Reading Around the World: I is for India

The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri

I’ve  read a fair amount of books that take music as a central theme and Amit Chaudhuri’s The Immortals is a very good example. Most of the characters in the novel are musicians or artists of some form or another. Nirmalya Sengupta is keen to study Indian Classical music and his mother’s voice teacher, Shyam Lal is ready to accommodate him.  Nirmalya soon discovers that his guru is caught between ‘high art’ and ‘low art’. A proponent of the classical style, he nevertheless makes his living teaching the more popular side of music to his pupils, including Mallika. This comes as a source of the disappointment which Nirmalya comes to feel toward Shyam Lal. Nirmalya, in his naivete, believes that



an artist must devote himself to the highest expressions of his art and reject success; he was going to be seventeen, and these ideas had come to him from books he’d read recently, but he felt he’d always known them and that they were true for all time. He put it to Shyamji plainly:

“Shyamji, why don’t you sing classical music more often? Why don’t you sing fewer ghuzals and sing more at classical concerts?”

His guru tells him that he “can’t sing classical on an empty stomach.” Implied in this is also the fact that his father is a respected and well placed “Managing Director”, with all the perks that go with his status – while Shayamji struggles to make ends meet. Nirmalya is an interesting character, and Chaudhuri writes of him with a perceptiveness that draws the reader a real sense of the young man growing up before our eyes.

As he began to shed meanings he’d grown up with, he busily assigned new ones. He fell almost belligerently in love with an idea, to do with an immemorial sense of his country; and music was indispensable to it. The raga contained the land within it – its seasons, its times of day, its bird call, its clouds and heat – it gave him an ideal, magical sense of the country; it was a fiction he fell in love with

Nirmalya’s parents (Apurva nd Mallika) are ambitious, driven to succeed. For the father, Apurva, that means making his way to the top of the food chain in a burgeoning multi-national India. For his mother Mallika, that means setting aside her personal artistic ambitions to concentrate on her husband’s career. Mallika freely relinquishes her call to art to support her husband (and to reap the benefits of a pampered life-style). Yet she has her gnawing doubts about the path her life took. When Shyamji’s latest protegé (Asha) compliments Mallika on her voice, she is a little irritated, and a little regretful.

There was no getting around it; she lived in a world wholly separate from Asha’s, married happily to a successful man, moving about in sparkling, if occasionally vacuous, circles. But she wondered whether it was accident or destiny or her own hidden desire that had made her what she was. She’d never wanted to be Asha; yet what was it about her own talent that made it meaningless without the happiness she had, and also always made the happiness incomplete?

Nirmalya observes the changes taking place in Bombay and in his family. We follow the arc of Apurva’s career from ascension (becoming Managing Director) to descension (he is removed from a controlling role), becoming a consultant with a one year contract.  The family moves several times in the course of the novel, the size, prestigious addresses and amenities of the surroundings reflect his career changes. The associated story of the burgeoning India in the ’80s is an adjunct to the fortunes of the Sangupta family. Nirmalya ultimately decides that he’d like to finish his schooling in England, studying philosophy.

Speaking of philosophical, one of my favorite passages in the book is when Nirmalya asks himself the question about the origins of the raga. Where did they come from? If they weren’t composed in the traditional way of thinking about ‘composed music’ how did they come about? What about “authorship”? Where is the Indian Bach? Beethoven?

It was the idea of the author, wasn’t it, that made one see a work of art as something original and originated, and as a piece of property, which gave it value; it was what made it possible to say, “It belongs to him,” or “It’s his creation,” or “He’s created a great work.” And this sense of ownership and origination went into how a race saw itself through its artists.

Recalling Yeats reference to “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”, Nirmalya grasps the concept of the raga as one such “self-born” entity.

…it referred to those immemorial residues of culture that couldn’t be explained or circumscribed by authorship. It was as if they’d come from nowhere, as life and the planets had: and yet they were separate from Nature. Dimly, he saw that, though the raga was human creation, it was, paradoxically, “self-born”.

If I was going to do an “odd shelf” list of books that took music, and the making of it as its primary theme, I’d throw this in the mix with Richard Powers’ The Time of our Singing, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude…that’s just off the top of my head. A favorite literary theme of mine…

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