Saturday, February 18, 2006

Song of the Cuckoo Bird: A Novel

Fiction | Ballantine Books | Trade Paperback | December 2005 | $13.95 | 0-345-48315-4


Amulya Malladi website

Read an excerpt

India has exported many things around the world - some tangible, like curry spices, mangoes, Pashmina shawls, Bollywood movies and even doctors and software engineers, but some exports are not so tangible, like Yoga, Gandhism, its spiritual traditions and so on. What India also has, and which is coveted not only by her own people but by those living outside of India, is a multitude of holy men and women, Gurus or Swamis. These holy people are usually housed in
ashrams, the upkeep of which is paid for from generous donations by besotted devotees.

The main protagonist of this book, "Song of a Cuckoo Bird", is not a person, but one such ashram called "Tella Meda" or "House with the White Roof". Tella Meda is not your regular, big ashram with a well-photographed, miracle-performing Guru at the centre, rather, it is a small house on the banks of the Bay of Bengal in the south of India which functions as a shelter for outcastes (mainly women) of society.

Central to this ashram is a lady, Charvi, whose father first saw the light of the goddess within her and deemed her a devi, a goddess, a guru; he was her first devotee. When the novel opens Charvi is a young lady of 21 years and seems very uncomfortable with being called a "goddess" but, as time wears on, and people shower their devotion on her, she comes to embrace her role as a mystic and even starts certain practices like healing the sick by placing her hands on them and making predictions based on dreams. Surrounding Charvi are a cast of very colourful and wonderful characters who live in the ashram. Let me introduce them to you:

Ramanandam Shastri, is Charvi's father and a well-respected author with female equality being his favorite topic to write about, however, it seems likely from his actions, that female independence and emancipation were lofty ideals well worthy of being written about, but not practised, atleast not in his household anyway.

Then there's my favorite character, Kokila, who came to the ashram at the tender age of 11 as a child bride. Tella Meda was supposed to be only a temporary abode for her (she was supposed to go to her husband's home after puberty), but when the time came she rejected her inlaws and elected not to leave the ashram. In India where the status of a woman is dictated by marriage and children, Kokila's decision to stay on in the ashram might appear to have been a foolish one.

There's also Chetana who was the same age as Kokila. She was brought to the ashram as a toddler by her mother who was a prostitute and didn't feel at all maternal towards her. Like they say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree and Chetna grows up to have so many characteristics of her mother, but thank goodness for that because she brings life and drama to the ashram!

Subhadra, one of the oldest members of the ashram is the cook and her food is compared to ambrosia or nectar for the gods. She came to the ashram after finding out she couldn't conceive a child for her husband. As was tradition then, her sister became the second wife of her husband and Subhadra who couldn't bear to see her sister take her place, left home and came to the ashram for solace.

There's also Ravi, Mark, Manjunath, Shanthi, Renuka, Bhanu, Meena and a whole host of truly wonderful people that populate the ashram but I will let the book do the rest of the introductions.

The novel spans 40 years in the life of the ashram (1961-2000) and before you reach the last page of the book, its inhabitants will have become your intimate friends. You will have been privy to all of their years spent in the ashram - celebrating with them when things were good and commiserating with them when circumstances were dreadful. Best of all you will have seen how with the years came progress especially with regard to the status of the women.

Amulya Malladi can be very proud of this finely crafted novel. I think it's stupendous piece of writing. You can tell that a lot of thought and creative energy has gone into the formation of each character and even though there are so many of them, each one has been given a very unique personality and a very distinctive voice. Through the characters, the ashram and the landscape, she has also very cleverly detailed the social and cultural environs of the mystical land that is India and we come away feeling just a little more enlightened about Hinduism as a way of life, social ostracism, the caste system, the role of marriage in a Hindu woman's life, the Hindu-Muslim relationship in India and so on. A truly enlightening reading experience.


sruthi said...

hey! thanks for your comments. I noticed the author here is amulya malladi, who i've pretty much slandered throughout my posts about how her books are unimaginative, and devoid of actual suspense or substance. Have you read her other books that i talked about? How do you think this one compares to those? (mango season, breath of fresh air) Is it worth the read?

I'm in the middle of reading 'the life of Pi" right now and i'll be starting a short stories collection by naguib mahfouz. I'll probably have updates on that sometime soon.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello! Nice of you to visit. I've read Amulya Malladi's "The Mango Season" and will admit that I wasn't impressed, however, "Song of the Cuckoo Bird" took me by complete surprise - I never imagined I would like it so much. Her writing style has improved so much, it almost feels like this novel was written by a completely different author. I'm waiting for her next one, "Sound of Language" just to see if she can maintain this fine form.

I've read "Life of Pi" and look forward to reading your take on it. I have to say I had very mixed reactions - loved it in parts and hated it in others.

Heard of Naguib Mahfouz but never read anything by him - again, I look forward to reading what you have to say.

hellomelissa said...

yay! i'm so glad to see another commenter. right after i read your review (ganesh ashram pic & all) i saw a metal ganesh lunchbox. i can't get it out of my head and i should have bought it for you. grrr! maybe it'll still be there next time. after all, isn't he a proponent of literature & the arts or something? help me out, here...

Lotus Reads said...

Awww, you're sweet to have thought of me - where do you find these nice, eastern things? I loved all the "Lotus" stuff you sent me at Christmas and try as I might, I never seem to find them here!

As far as I know, Ganesh is the god of good luck - people invoke him on very auspicious occasions such as a new business venture, a wedding and so on. Saraswati would be the patron goddess of the Arts - I love her!

Janelle Martin said...

Have you seen Water yet by Deepa Mehta? It is such an incredible story about an ashram and has an incredible back story about the filming. Highly recommended!

Lotus Reads said...

Janelle, the movie "Water" touched me very much and I am so looking forward to Deepa Mehta's daughter's story on the making of the film - just waiting for it to come out in softcover!

It is sad, but there are widows like that in India to this day. They sing in the Krishna temples and subsist on a few cents and a bowl of rice each day.

sruthi said...

hey! sooo really quick, i read the first chapter and a half of song of the cuckoo bird today at borders while studying for my gre's, and i really liked it! you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but i certainly think you can from the first chapter. I'm going to get that book possibly tomorrow right after work. Thanks again for the suggestion!:)

Lotus Reads said...

Cool, sruthi! Hope you continue you to enjoy it - keep us posted! Our little online discussion might become a reality after all, yeah!