Beyond love and music

April 6, 2009

An Equal Music

I am too scared to write about Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. When I finally read it, when it grabbed me, I was lost to the world. For a good 1300 pages.

I read all his other books, and particularly loved An Equal Music. A novel, set mainly in London, about music, love, and the loss thereof.

I am no musician, and the characters’ banter about C-minors and second bars was lost on me. I didn’t mind, because what wasn’t lost on me made up for it: the intense, burning, formidable passion for music. Of music. The somehow hegelian movement in which technique and emotion  transcend the score.

What fascinates me is how Vikram Seth put words on this. It is often said about music that it is the most overwhelming form of art. That the finest poetry or painting doesn’t speak to the soul like music does, that there is something about music that is beyond words.

But I guess nothing, for Vikram Seth, is beyond words.

Not even the gripping, unbearable sorrow of love, and loss. The main character, Michael, is haunted by a woman he has loved and left ten years ago. His sorrow is unbearable. So was mine. For two days, this book in my hands, I was overcome by grief. I shook and sobbed.

I think it is the genius of this book. What is done out of love occurs beyond good and evil says old Friedrich. Music, and love : one love is difficult enough, but two…Two forms of love blur our moral boundaries. He has lost her, she is losing music.

An Equal Music is a shattering book for a sensitive heart.

But the end, for once, manages to be neither sad nor happy. It is beyond.

Twilight in Delhi

January 22, 2009

Jama Masjid at Sunset


There are some books that feel like perfumes. They usher you into a world, a time, an atmosphere. The story is just an excuse to let you wander through the song and air of that time. 

You shut these books with an eerie feeling. And you never forget them.

Such is Twilight in Delhi, by Ahmed Ali.

I read it at a time of intense history binge. I was reading every single book I could find about Moghul India, and India until the end of the nineteenth century. Most of my reading were history books, which I enjoyed thoroughly. But I was craving some fiction. I knew the facts, now I wanted to feel them.

Moghul India is mesmerizing, and whoever dives into it emerges dizzy, groggy, and deeply nostalgic. There is this heartbreaking time, at the end of the 19th century when Delhi awakes to the total decrepitude of its old world. Moghul princesses have become beggars, and the infiinite grace with which life was infused slowly surrenders to modernity. 

Twilight in Delhi is set at precisely this time, in 1911, in an aristocratic Muslim haveli. Pigeons are flown at dusk and women’s hair still smell like ittar (pure perfume extract). But their world is crumbling. There is no money to sustain the zenana, and no imperial court to sustain Delhi. The English are parading in the city. Holding on to their izzat (honour) and their torn muslins, the people of Delhi witness, immensely sad, the end of their world.

The book, unlike this post, is written very soberly. Each sentence is chiselled, adjectives are few, pathos is banned. It’s just the sky of Delhi and the helplessness of its people.

Twilight in Delhi is, to me, utter perfection. It’s history as a story, India as a poem. I find it so completely enchanting it hurts me to even write about it: there is nothing to say, nothing to add.

Amazing Grace

November 21, 2008


I envy people who haven’t read A Fine Balance. Rohinton Mistry, the author, has got this kind of magic, the god-given gift of literature that only a handful of writers, dead or alive, possess.

For those who haven’t read it, the book, published in 1995, tells the struggle of two Untouchables, Omprakash and Maneck, who have left their village and the persecutions endured by their peers to find a better life in Bombay. Their destinies become intertwined with Dina’s, a widow from a relativilegy privileged background, for whom they work. The story is set during the Emergency (1975-1977), a time of great turmoil in India during which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led controversial policies.

The Untouchables’ struggle is nothing new here, quite a redundant topic to be honest. But the way it is depicted in A Fine Balance is brilliantly bereft of pathos hence all the more gripping.

As for Mistry’s take on the Emergency (a brutal and dark period), it is pure genius. He finely sews his opinion (very anti-Indira Gandhi, even though he never mentions her name) into the canvas of the story. It is never a pamphlet, never angry, never patronizing. It is so cleverly done you don’t even notice it. He just needs to tell you how a government helicopter supposed to drop rose petals on a field of (paid) supporters to the Prime Minister accidentally dropped the ballot on a cow and kills it. Mistry drops these lines like as many little bombs.

His brilliance lies in his ability to infuse misery with grace. Omprakash and Maneck’s struggles are truly heartbreaking, full of humiliation, hunger, deaths and betrayal. It never really gets better for them but still, it is written with such amazing grace and knowledge that I never felt suffocated.

Did I like it so much because I live in India and am therefore used to such topics as caste and poverty ?


But I think I liked it so much because one the things I cherish most, one of the principles I will endeavour to live by and one of the qualities I most admire in prose, thoughts and style is : grace. And grace is what Rohinton Mistry, one of the great writers of today, possesses and creates.