Characters in cardboard

Published : May 27, 2000 00:00 IST


The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra; IndiaInk, New Delhi, 2000; pages 277; Rs.395 (hardback).

FIRST novels are, inevitably, risky undertakings. The writer willing, or compelled, to pursue the gamble confronts an array of challenges: contriving a story that will snare the reader, creating characters whose authenticity leaps out of the pages, insin uating a structure that will, subtly and effortlessly, carry forward the narrative towards climax or resolution. Above all, the new novelist seeks a voice that is distinctive and convincing and that clearly has something to say.

In his debut novel, The Romantics, Pankaj Mishra sadly falls short on all these counts. An established writer of non-fiction whose work, often perceptive and well-crafted, has appeared in The New York Review of Books and The Times Litera ry Supplement, Mishra has produced a book devoid of plot, bereft of believable characters and frozen into a self-absorption so unrelenting that reader staying power is tested to the limit. If novels can be characterised in terms of the colours they e mit, this one is saturated with greyness, unrelieved by humour, life-affirming action, everyday conversation or the simple energy of a good story well told.

The greyness is all the more perplexing for Mishra's choice of setting: contemporary India (the action takes place between 1989 and the present), in particular the blend of ancientness in decay and modern squalor that is the city of Benares (Mishra esche ws throughout the use of the city's new name, Varanasi). There are powerful resonances to be exploited in a city so rich in religious symbolism, so emblematic of spiritual quest and inner voyaging. Benares also suggests itself as a citadel under assault, as a remnant of ancient civilisational ways rotting away with its crumbling cupolas, menaced by the affrontery of the new.

Mishra's choice of narrator-protagonist to explore this landscape of contradiction and decay is Samar, a young Brahmin who has moved into the city after completing his undergraduate degree at Allahabad University. Beset with self-doubt, alienated from a widower father who has retreated to ashram life in Pondicherry, and not remotely clear as to the shape of his own future, Samar views Benares as a place of refuge where he can read great works of literature and pursue his search for identity.

From this not unpromising starting point, things evolve slowly and with little conviction. We are introduced to the other inhabitants of Samar's modest quarters in the winding alleys off the riverfront, among them a reclusive Brahmin landlord with a quer ulous wife, and, in the rooftop bedsitter adjoining Samar's, a middle-aged Englishwoman called Miss West who spends her days listening to Western classical music. As the first of the novel's string of human enigmas, Miss West is given to puzzling, contra dictory remarks while revealing nothing of herself beyond her taste in music. Through her, Samar makes contact with a disparate collection of Western expatriates: young people who share the Brahmin student's lack of clear purpose, sense of alienation fro m family and cultural roots and ill-defined notion of 'quest.'

What dramatic tension can be discerned in the novel emerges from the relationships that develop among this essentially floating population. The principal dynamic is between Samar, whose hesitancy at times seems pathological, and Catherine, a young French woman of startling beauty who disturbs through her forthrightness as much as her sexuality. There are rich opportunities in the conflicting worlds jostling against each other against the romantic backdrop of oriental decay, but Mishra, as much as Samar, seems powerless to exploit them. It says something of the author's narrative force that when Samar and Catherine at last come together in something approximating a passionate episode in the hills near Mussoorie, the result is a non-event to which the rea der can react only with indifference. Yet we are asked to believe that this brief interlude, followed by Catherine's equally abrupt and quirky repudiation of her new lover, will shape Samar's life for the next seven years, propelling him into yet another phase of hermitage, this time as a schoolteacher among the Tibetans of Dharamshala.

AS if conscious of the weakness of this storyline, Mishra attempts to weave in a secondary strand: that of Samar's 'friendship' (again, hesitant, sporadic and ill-defined) with Rajesh, a student at Banaras Hindu University. Like Miss West, Rajesh is an e nigma who exudes strangeness in place of recognisable character. Given to cryptic comments and to quoting from the poetry of Iqbal, Rajesh harbours guns in his college room, plays the role of campus godfather and associates with the local mafia. For Mish ra's purposes, Rajesh promises a point of contrast with Samar's circle of privileged young Europeans: his quest is for escape from poverty so enduring and intractable that only crime offers a route to better things. Once again, however, the possibilities opened up by the juxtaposing of contrasting worlds are relinquished, and the book, along with its protagonist, sinks back into lethargy.

This is all the more frustrating because of Mishra's undoubted sensitivity to the issues. His nonfiction writing shows him aware of the debates, divisions and conflicts within contemporary India, as also of Western misreadings of the subcontinent. There are moments in the novel where such insights surface. Jacques, a Frenchman bent on discovering the 'real', Gandhian India he has gleaned from films and books - "an Edenic setting of self-sufficient villages and their cotton-spinning non-violent inhabitan ts" - beats a hasty retreat into five-star luxury when confronted with the reality. Even the self-absorbed Samar registers some awareness of the changes brought to Benares in the era of globalisation: the fast food parlours with dark glass windows, the b anners advertising computer courses, the omnipresent Coca-Cola logo. But such moments are never allowed to consolidate, to move beyond a peripheral status.

Given Mishra's focus on relationships, on the impact one individual has upon another, one would have expected a more thoroughgoing attempt to build and flesh out characters. Novels that opt for the relationship route, that prioritise interpersonal tensio ns above a strong story, necessarily demand characters that are absorbing, surprising, believable and able to elicit from readers some kind of emotional response, be it affection, anger, bewilderment, humour or horror. What the novelist cannot afford to serve up is characters who possess none of these qualities, who lurk in a penumbra so persistent that the reader cannot gain the measure of them. Sadly, Mishra is no Evelyn Waugh, capable, in Brideshead Revisited, of conjuring great characters out of the unpromising terrain of upper class Catholic between-the-wars England and making them live forever in our imagination. To the end and without exception, Mishra's characters retain a cardboard quality, making sense of the world about them in stiff, contrived ways that simply do not gel with our own experience. They remain enigmas, and ultimately we do not care.

Mishra, in one sense, is on much surer ground when out and about with a reporter's notebook. There is a great deal of descriptive detail in this novel; at times description moves into overload, threatening to swamp the already frail structure of plot and story. But in another context - for example, the long piece by Mishra on political campaigning in Uttar Pradesh which appeared in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books - this ability to capture Indian physical reality in all its complexi ty comes into its own. One looks forward to reading much more from Mishra the journalist, commentator and perceptive critic of life about him. It is here, rather than in the genre of fiction, that his contribution lies.

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