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The Romantics: A Novel Paperback – February 20, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

In Pankaj Mishra's debut novel, East not only meets West, the two forcibly collide, causing all manner of bruises and contusions. The hero and narrator of The Romantics, a young Brahmin student, has come to the Hindu holy city of Benares to study at the university. Samar's shelves are laden with tomes by Schopenhauer and Turgenev; his dreams center around passing the rigorous exam that will admit him into an Indian Civil Service originally created and shaped by the British Raj. His next-door neighbor in the cheap apartment he rents from an opium-addicted musician is British, and it is through her that Samar first experiences Western thought and culture outside the covers of a philosophy book. Diana West is well connected in the expatriate community, and soon she has introduced her naive protégé to other foreigners in search of something that eluded them at home. There is Mark, an American studying Ayurvedic medicine following various careers as "poet, dishwasher, painter, Tibetan Buddhist, carpenter, and traveler through such remote lands as Ecuador and Congo." There is his girlfriend, Debbie, who is considering converting to Buddhism, and Sarah, a German girl who already has. Then there is Catherine, a beautiful French woman in love with Anand, a poor sitar player with dreams of making it as big as Ravi Shankar. Suffice it to say that Samar finds this cast of characters both alluring and perplexing, and the juxtaposition of his life among the expatriates with his days spent with fellow Indian students only adds to his confusion. And then there is his unquenchable attraction to Catherine...

Pankaj Mishra has taken on an ambitious subject--the attraction and almost equal repulsion that the East and the West feel toward each other. At his best, he evokes his homeland with an aching immediacy:

A thin crimson-edged mist hung over the river when I walked out of the house. The alleys leading to the main road would be empty, the houses sunk in a blue haze, still untouched by the sun, which had already begun to tentatively probe the façades of the houses lining the river. Rubbish lay in uneven mounds, or was strewn across the cobblestone street, firmly sticking to the place where it had been deposited by an overflowing open drain. After every twenty meters or so, a fresh stench hung in the air.
He also masterfully exposes the almost absurd gap between the reality of India as Samar experiences it and the romantic notions that his foreign friends bring to it with their "self-consciously ethnic knickknacks" and their fleeting enthusiasms. One wishes Mishra had a little more faith in his considerable talents and the intelligence of his readers. Where he falls down is in the excessive explanations he provides of his characters' thoughts and motivations. They are, by and large, unnecessary; heartbreak is in the air the first time Samar meets Miss West, and by novel's end his cast of romantics are certainly sadder, if not all wiser. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (February 20, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720807
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720809
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,128,354 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By sanjay mittal on May 5, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Romantics is a story which has a mellow and gentle feel to it and in my opinion should be read, not in one sitting, but on a few lazy Sundays. Pankaj Mishra too is writing here in a very different style than his earlier bestseller, "Butter chicken in Ludhiana". For me as an Indian there were two highpoints in the book. The rather sympathetic insight into the life on ghats and in the madhouse of Varanasi; and a more delicately handled interaction between the east and the west in the lives of the characters in the stories. Unlike the earlier books on such interactions, the characters are not memsahibs and rajas. It is in the shape of more proletarian and identifiable people. Dont look for a complex plot here. But yes if you are looking for a believable story narrated gently, well the romantics is your book. Mishra is probably a romantic at heart, but possibly quiet shy. So the romance here is in the mood created and not in the words. Defintely worht a read ...
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51 of 60 people found the following review helpful By rakesh bhandari on February 10, 2000
Format: Hardcover
well i purchased this book with great expectations. That Pankaj Mishra was our Indian whizkid who will write the big Indian novel. He was already famous for discovering Arundhati Roy. And selective leaks in the media of a million dollar advance built up expectations of an Indian Tolstoy. But. As soon as I started reading it I realised that to make the book acceptable to the western readers, Mishra has almost made it a formula book. Tried to incorporate tourist spots and elements of India which would interest the americans and europeans. Maybe the pressure of the fat advance made him do it. Thus we in fact have so many foreign tourists -- like Ms West-- who form the core of the plot. And the story is about Indian tourist spots - varanasi, Manali, pondicherry...wherever the tourists go. Nothing wrong in it. But somehow it all seemed so fake. Even the American edition book cover is absolutely tourist brochure stuff, in contrast to the Indian cover. Inspite of the title, there is little romance in the story either. I wish he would have explored human realtionships with more depth. However the writing style is fairly okay. Maybe Mishra will discover a true indian idiom next time.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
'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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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Yuyutsu Neckovich on December 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
i honestly feel this is the best novel, indian or not, i have read in long time. all these reviewers who go on and on about this being an example of packaged "exoticism" and then go on to suggest reading rushdie (the king of "exoticism") really blow my mind. this is such a beautiful book precisely because it is not really about the concept "India" at all. The strange, unneccesary plot turns are simply the stuff of real life. you cant reduce this book to any trite commentary about east vs west. it has a life of its own.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful By rikky on July 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Romantics, tries to use the old formula of Indians trying to amuse the west but fails in the process. Inspite of the excellent print quality of the Indian edition, the story just fails to take off. The problem-- too many formulae. Examples-- naked sadhus, the ghats of varanasi, whites searching for spirituality, dirty mother India etc etc. Mishra has just missed the elephants and snakecharmers...but just about! There were a tremendous possibilities even in this hackeneyed storyline, yet Mishra does not sem cabable of exploring them. As such the story never excites you. But at times can really put you to sleep. So avoid this book!
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Sahara on September 28, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The Romantics seems promising at the start and then fizzles off. There is very little story and though I'm not into plot/action driven books, the complete lack of then requires exceptionally good writing, which this book does not have. Yes it has evocative details, which usually go on for much too long e.g "...pilgrims surging into the main road from all directions, though narrow lanes and maze like alleys, from between houses leaning into each other, pilgrims holding marigolds and red hibiscuses, brass and steel platters lit with diyas and sweets and vermilion powders, pilgrims wearing pink and purple saris..." and on and on and on. The American reviewer from California enjoyed these description, but for Asian me for whom it is home, it got very tedious after a while. I might have enjoyed them had there been a story as well as more depth in the characters (all of whom I found very steroetypical), and had the relationship in the book had some emotion in them -after all the book is 'about' a series of relationships the protagonist has to people as well as with the world. This reader learned nothing new about life from this novel except that life and time is precious and next time I should stop reading such material ten pages into it. Needless to say I am very disappointed. Why Mr. Mishra is hailed as the next literay sensation only God knows. And perhaps his Western publishers.
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