Saturday, February 6, 2010

Silent Raga - a mystery/ suspense novel

This is a book that has more questions than answers, and thus remained a mystery/ suspense to most of us.

Why was the book named Silent Raga? What was the connection between the musical notes announcing each chapter and the goings-on of the chapter? Why did Janaki run away to Asgar whom she had just met once? Why did Asgar agree to marry her having met her just once, when nowhere is it indicated that she is either a divine beauty or a divine veena player, leaving his paralysed first wife? Why did said paralysed first wife make so nice to second wife, i.e. Janaki, including playing chief advice-giver/ baby sitter? What was the relevance of Janaki's veena/ music center to the story? What was the relevance of the interview Janaki gave to the 'bob-cut' haired journalist? Why did Janaki buy the childhood home in which she never had a single positive experience? What was the relevance of Miss Nalini's friend's suicide to Kamala's suicide? Why did Mallika never evolve/ grow a spine? Why did Mallika always take Chitti with her to the hospital if she hated her so much? What was the relevance of the riots the day Mallika went to visit her father? What was the point of the American boss driving Mallika home that day? What was the point of the party at Mallika's colleague's home? Why did Mallika not express anything to her sister whom she'd been carrying a grudge against for so many years? What was the relevance of them driving past Sriperumbudur the day of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, given that the assassination is barely a footnote? Why did the father go mad ( maybe because he was in this book?)

Why did we have to know in such excruciating detail what the chai walla was wearing? Why ten pages about jattis and 'rivulets of womanhood'? Why don't we see any explanations for what most of the characters did? Why don't we see any resolution in the end of anything? Why is the ending such a damp squib? Why didn't the book have an editor who cut out the pretentious over-writing? How did the guy manage to peddle this book to a publisher (maybe the Indian exotic/ intricate culture thing?)

Overall the book club gave this book a rating of 2.5-4 on 10 (those who managed to read it). We liked the details of agraharam life, but felt it would have been better reserved for a scholarly treatise on life amidst Tam-brahms. Then, of course, Savvy who is a Tam-Brahm arrived and said she read the first two pages and they didn't strike her as authentic so she postponed reading the rest of it. Regarding the lack of resolution - someone suggested it may be there's a sequel in store. Well, guess which book club will not be queuing up to buy that one!


Shubha said...

Great review, couln't have said it better!

G.P. said...

This is a gross misrepresentation of a beautiful and thoughtful novel. The Silent Raga is one of the best novels about South Indian Culture and Music that I have read in English. I am a tam-brahm woman of 35 years, Eng-Lit postgrad, and I found Merchant's evocation of agraharam life to be spotless. In fact, I had to keep flipping back to his photo numerous times to confirm that the novel was indeed written by a man, and a muslim man at that!
Why was the novel called Silent Raga? It was about the shared but unspoken love and memories of Janaki and Mallika. (pg 146, 188, 228)
Why was each chapter preceded by a note (sa, ri, ga...)? If you know anything about Carnatic music (which, apparently, you don't) is defined by the gamakams or microtones. Merchant uses each note to highlight the nuances of one incident that both sisters share. Mallika's interpretation differs slightly from Janaki's, which is in keeping with the essaying of the same raga from musician to musician.(pg 117)
Why 10 pages on Mallika's coming of age? A transformational moment when Janaki the sister becomes Janaki the mother in her sister's eyes It was perceptive and brilliant the way the writer used the symbolism of blood to highlight birth and belonging -- a sister becomes a mother at the time her younger sister becomes a woman!(pg 107, 108)
Why does Gayatri Chitti visit the asylum with Mallika? Guilt. Gayatri plays an active role in Appa's corruption as partner and conspirator. She is just as responsible for the disintegration of the family. (pg 252, 253, 270, 390, 421)
How can anybody marry a man or woman just after one meeting? Ever read the Ramayana? Ram marries Sita (Janaki) with just one meeting, and without speaking a word with her. Incidentally, Janaki has twins in the novel. Ring a bell? Merchant uses mythology with great precision (eg. the films screened by the grandfather in the cinema. pg. 70, make note of the titles of the films he screens.)
Why does Zubeida accept Janaki? Because she is happy to have children through surrogacy. It helps her overcome her own sense of loss of motherhood. Bama and Rukmani, Valli and Devaanai, Kausalya and Kaikeyi: were they wives or baby-sitters?
Why does Mallika not grow a spine? Trauma of two family scandals within a decade. She just wants to disappear from her own family history. , (pg 265, 269, 304,341, 343. 362)
I could go on, but won't bother. No writer deserves such unintelligent, lazy readers. I give your book club a -5. That you won't be queuing to buy Merchant's next book can only be a blessing for a writer of his caliber. And I dare you to post this rebuttal in its entirety.

Gowri Shrikumaran, Chennai.

what shall I say said...

"And I dare you to post this rebuttal in its entirety."

there there. Surely you've heard of freedom of speech?

I am one of the lazy readers you pan in your thoughtful, educated, initiated-into- the- mysterious- ways- of- Tamil- Brahmin-women's life review. I may not have exercised my pea brain enough to cut through the turgid prose of this book, but in my languid, unintelligent way do allow for such a foreign concept as disagreeing with you entirely, but defending to the death your right to a different opinion. So now that you've had your say, in its entirety that too, perhaps you can allow us the right to feel what we do about this book, its writer and in fact anything on which we feel like having an opinion without attacking our intellect and industry.

Have a beer. I find this to be most excellent advice, almost all the time. it certainly made my own interaction with this book almost bearable.You might find it similarly useful in bringing in the dogs and reining in the shrillness.


bird's eye view said...

Shubha - ;)

Gowri darling - thanks for enlightening us - wish your prologue had been attached to the book, may have helped us lazy types understand the book better. And as you can see, i have dared to post your rebuttal sans editing because I am not a shiv sainik and believe in freedom of opinion and speech. Happy?

what shall I say - wine not beer would be my tipple of choice and rivulets of it!

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