The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra
The Romantics is a story set in the 1980s, probably written in 1990s sometime. It takes you through the journey of a young student in Banaras. As he comes in touch with people from the western world and also deals with his fellow Indian students and their politics. It could have been a good picture of India’s changing mind space from being extremely regional to getting global. But the book fails to do that, even at a personal journey level.
The protagonist is a silent, inactive boy who is just driven by other characters and goes wherever they take him. He comes to Banaras to prepare for civil services exams, which was the profession to run after in those days. He rents a house on the ghats of Ganga and his co-tenant happens to be a western woman settled in the city. She becomes his window to the western world and slowly he becomes a part of her circle of expats living in Banaras, each of whom is in search of something mostly in the garb of spirituality or inner peace. During the day he spends time in the library and is protected by a co-brahmin student leader and in the evening he spends time with his western friends.
He is attracted to one of the women in the group and ends up having a small affair with her when he travels to the Himalayas with her and goes through heartbreak when she moves on with her boyfriend. He then goes to spend some time with his father in Pondicherry and from there is lead to take up a teaching job in Dharamshala where he spends next few years before he encounters his friends from Banaras and to complete the circle he goes back to Banaras and visits the same house he used to live and his neighbor continued to live.
The mood of the story is dull and melancholic throughout. The title sounds inappropriate, as there is hardly any romance in the book The Romantics. There are hardly any dialogues that the protagonist delivers and hence no voice per se. Though he is supposed to be considered an intellectual in his circle, you hardly get a glimpse of that. Sometimes the story seems like a personal memoir of someone who remembers his first brush with the western world. The descriptions are too long and get boring, especially when the books of other authors are described. The story is very weak to keep the reader interested.
Banaras has been depicted very well in the first part and last part of the book. You can feel the smell of the ghats and the chaos around the burning bodies. You can feel the air flowing through the Ganga and the boat rides almost make you sway along. This is the only saving grace of this book The Romantics. Even the other places have not been described as well.
Unless you are a Pankaj Mishra fan, avoid this book.