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on 14 October 2017
Yes brilliant first book, I recommend it
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 27 May 2002
There is none of the intense heat, colour, noise, and passion usually assoicated with Indian novels in this book. Shrouded in fatilism the narrator drifts aimlessly and naively into a futile love affair. So frustratingly cool and calm is he you feel he's in need of a good night out. Mishra's softly undulating prose floats the reader through the novel on a mellow cloud of curiosity. The characters may be going nowhere but this is a successful beginning for Mishra full of promise and I look forward to his next novel.
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VINE VOICEon 22 January 2002
This is an astounding book which is very unlikely to disappoint, unless you have picked it up thinking that it is a love story rather than a literary novel. Its an exciting "first novel" as praise-worthy as other debuts such as Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith, although Mishra is undoubtedly more serious and reflective. This autobiographical work is steeped in introspection, self-examination and a very personal exploration executed through the eyes of Samar, a "bookish" character with whom readers will instantly identify. A fascinating tool used by Mishra is the idea of displacement as a counterpart to exploration. He makes each of his characters alien to their world - and this is very much at the core of the beauty of the book. Samar himself is an Indian in India, but his world and his experiences are more alien to him than the European characters in the book who come "seeking" to Samar's country.
Only the prose lets Mishra down. When he gets it right he is unrivalled in brilliance, subtlety and aptness, but when he gets it wrong it jars - every 10 or so pages. Neverthelss, reading the novel was a joy and it left me wanting to read it again to enjoy its subtle development in more detail. Of special delight was the very last page and a half on which hang an overwhelming mix of emotions that are in themselves the culmination of the book and the justification for its existence. They are the "romantic" emotions that can not be felt in real life, and can not be described in a review. They will be found nowhere else other than at the end of the journey of these 270 pages and when a novel manages to pull of a feat like this it is a reminder to us of why we read and why we hold literature in such high esteem
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on 8 September 2005
Samar is a 20 year old student in 1989. He arrives in Benares, "the Oxford of the East", where he hopes to study and spend his time with his favourite books. He is a shy young man who does not enjoy the casual display of personality at social gatherings. The superficial amiability and the light chatter make him feel uncomfortable and he doesn't enjoy taking part in conversations, afraid to say the wrong thing and not quite sure what the right thing to say is. He grew up alone and therefore developed no skills for intimacy or even friendship which he feels requires a degree of self-abnegation from him.
However after meeting several characters like Miss West, Rajesh - a fellow student who turns out to be a criminal - and Catherine, Samar slowly realises that socialising allows him to discover a whole new world. It is particularly his love affair with Catherine which he experiences as a strong emotional turmoil. It is understandable since Samar grew up in a culture where men and women are ushered into marriage after parents have convinced each other about their respective social and financial status. Love is supposed to follow marriage and not the other way round and it doesn't matter much if it doesn't...
An interesting tale of a young provincial man who struggles to make sense of a strange and alien cosmopolitan world. The descriptions of Pondicherry, Allahabad, Benares, Dharamshala and the Himalayas are lyrical and the reader is constantly reminded of the bewitching power of India.
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on 20 December 1999
'The Romantics' is of interest primarily because it attempts to delineate a 'provincial' India, as opposed to the more 'metropolitan' outlook of Rushdie, Seth, Desai, et al. The narrator, for example, grows up in Allahabad, spends time in Benares and then retires in Dharamshala. As such, it is is often fascinating in its description of the manners and mores of the smaller cities (the attitudes of the tourists who visit Benares, for example, or the outlook of students caught up in politics-infested universities). The author obviously is drawing upon his experiences while researching his earlier 'Butter Chicken In Ludhiana'. The painstaking, detailed descriptions are Flaubertian, and the cool, clinical dissection of events and incidents owes something to Naipaul. However, on too many occasions, Mishra substitutes summaries of scenes and events, rather than describe the actual scenes and events themselves. After a while, this smacks of being a literary short-cut and has the rather unfortunate effect of distancing the characters from the reader. We need to hear what they actually sound like, for example -- but in place of dialogue, all too often there is merely recapitulation. All things considered, however, 'The Romantics' does chart new territory for the Indian novel in English and as such, it is definitely worth reading.
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on 11 February 2000
The tale of a young graduate killing time in Benares (Varanasi) under cover of preparing for his civil service exams. If you've been there - its great, you can really sense the atmosphere. If you can't I'm not so sure that the writing alone will take you there The writing is fine but not a lot really happens to our hero - but then that's life really, isn't it? Life is what happens to the people around us - and he observes it beautifully. The characters are well developed - although perhaps the narrator himself writes as if he's worried his mother will read the book and disapprove - and cover a broad range of the Indian experience - from student revolutionaries to the disappointed middle-aged mistress. Good, but not a masterpiece
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on 3 May 2002
This is Pankaj Mishra's first book, but it is a work which any writer would be proud of. Reminiscent of early Naipaul - only perhaps more measured, and the tone more sombre - Mishra's prose is captivating, haunting, ethereal; sentences run on for several lines, and envelop the reader in their tones and shades absolutely. His perception of character, and of the subtlety and nuances of human interactions is deeply resonant and perceptive, and his equability and fairness rings through this beautiful and sad book. Highly recommended, and much better than the first novels of other highly touted young things. Absolutely first rate.
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on 31 March 2001
It took about 20-25 pages to really get into the novel,but once i had i was utterly compelled & finished reading it within a day. Pankaj Mishra captures wonderfully the essence of ones inner self,& at the same time he also evokes a real sense of being in India- hearing the noises,smelling the smells,you could almost be there yourself.His prose is haunting & lyrical,with many of his sentences staying with you long after you have finished reading. I would certainly recommend this novel.
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on 1 April 2001
Really enjoyed this novel! Mishra encapsulates perfectly the evocative power of India at the same time as capturing his main characters thoughts & sense of self perfectly. Beautifully & lyrically compelling.
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