It is 1989, a time of great flux for Samar, as it is for India.
Rajeev gandhi hasd set into motion the machinery for the economic liberalisation that will culminate in the reforms of 1991, and will be defeated very soon in the general election. The next two years will see two diffferent prime ministers, till Narasimha Rao comes and stays from 1991 to 1996.
Samar, a Brahmin autodidact and all-round bookworm who was brought up in a village without any companions and with a not insufficient awareness of his caste and social position, has just moved from Allahabad to Benares, next door to the British Miss West, who will introduce him to Western Classical music and Benares’ teeming Western society.
His strangeness in the world of Westerners who have always had social lives is in fact deeper than just habit. It is a difference in culture itself. He doesn’t think and perceive the world in the same way.
..and the word ‘pretty’ came to be crystallised by the lovely vulnerability of her face, the clear olive skin, the large hazel eyes that looked out at the world with a mixture of uncertainty and sadness, the full lower lip, the dark wavy hair that formed a perfect inverted V over her forehead. After this, her soft French accent seemed oddly childlike, more human, more manageable.
But his new social life doesn’t just involve foreigners and Indians who spend time with foreigners; there’s also a violent student activist in the Benares Hindu University who comes from a dirt-poor family and reads Rumi.
Things happen and, like in organic chemistry, bonds break and bonds are formed, and, also like organic chemistry, we are interested not by the bonds themselves but by how they break and form.
Overall, it works as a complex portrait of a country in flux, but much more compellingly as one of a man in flux, gaining a social life, suddenly finding himself in a mire of feelings, then in a position from where he has to proceed with the utmost caution, and then having his heart broken and retreating ffrom his feelings till they come back and hit him in the face; and then his final confrontation of them – if that is what it is.
Even on the writing front, Mishra is pretty much excellent. He combines an immense sensitivity to Samar’s state of mind with a searing eye for detail and adds to it the mildly odd turn of phrase characteristic of Indians who taught themselves fluency of English by reading voraciously.
In some sense, I travelled everywhere and nowhere. The miles clocked up, and there came a point when I could no longer distinguish between the settlements that clattered past my jaded eyes – the overpopulated slums with their tottering houses, fetid alleys and exposed gutters, their cooped-up frustrations and festering violence, their hardened ugliness. The small and big towns where I often spent a sleepless night in tiny bare hotel room all began to merge together. I would often be kept awake by the varied cacophony that emanated from the other rooms, where young men of distinctly criminal appearance drank rum and watched jaunty Hindi musicals together.
Is The Romantics a great book? I don’t know; it could well be, and I suspect it in fact is, but it’s certainly one that I love, and one that I will always cherish.