Any traveller in India worth his/her (or others) salt, must have at some point visited the Varanasi. A place often written about, photographed, filmed, painted, sketched, etc., this city has always caught the fancy of people, from artists to writers and truly mesmerises everyone.
As is wont with me, I tend to get easily influenced by books, films and impressionable things in general. With every kind of book I’d read, my future career in my head would change. And this I realized only recently because a colleague pointed it out. So, from wanting to be an astronaut to a climatologist, a marine biologist to volcanologist, there were few trades in life that I did not want to pursue. Needless to add, books based in certain regions would make me want to leave everything and be spirited away, but sadly, I lack that drive. So while I’ve never visited Varanasi, the day I completed reading The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra, I had gone batty for the city and her ghats.
The story revolves around Samar who lands up at Benaras and traces his way in and around the city, to do nothing but read books like Schopenhauer and Turgenev, books that promise wisdom and knowledge. When he takes up a room at an elderly Brahmin’s house, he meets his co-guest, Catherine. The beautiful Catherine and her lover, Anand, a sitar player, introduce Samar to their group of friends, and Samar finds himself in the midst of intellectuals and artists, free-wheeling foreigners and their fixed notions of India.
The book, similar to modern Indian literature, brings together the stark contrasts of western and eastern culture. Through characters and scenes, Mishra shows just how different the two worlds are even if there has been enough opportunities to bridge the gap.
Samar befriends a lonely, young political activist, Rajesh, and Samar takes a shine to him immediately. Rajesh’s world is infused in demonstrations and odd cases of violence. This is another aspect of India that Samar wishes to stay away from, preferring to hide in the world of his books.
Those who have read Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August, will see the resemblance here too as to how the protagonist gets easily taken aback by the sheer poverty and raw life of rural India.
The second half of the book is rather subdued, with Samar travelling to Pondicherry to check on his ailing father, and this is when he decides to give the attraction of Varanasi a rest and so he begins his career as a school teacher.
And while I am yet to visit the holy city, I do intend to re-read this book before my trip.
This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.