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The Heart of the Matter

India, which once so much fascinated writers from the West as different in their outlook as Rudyard Kipling and E.M. Forster, has come today to exercise the same degree of writerly fascination over its own youthful intelligentsia. The oddity and yet the inevitability of this is brilliantly revealed by the new young novelist Pankaj Mishra, who possesses or has acquired the gift of writing about his country both from the inside and the outside.

He does it in a manner all his own, which has great readability and charm. This echoes and emphasizes the kinds of detachment which the reader has become accustomed to with other Indian writers, whether native-born and self-exiled like the great and venerable Nirad Chaudhuri, or brought up, like V.S. Naipaul and his brother, Shiva Naipaul, in a distant pocket of Indian culture in the Caribbean. Mishra is wholly at home in India, even though every word he writes bears the complex stamp of a language beautifully evolved and refined from Anglo-Indian and North American literary antecedents as well as haunted by the august and ancient multiplicity of Indian tradition, as complex and delicate in the craft of words as it is in that of music.

The Romantics is a very audible sort of novel, whose opening paragraphs grip the reader as artfully and as compellingly as the first page of A Passage to India used to do—and can still do. Really good novels consistently re-new themselves, as Mishra’s opening suggests:

When I first came to Benares in the severe winter of 1989 I stayed in a crumbling riverside house. It is not the kind of place you can easily find anymore. Cut-price “Guest Houses” for Japanese tourists and German pastry shops now line the riverfront; touts at the railway station and airport are likely to lead you to the modern concrete-and-glass hotels in the newer parts of the city. The new middle-class prosperity of India has at last come to Benares. This holiest of pilgrimage sites that Hindus for millennia have visited in order to attain liberation from the cycle of rebirths has grown into a noisy little commercial town.

This is as it should be; one can’t feel too sad about such changes. Benares—destroyed and rebuilt so many times during centuries of Muslim and British rule—is, the Hindus say, the abode of Shiva, the god of perpetual creation and destruction. The world constantly renews itself, and when you look at it that way, regret and nostalgia seem equally futile.

The past does live on, in people as well as cities. I have only to look back on that winter in Benares to realize how hard it is to let go of it.

The ancient city of Benares is both the setting and the unsurprised and impassive hero of the novel. Its reality, as the center of those impersonal forces of perpetual destruction and creation which in India assume multiple spiritual and personal forms, is placed by the author side by side with the confused and uncertain feelings and contemporary personalities of his characters. Creation and destruction, the work of Shara and Kali, are more visible, more inescapably evident, in India than anywhere else.

Mishra’s foreign characters are the sort of here-today-and-gone-tomorrow people whom India now attracts, perhaps always has attracted. He draws a cunning but unobtrusive, almost invisible parallel between the emancipated European and American visitors and migrants who come and go in India today and their predecessors of the Imperial British Raj. In most cases those earlier visitors strove to preserve their own exclusive ethnic habits and being; and yet they were continually haunted by the fear or the wish to be part of the seductive old subcontinent which the more discerning had come to know, and on which they were balancing so temporarily and so precariously. “We are nothing but dust and fragments really,” says the worldly-wise Mrs. Haukshee in Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills—“here today and tomorrow blown down the khud.”

The hippies and expatriates who have been attempting for years now not merely to balance on the surface of the subcontinent but to explore and acquire its deeper wisdom are in one sense heirs and successors of these stiff-necked and upright civil servants who tried to impose their Western vision of things on India. India, which swallowed up and absorbed so many conquerors, from Arabs to Mongols, had less success with the English. But time and change have now reversed the situation. The new invaders of today are trying desperately to lose their Western personalities and become as Indian as possible. While the former British rulers brought their own versions of law and order, medicine, education, and science, their successors have nothing to offer, and wish only to obtain, and pay for if they can, the services of a wise nanny or guru.

Indians perceived and on the whole adopted the benefits of British rule while remaining secretly scornful of their rulers’ way of life. They are equally and politely scornful today of the visitors who come desiring only to adopt what they think of as the Indian way of life. Ancient Benares accepts them, helps them create themselves in the form they think they want, and then subtly and impassively destroys them, returning them to the emptiness from which they came.

The characters in The Romantics are well chosen for their purpose, and brought to life in a manner which reveals a sympathetic observer as well as a natural novelist. The narrator is a nineteen-year-old student, a Brahmin intellectual who often seems (a good touch this) as inexperienced and naive in the ways of the Indian world as he is in that of the Western one. He is far from being the streetwise Kim of Kipling’s imagination. He suffers all the uncertainties and handicaps of having grown up in two worlds, and Mishra conveys the nature of his experience with a simplicity and individuality unique in this type of fiction.

His youthful narrator, Samar, lodges in the cheapest room of an establishment whose premier lodger is Miss West, a middle-aged English lady of some means and, as Samar is convinced in his romantic way, a good deal of mystery, no doubt proceeding from “some great sadness in her past.” Miss West is kind to him, but the woman who really takes his fancy is the beautiful Catherine, a French girl with rich parents who lives with the young Indian musician Anand. Anand comes from a poor village and is intensely conscious of his financial dependence on Catherine.

The results of this are instantly apparent when we meet the couple first at home, where Anand, wearing a flimsy lungi and T-shirt, is lying against the bolsters on the floor, peeling a banana. Samar is immensely proud of having remembered a quote from Flaubert to the effect that “one should live like a bourgeois and think like a bohemian,” and is gratified when Catherine laughs her “full, throaty, generous laugh” and says, “That’s good. That’s very good.”

Good it may be, but it is no answer to the actual problems of mixed living in India. Catherine likes, or thinks she likes, what she seriously calls “living as simply as possible in India.” “We can sleep on the floor, we can do without a fridge, washing machine…” At this point Anand, recumbent, remarks: “But we need an air-conditioner, no?” Seeking to humor him, she says she will buy him an air conditioner any- time if he really wants one.

Anand’s expression suddenly drooped; he grew very quiet. Catherine’s answer had put into unwelcome focus what I knew about from Miss West….

Giving up things is so easy when you don’t have to give them up: the prospect of getting comforts and amenities you never even dreamed of having is quite another matter.

Anand’s ambition is to play the leading role with a group of Indian musicians and performers in Paris. Catherine of course supports him all she can and her pleasure in doing this—the kind of pleasure with which parents today are all too familiar—is attracting the covert displeasure of her mother and father. Her mother comes to India to try to understand, but soon revolts at being made to stay in cheap “authentic” hotels while visiting the beauty spots of Rajasthan. Life in Paris is not a success; Anand is no more than a reasonably good sitar player, and the couple soon drift apart, Catherine returning, not without further rebellion, to the life which nature and upbringing have quietly ordained, just as they have ordained a different style of life for Anand and his friends back in India.

Before the couple set out for Europe, Catherine and Samar have had a brief affair, which, as is usually the way in real life, neither disenchants Samar of his romantic notions, for all that he is a great reader of Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale, nor gives him any sense of furthering his own worldly and sexual education. It is just one of those things that happen, like so much that goes on, day by day, in India, or indeed anywhere else. Mishra has a wonderful sense—gentle and unemphatic, even diffident, but deadly at the same time—of the daily actuality of things, for which his prose supplies the art and the satisfyingness which actuality so seldom puts there itself.

That prose, both homely and distinguished as it is, is necessarily crammed with echoes from other writers—European and Indian, past and present. Mishra has clearly been an admirer of William Gerhardi, whose early Twenties novel The Polyglots is one of the masterpieces of its time now virtually forgotten and unread. With a little help from Chekhov, Gerhardi invented what might be called “the Burning Fishbones Effect”—his romantically inclined couple are abruptly overwhelmed in mid-kiss by the stench of burning fishbones from some midden just behind them. Such a moment could be said to encapsulate both the Oriental and the human paradox; it is one on which E.M. Forster himself was no mean hand at playing his own sort of genteel variations. Mishra is far too good a novelist and too discreetly subtle a stylist to employ the effect in its crude form, but it lurks inevitably in the background of his book. So, more obviously, does the influence of Forster himself.

But there are interesting and subtle ways in which Mishra scores here by comparison. Forster depended to a striking extent on the plot apparatus of the good old-fashioned novel: a romance with India, a disillusion, a sensational climax, a trial scene, a denouement. Mishra’s novel manages to be continuously absorbing, beautifully modulated and shaded, without using any of these traditional aids. India in all its complexities comes alive here by what seems the simplest of means—one could say by those very humble means and styles by which the rich expatriate Catherine thought she would like to live—and in this way Mishra’s India becomes very fully present.

Like Voltaire’s Candide, Mishra’s ingenuous young student Samar succeeds in going to the heart of the matter by not fully grasping what it is all about. The matter of India and the city of Benares as a microcosm of the mystery of India are used by Mishra in a novel and illuminating way. For one thing he reverses the Forsterian pattern. Forster’s rather stagey Marabar caves bewilder and demoralize the Europeans but not the Indians, who understand such things and take them more matter-of-factly. But Benares bewilders Samar as much as it does the Westerners he finds there; and he must find his way in the city while he is also striving to play his part in their brittle gossip about politics and books. Even its weather is unexpected. On arrival he finds himself living through

exceptionally cold days in Benares, the thick mists rising from the river and shrouding the city in gray, the once-hectic bathing ghats now desolate, the sad-sweet old film songs from an unseen transistor radio in the neighborhood reaching me weakened and diffused as I lay huddled under multiple quilts in my chilly damp room, trying to read The World as Will and Idea.

In the most ancient city of Hindu mysteries Samar strives rather forlornly to absorb some Western philosophical wisdom. Mishra’s own simplicity, sharp though always gentle, produces many brief portraits and scenes of deadpan humor. Miss West gives a party, two of the principal guests being the American expatriates Debbie and Mark. Debbie, says Miss West, comes from Providence, Rhode Island. “A perfectly vile place.”

I tried to find Rhode Island on a mental map of America. I had heard about the provinciality and backwardness of Oklahoma and South Carolina. But Rhode Island…?

Miss West couldn’t have guessed at the degree of uncertainty her remarks induced in me. They made me overturn all the notions I had formed so far. “He’s so American. So oversincere,” she had said. Were Americans oversincere as a rule? Such generalizations lay beyond my limited knowledge of the world; they made me feel ignorant.

For the Indian student Miss West herself, “a repository of bits and pieces of odd wisdom,” becomes a kind of guru; a reversal all the more droll because she is British and judges Americans from the standpoint of an older and more cynical civilization, just as the Indians used to do with their English rulers. Such reversals are always unobtrusively present in the novel. The French girl Catherine speaks with an almost American solemnity when she claims that Mark has “suffered a lot of pain,” but then Benares has healed him.

Samar is equally bewildered by his new friends. They gossip incessantly about politics; like another Candide-like character in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels Samar soon finds himself “averse to political discourses.” The chatter of Debbie and Catherine about books devalues them for him in the same way:

Debbie screwed up her face and adjusted the bra straps aslant on her shoulders—the skin of her shaved armpit, when she lifted her arms, was rutted and bristly. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I had this really deep urge to go there after reading Márquez. You know, Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s my all-time favorite novel…. It’s just so romantic…. I just love the way he writes. I mean, the people in his books, they are so emotional, so free with their feelings, their bodies, everything. I don’t know, I’m not much of a literary critic, but I can’t think of a writer who can hold a candle to Márquez when it comes to…when it comes to…I don’t know.”

Catherine, more intelligent, reproves her enthusiasm a little. “Personally, I like Kundera. He says serious things about contemporary life.” There is no malice in the simplicity with which the novel creates by means of such exchanges the outlook and character of the people concerned. That’s the way they are. Nor, one cannot help feeling, do Márquez and Kundera themselves come out of it so much better. Something dubious about such novelists is often accidentally revealed by the kind of people who read them. Debbie’s “really deep” urges have caused her to drift around South America and India; and no doubt she will finish up back in Rhode Island, with or without Mark.

If there is one quality that really good recent Indian writers seem to have in common it is the ability to write novels which are “deep,” if you like, and yet untroubled by significance and seriousness. The terms of enthusiasm that flow with such facility from the lips of Debbie and Catherine would mean nothing if applied to Mishra or Naipaul. Such novelists cannot be judged or applauded by such facile standards; Debbie and Catherine would no doubt turn away from their books with disappointment and dissatisfaction. Naipaul’s masterpiece, for instance, The Enigma of Arrival, which has a good deal in common with The Romantics, is impossible to define or describe by comparison with most other kinds of literary work. Engrossing and fulfilling to read as it is, it responds to us purely by revealing a personality, and personality is always enigmatic, not to say mysterious. Some personalities indeed resemble books, into which they seem naturally to merge. The youthful Samar, his author no doubt looking over his shoulder, embodies the process with quiet candor. And it is by such means that Mishra and Naipaul became the writers they are, not by inventing Magic Realism or having something “serious” to say about contemporary life.

In a recent article, “The Other India,” in these pages, Mishra remarked that India “is split into a great many separate worlds,” and that “you can live in one without knowing anything about the others.”* None of these worlds seems to have a clear past either “until you make the effort to dredge it up.” In his novel the past and present states of many worlds, Indian and European, seem to have come as if without effort to the surface. Mishra has a great sense of time, and of the fragility of all of us who will soon be “blown down the khud.” But his humanity and his humor show in this very remarkable first novel how Shiva creates as well as destroys. One hopes there will be many more novels to come from a writer who can do it as naturally as this, and with so much eclectic authority.

  1. *

    The New York Review, December 16, 1999.

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