Midnight’s Grandchildren

The Romantics by Pankaj Mishra and The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman

Critics have coupled Pankaj Mishra and Raj Kamal Jha in their encomiums. And why not? After all, both are men of letters in their 30s who made their novelistic debuts this year, at a time when there is more buzz about Indians writing in English than a Calcutta ceiling fan generates in the summertime.

Both publish in a market created in the West in 1981 by Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children” — an epic evocation of India that won the Booker Prize, England’s Pulitzer, and spawned many imitators. But Mishra and Jha are not among them. Even if Rushdie’s success made theirs possible, they subvert his trademark style.

Theirs is not your father’s Great Indian Novel. Meet Midnight’s Grandchildren, as critics have dubbed a crop of young writers including Jha, the executive editor of India’s largest daily newspaper, and Mishra, a star editor at Harper Collins/India. They write with an elegant economy rooted in realism — a departure from Rushdie’s ballooning, fantastical, crowded narratives.

But that is perhaps where the symmetries end.

Reading Mishra’s “The Romantics,” a novel obsessed with the idea of religious retreat, is itself like a stay at an ashram — a sanctuary for ascetics, Hinduism’s version of a monastery for lay people.

Mishra’s book, set in the holy city of Benares along the Ganges, chronicles the inner life of an upper-caste intellectual named Samar, who wants to do nothing but read. His one flirtation with the messy realities of a life beyond text or spectatorship, a love affair with a Frenchwoman named Catherine, ends badly. Hurt, he runs away to teach at a school in the Himalayas for seven years. His rhythms there are orderly and alone, and he is the secular paraphrase of a holy man.

It could be a mark of Mishra’s subtlety, but “The Romantics” has the same disquietingly palpable sense of detachment as its narrator does. Its disinterest runs so deep, in fact, that it’s difficult to feel for any of the characters or their losses.

Jha’s “The Blue Bedspread,” in contrast, whispers like a father standing tenderly above a cradle in the middle of the night. It is intimate.

A narrator who withholds his name (“why waste time, it doesn’t matter in this city of twelve million names,” he says) sits down to write a family history for his dead sister’s baby, who sleeps in the next room, waiting to be claimed in the morning by adoptive parents.

So the story uncoils over one Calcutta night, as the clock ticks. It contains terrible secrets: incest, rape, domestic violence. But it also holds beauty, partly because of the way it is told. Jha weaves together a series of remembered snapshots through sections titled “Mother,” “Father,” “Sister” and “Brother.” Although the narrator is anonymous, and the characters also bear no names beyond their generic family roles, the book is rich in details foreshortened by memory: An albino cockroach hanging from a window. Baby footprints on red bathroom tiles. Streetlamps that gleam like Sister’s hair. Mother in a mothy Kashmiri shawl, watching from a balcony as snow falls like cotton sliding down the face of a mirror. Brother lying on a carpet with words growing and growing inside him until they fill his lungs.

These images recur throughout like visual refrains in a poem. Each carries emotion compactly in every cinematic flash, leading to the overpowering conclusion and lingering long after the last word of this haunting little book.