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Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Romantics: A Novel (1999) by Pankaj Mishra

Image result for allahabad colonial architecture name
Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh in India- the most populous Indian state.

Book Review
The Romantics: A Novel (1999)
by Pankaj Mishra

   As far as canon eligibility/inclusion goes for first-time novelists, it is OK to write a book that everyone has read before, as long as you write it from a novel perspective.   The bildungsroman (coming of age story) and multi-perspective realist novel have been re-written since the early 19th century and each generation brings new perspectives:  that of middle and lower economic voices, German voices, Russian voices, European voices, then Latin American voices, African voices, female voices, LGBTQ voices, Asian voices.  In the late 1990's, voices from South Asia began to proliferate.  Pankaj Mishra is part of that 1990's wave of South Asian voices.

  Mishra's voice is that the post-independence dispossessed Brahmin, rich in cultural heritage and tradition, but suddenly economically dispossessed by post-independence economic dispossession.  At least that is the perspective of his narrator in The Romantics, which is  as traditionally a bildungsroman as any book written in the past 300 years.   Unlike writers like Rushdie and Naipaul, Mishra is not a part of the South Asian diaspora of the mid to late 20th century.  His European characters, of which there are many in The Romantics, are the foreigners.

  Samar, the narrator/protagonist, arrives in Allahabad, locaton of the local university for the Indian province (State? Department?) of Uttar Pradesh.  Uttar Pradesh is in the interior Hindu heartland of India, and an important location for the British colonial enterprise.   Samar goes to Allahbad to study at the famous colonial era university, now in a serious state of decline.   Because of the strong cross-over between Hindu culture and British presence, Allahabad also draws a share of Western seekers, and this is the group that Samar engages.

  The time period, and the portrayal of University life in India in the 1970's and 80's (and the 90's?) dovetails with the depiction in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Misty.  A Fine Balance and The Romantics complement each other, with thematic overlaps but enough serious difference to make both books worthwhile.


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