Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Silent Raga

The Silent Raga

Ameen Merchant

The Silent Raga centers around two sisters, Janaki and Mallika, from a conservative middle class Brahmin family and the events that leads to their divison and reunion. When their mother dies, Janaki is pulled out of school, much to her dismay, in order to tend her father's house until a suitable husband can be found for her. Janaki, a gifted veena player, submits to her father's will. Although she is essentially imprisoned by convention, she continues to develop as a musician, purposely sabotages most of her proposals and focuses on her sister's well-being and education. The bonds between the two sisters are strong and Janaki essentially becomes both Mallika's sister and mother. Janaki's two driving motives are music and Mallika.

The story opens with present day Janaki reminiscing about the past and then switches to Mallika questioning Janaki's return after 10 years of absence. The sisters quickly reveal their present situations, Janaki has married a famous Muslim actor, thus eschewing traditional caste values and Mallika has become her father's caretaker (although he is in an asylum) and works in Madras. Through a series of sometimes deft and other times awkward switches between sisters and past and present moments, the story of Janaki's escape (or from Mallika's perspective, betrayal) unfolds. Both of the sisters' narratives are told not only in relation to their sisterly bond, but also focus on their relationships with their father, or lack thereof. The story , although primarily juxtaposing Janaki's self-sacrifice and ensuing guilt with Mallika's resentment and anger over her abandonment, also tells the tale of each girl becoming aware of their father's selfish and hypocritical ways.

The story is well told and engaging; however, Mallika's anger feels somewhat misplaced for most of the story, as if she is completely unaware of what her sister gave up for her despite her claims of being able to read the unspoken language of people. Of the two characters, Janaki is the more compelling because Mallika`s tale feels naive and stunted, which was probably intentional. All of Mallika`s anger and resentment works to some extent until their eventual reunion when she goes from a to b without much effort. There are elements in the story that clearly signal the book as being the author`s first: the shifts between narrative voices, the way music is meant to work as a leitmotif in the novel, and the novel`s resolution.

Of those three elements, all are forgivable and easily overlooked except for the ending. All of the nicely developed imagery, unspoken tensions, and finely expressed sense of powerlessness and frustration are undercut by the fact that the conclusion comes about too quickly and the emotional resolution is too simple. The author has taken us on this long voyage to get to this moment, this is to some extent the overt point of the novel, the driving force behind the tale, and it fails because it feels more like adolescent wish fulfillment than well crafted prose. As first novels go, this is a well done novel, but it is clearly identifiable as a first novel.

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