Saturday, October 15, 2005

Book Review: The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

The first thing that struck me about Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's book, "The Last Song of Dusk", was the language. He has the ability to gather the most beautiful words in the Lexicon and braid them together into the most poetic sentences, turning them into the sweetest-sounding verbal bouquet. I was so enamoured with his ability to do this that for the first half of the book I was more into the language than the story. Ofcourse, the naysayers will tell you that he has a propensity for being too indulgent with the adjective, for using too many metaphors and for being addicted to the hyperbole, but then this is the genre of magic realism and to expect anything less would mean to take the magic, the fantasy, the unexpected out of it.

" duly complemented the pale yellow duranta flowers billeted in her thick chignon, flowers with such aptitude for fragrance that several bees grew dizzy and promptly fainted mid-air...."

The story itself revolves around a couple in colonial India. Anuradha, whose looks were fabled to be so striking that more than a few young romeos of the Udaipur Sonnet Society claimed her as their muse and whose voice was so beautiful that 'when Anuradha sings, even the moon listens'. Vardhmaan, her husband, was so highly thought of as a doctor that more than a few nubile lassies of Bombay (where he practiced) feigned fevers and simulated stomach aches only so he might measure their excited pulse or even -praise the Lord Shiva!- glide his stethoscope over places no man had ever touched before.

Now, one would imagine that a handsome, talented couple like the Vardhmaans would live happily ever after, but this is no fairy tale despite the haunted house and wicked step-mother. As they try and build their lives together, Anuradha and Vardhmaan face insurmountable problems, including the death of their first son, driving them furthur and furthur apart until they no longer remember what it was that tied them together in the first place. Other fascinating characters in the novel include, Divi-bai, the proverbial wicked step mother whose brown eyelash-less eyes spread fear wherever she goes and Nandhini the young orphan artist who paints souls. Nandhini is wild as she is wonderful. She dances on tables, walks on water, mates with leopards (and quite a lot of humans too — both male and female), and is prepared to go to any lengths to set herself up as the great artist that she knows she is. I was particularly enchanted by her encounter with the famous freedom fighter, Mahatma Gandhi at one of the first soirees she attended.

Their conversation went something like this:

"I hope you don't take this personally, but I think your loin cloth is unbelievable sexy."

"I am not wearing this," fumed Gandhi, touching his holy hand-woven loin cloth, "because it's ... it's ... sexy ..."

"You're not?" Nadini batted her eyes like a doe in heat. "Maybe that's what makes you great, and me merely adorable."

But she, too, is haunted by some mysterious thing that happens in her past. And then there is Sherman Miller, the young Irishman, who is utterly besotted with the wild and restless Nandini. And finally, there is 'Dariya Mahal', the ruined haveli by the Arabian sea where Anuradha and Vardhmaan make their home, a house haunted by secret, desperate unrequieted love, whose unhappiness is so bitter it curdles any other joy that happens to innocently comes its way.

I was fascinated by the story---not just because it asks you to suspend disbelief for a moment while it takes you on a magical trip, but because I am unaccustomed to reading about Bombay (the city I grew up in) in the 1920's, it seemed so elegant then and truly makes for an enchanting read.

This is an amazing debut for the young author. Ever since his emergence on the literary scene, Siddharth has been the toast of the media. The praise has been effusive. The Sunday Times Magazine described him asthe next best thing to have happened to Indian writing in English since Arundhati Roy.” A publicity report in the Fringe Club described his books selling like hot cakes in India and the paparazzi waiting outside his house to take his snaps. Tired of all this Siddharth has taken to the Himalayas, working on his next opus. Meanwhile, his mother frets about the marriage of her (in)famous son: “who would like to marry a man who writes on sex?” As an aside, the Guardian, U.K. had a fun competition on which book had the worst sex scene. Although "Last Song of Dusk" was nominated, thankfully it did not win! Here's the paragraph is was nominated for:

"...Was it on the bed that she sat on him, her weasel-like loins clutching and unclutching his lovely, long, louche manhood, as though squeezing an orange for its juice? Or was it on the balcony swing, much later, that he buried his thirsty tongue in those thick pink lips between her legs? She loved most the lusciousness of his buttocks, their dimpled circumference, as though God had created them only so she might pull him farther into herself and then muffle her rapturous pleasure as she had, only a few hours back, muffled her anguish. ... they had exhausted all the wild beasts lurking in the forests of their flesh. . ."

Coming back to Siddharth, he wrote the novel when he was twenty-two and was his way of dealing with a broken relationship. He soon forgot about the book, but when a friend read the manuscript he insisted that Siddharth show it to an agent---the rest is history. Today his work is compared with Marquez and Rushdie.

He doesn't appreciate having his worked described as magic realism. In an interview recently, he protested. “Please don’t call my work magic realism. I don’t like the word magic realism-it takes away from the realism of my story. In India, we have this belief that everything-a house, a tree-has a spirit and we must respect that spirit. So in my novel if a house is talking, it is not magic realism. You may call it heightened realism.”

Well, since this is my blog and my review I am going to give myself the last word on his writing. His novel , with its tragic elements of love and loss, the heroines breaking into song and dancing on tables etc., reminds me of a finely-crafted literary version of a Bollywood movie. I look forward to the author's next book.