‘The Romantics’ is, in many ways, about the unbridgeable gap between two disparate cultures; between the supercilious sense of superiority which the West holds over the East, a feeling which is perpetuated by those who claim to hold an affinity to the East, seeking to reduce it’s rich and diverse cultural heritage into an easy set of cliches and platitudes, fetishizing its beliefs, people and practices, cloaking the vapidity of their spiritual seances beneath a garbled set set of misconstructions and misconstruememts. Likewise, the East, struggling under the weight of a sense of collective cultural inferiority reveres the West to the point of adulation. This isn’t so much a criticism of cultural interaction, after all every culture is fluid and is a patchwork quilt of a myriad of different beliefs and cultures, but more a reflection of the toxicity of imperialism, of the deep-rooted psychological impact it continues to have and, in the context of ‘The Romantics’, the barriers it creates between individuals from these cultures from forming relationships, both romantic and platonic, with one another.
‘The Romantics’ follows the story of the reclusive and introverted Samar and his time in Benares. The city itself is rendered beautifully, its vibrancy brought alive beneath a cacophony of colours, of pink-tinted sunsets and the dazzling reflections of the summer sun on the waters of the River Ganges. Samar runs into Diana West, a pessimistic if well-meaning English woman whose friendship allows Samar to break free from the shell of loneliness within which he encased himself. Samar makes multiple references to Flaubert’s ‘A Sentimental Education’ in the novel and the reader can see the link between Samar and Frederic; both are naive and callow, repressed by a deep sense of diffidence and inferiority, withdrawn from life and in thrall to an older, beautiful and outwardly confident woman who is unattainable. Both use this experience to grow and mature, although a streak of cynicism and bourgeoisie mediocrity embeds itself in Frederic by the end of ‘A Sentimental Education’, Samar is still hanging on the precipice between his insularity and desire to become an active member of society at the end of the novel. In Samar’s case the woman who he falls in love with is Catherine, a French woman, whose outward assurance belies a deep sense of inferiority and need to be loved, her personality is perfectly captured and encapsulated in the following passage where Samar describes the party in which he first met Catherine;
“But it is the picture of her sitting up very straight on the jute mat, abstractedly plucking at the tanpura’s strings, the light form the short, flickering flame of the diyas bathing her clear, unblemished face in a golden glow, that has stayed most vividly with me, and is the central force that illuminates the rest of the evening in my memory.”
Yet it would be hard to describe Samar’s relationship or feelings for Catherine as being passionate; rather they are a tepid series of emotions which are ensconced in a deep sense of inferiority and idealisation of Catherine and love-even when the two achieve physical intimacy their attempts are clumsy and languid, both are held back by the idealised images they have created of one another in their minds; Catherine as an unobtainable, sexually confident and emotionally mature European woman and Samar as a naive, gullible and repressed Indian man. Of course both characters have personalities which, more or less, adhere to these ideals, but neither character is able to view the other from outside this narrow lens. To further complicate matters, Catherine is in a relationship with the mediocre and mewling musician Anand, who she idealises and imbues with non-existent qualities; in her mind he represents the exoticism of Indian, misreading his selfishness for being misunderstood.
However, it is Mishra’s colouring of the secondary characters and Indian where the novel really shines. Mishra brings out the essential hopelessness poverty endemic in India. Nowhere is this more apparent than the cash of Rajesh; an otherwise sensitive and intelligent young man who is pushed into a life of crime and isolation, Mishra emphasises the sense of helplessness Rajesh is over-come by as fate and circumstance push him towards a life which he never wished for. One of the most resonant passages is of when Samar visits Rajesh’s village and witnesses the poverty and degradation of it’s inhabitants. This is the “real” India which the Western characters so constantly seek, an Indian of subjugation and extreme hardship and not the simulacrum of spiritual stereotypes which they imbue it with. Mishra is, however able to wonderfully render the magical, even mystical beauty of the Indian landscape, of the uniqueness and quiddity of it’s atmosphere;
“The sea from my window was a broad sparkling band of silver foil-blinding after a long spell in my curtained room-which, later that afternoon, as dark clouds gathered, shaded into restless grey. The rain, when it came, briefly pockmarked the sea and the obliterated all sight in a steamy white mist. The long asphalt promenade was deserted now; but, on humid, rainless afternoons that followed, I would see a couple of toy sellers, their red and yellow balloons straining upwards against the silently heaving seas.”
“The Romantics” is a beautiful crafted about love and relationships between individuals from opposing and incompatible cultures.