The Heart of the Matter

Pankaj Mishra
Pankaj Mishra; drawing by David Levine

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…

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