By ELSPETH SANDYS*

If there is one thing more depressing than the despair of old age, it is the despair of youth. Add to that a sense of the prevailing hopelessness of a whole nation and you are left with the distinct taste of ash in your mouth.

Such might well have been my reaction to The Romantics, which follows the somewhat dismal fortunes of the narrator, Samar, as he tries to realise his dreams in a chaotic and corrupt India.

But though there is much to be despairing about in this story, it is not ultimately a despairing book. This is due largely to the richness of the language but also to the Brahmin sensibility which informs the whole work.

Defeat and disappointment are viewed by the Brahmin as inevitable. Withdrawal from the world is seen as the way to overcome tragedy. Although Samar reacts against the tradition in which he has been raised, his way of dealing with reverses of fortune marks him, modern young man though he is, as Brahmin.

I admit to having difficulty with the notion of renunciation.

As one of the main characters in the story - Catherine, a young French woman who has fallen in love with India, and with whom Samar, in turn, falls unhappily in love - says of the life of renunciation: "I find it empty, hollow. There is no love in it."

It is this proposition Pankaj Mishra puts to the test as he charts the years of Samar's life, from 20 to 27.

Samar is a student of literature. His dream is to avoid the usual route to fortune of young, middle-class Indians - the Civil Service exam - and live the life of a scholar and academic. But Samar also has romantic longings. Like Catherine, to whom he loses both his heart and his virginity, he is gripped by the self-destructive dream of a great passion. At the beginning of the story he has no idea what shape this dream might take. At the end he is left with the taste of ash in his mouth.

Hovering over the story are the ghosts of the British Raj and the Victorian and Edwardian novels they left behind in the libraries haunted by Samar.

One of the most compelling things about this novel is the sense it creates of India as a country of myriad personalities. Differences of religion, of caste and of economic status are compounded by the multiple worlds brought into the country from the outside. Americans, Germans, English, French, Irish, Israelis - there are as many non-Indian characters in this story as there are Indians: the enigmatic Miss West, the quintessential romantic figure; Catherine, rich, beautiful and dissatisfied; Mark, the American student, who, with unconscious irony, declares that the value of India is that it teaches people about pain and suffering.

There were times, reading The Romantics, when I felt I was reading an Indian version of a novel by Henry James: the detached narrator who is drawn into the action, the luminous prose, the inevitable, sorrowful ending. But the smells and sounds of India, so deftly conjured up by this first-time author, are too overpowering to sustain the comparison.

Pankaj Mishra has his own voice. The story he tells has its weaknesses - too predictable; too world-weary - but I feel sure we will hear more of him.

Picador

$27.95

* Elspeth Sandys is an Auckland writer.