiveness jar with an almost Victorian atmosphere.
The descriptions of the Indian countryside and people, particularly in the Himalayan foothills, are impressive but these are not matched by an understanding of the attitudes of foreigners who are passing through the country or who have made it their temporary home. This would not matter so much had the Romantics of the title not been Europeans: Diana West, a rather sad older woman involved in a hopeless relationship with a married executive, and Catherine, a young Frenchwoman, with whom Samar has a brief and unhappy affair. Diana, in particular, seems to have arrived from Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet and is, unconvincingly, responsible for introducing Samar to Western classical music.
Few of the characters resonate with this reader, an exception being the enigmatic Rajesh, an agitator of student demonstrations who is subsequently engaged in even more violent events. As such he is one of the few characters who does not drift through Mishra’s story. Samar himself has had a very restricted upbringing, regarding parties as activities associated with ‘empty frivolity and moral laxity’ and so is completely unprepared for a liaison with the experienced Catherine.
The tensions between East and West are drummed home in Samar’s competing responses to his father and his lover, the complexity of the modern world and his recurring vision of a farm boy with a herd of cows, the timelessness of a Himalayan sadhu who has renounced the world and the determination of Catherine’s sitar-playing boyfriend to gain fame and fortune in France.
After the first fifth of this book the reader can make a shrewd guess about the subsequent course of the story that there is little tension or surprise in the subsequent development. The urban centres of Benares, the most visited Indian pilgrimage site, and Pondicherry, a city that incredibly remained under French rule until 1954, are contrasted with the Himalayan hill station at Mussorie where Catherine’s and Samar’s love affair begins and ends, and rural Dharamshala where Samar teaches Tibetan refugee children for seven years, but each remains surprisingly static and airless.
The brief relationship between Catherine and Samar is described in manner that fails to convey anything of the deep impression that it has on the youth. It is totally devoid of ardour and desire, and lacks the romance of the title. Samar seems to be as detached from Catherine as he is from his father and his studies. It is impossible to understand what she sees in him. There is little dialogue, the reader largely inhabiting Samar’s thoughts and his frustrating introspection.
Even a more experienced writer would have had difficulty extending the few events of this book into 260+ pages. Disappointing.