A Review of The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra

 Mishra oversimplifies his characters till they remain nothing but poorly illustrated cardboard cutouts. Samar’s character emerges slowly and painfully from the murky undergrowth of the meagre plot. And most of his personality remains obscured by the slime he insists on wallowing in.

Reviewed by Siddharth Singh

The little literary grapevine has it that Mishra earned quite a tidy amount with his first novel. (I, alas, still write for the love of my art. Is some rich person reading this?) Financial remuneration, however, is no excuse for bad literature. This novel is dull, tiresome and extremely reductionist in nature, not to mention wildly inaccurate. The dullness seeps in by the middle of chapter one, where Mishra seems to insist on describing the party preparations. His lead protagonist, Samar, is about as interesting as dirty dishwater. And even that at least swirls and splashes in eddies. Samar is so stagnant you can almost smell the putrefaction. His apparent horror of having to make a decision in life is irritating, to say the least. Samar seems to float through life, allowing himself to be redirected by every gust fate blows at him, more dead leaf than live human. His preference for the path of least resistance is so nerve wracking that at one point, I wanted to physically knock some sense into him, were we ever to meet. Not that I have a problem with wishy-washy characters in general. I mean, Charlie Brown remains my all time favorite loser. But creating wishy-washy characters requires incredible skill, an area where Schulz scores over Mishra. Besides, a whiny loser is okay to read about over a cup of tea in the newspapers, but a few hundred pages of supposedly intelligent writing is a bit too much for my sensibilities.

Reductionism remains one of my pet peeves against the author. Mishra oversimplifies his characters till they remain nothing but poorly illustrated cardboard cutouts. Samar’s character emerges slowly and painfully from the murky undergrowth of the meagre plot. And most of his personality remains obscured by the slime he insists on wallowing in. The others fare no better. Mishra has done injustice to both his Indian and foreign characters. His descriptions of Miss West and Catherine are pathetically one-dimensional representations of the Westerner who comes to India to live. The Indian characters are mere stereotypes with no unique or even memorable characteristics. And as for sweeping generalisations, writers will be hard put to exceed Mishra in India bashing and selling filth and poverty. Why is it that Samar, who is obviously not completely impoverished, chooses the worst localities to live in? The areas he mentions as his average neighbourhood is equivalent to me going to New York City or Los Angeles, staying in the poorest, filthiest, crime ridden areas of the inner city ghettos, and then passing them off as the entire city to an unsuspecting Indian reader. Oh, and by the way, you cannot see the Ganges from Mussourie, unless you can see through mountains. And neither does the river hurtle through Hardwar, but rather meanders and gurgles while on her merry way.

Similar topographical inaccuracies persist throughout the novel, so I would not recommend it to anyone as an authentic source of information on the region. Better stick to Kipling, Corbett or Ruskin Bond for that. Newspapers tell me that this book is being lapped up in the West. I simply cannot understand why. Why do intelligent, educated people insist on reading about an India that is poor, filthy and totally mired in depravity, superstition and poverty? Agreed that is one part of the country. But definitely not the only or even the most predominant part.
This inaccurate depiction of India only distorts the true picture. Why does the West prefer to read “The Blue Bedspread” and “The Romantics”, and not other books like “Shadow Lines”, or “The Madwoman of Jogare”? India has her problems, but all is not wrong with us either, as Mishra would like us to believe. An e-friend tried to explain the reason behind this situation. “It is because Indian middle class values can only be understood in the backdrop of the extreme poverty there.” Why, may I ask, is this only applicable to India? If the same paradigm were applied to the West, every entrepreneur would be considered as driven by a fear of poverty that exists in inner city ghettoes. Something that is obviously not true! My take on it is slightly different. I feel it is easier for the West to think of India as a land of snake charmers, and poor, starving millions. Not to deny that there is poverty, but it is not the whole and soul of India. I really find it offensive that tourists come to visit, stay in the seediest hotels in town, travel in the cheapest modes available, and then go back with a picture of a naked child and say, “This is India.” Why don’t they bother driving around towns and cities in the middle class locales, of which there are lots? And there are very good hotels, but hey, a Sheraton costs the same anywhere around the world. There is a stereotyped and biased image that exists of India abroad, and it will take time to change. It doesn’t help that our own writers produce books to cater to an audience not willing to look beyond their noses.

All in all, I would never recommend this book. I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading it. Fortunately, since I borrowed a copy, I didn’t at least waste my money. Anyway, dear reader, (God, now I sound like Charlotte Bronte!) I must go now. No doubt this article will be chopped and hacked mercilessly by my editor, so I should end immediately.

About the Reviewer: Siddharth Singh is not an English student. He would much rather read Shakespeare on his own instead of sitting in class, and dissecting the finer points of post colonialism or neo modernism, or some equally intimidating ism. He loves his reading however, and speaks as a lover of books, not a critic. He has a regular review spot at The South Asian Women’s Forum. Siddarth can be contacted at chhote_thakur@123india.com