A review of The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Like all good novels, the book raises plenty of questions: Is love enough, or do we need more–support, friendship, companionship, happiness? Is there really no mercy in life? Or are there indeed mercies in little moments, of story, song and love? The book answers these in its own way, in its dazzling and often bizarre stories where humans sleep with panthers, houses take on the pain of their owners, and sex is a cure-all (and poison).

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Last Song of Dusk
By Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
ISBN: 0297848828 A$29.95, 304pp, June 2004

Beautiful songstress Anuradha learns about life, death and the nature of mercy when she married the handsome doctor Vardhmaan. Her equally beautiful cousin Nandini struggles with her flamboyant artistry, her overwhelming ambitions, and her strange attractions. The story is set primarily in Bombay in the 1920s and is full of rich vernacular, and characters whose troubles stem from a combination of deep rooted psychological pain and good old fashioned fate. You can almost feel the pleasure of the narrator as he turns his gaze on his lovingly depicted characters and notes their exquisite bodies (no punches pulled), their beautiful and occasionally ugly faces, and their frailties which drive the story forward. This is character driven prose at its best. Shanghvi’s writing is lush with comedy and tragedy and full of sexy, magical characters that readers will remember:

Vardhmaan was fully aware that, in the story of his own life, he had slipped off the pages, taken refuge in the parenthesis of oblivion, become a minor character (albeit one whose vanishing left a deeper impact than someone else’s presence). However, it wasn’t that he had vanished from his own life as much as that he had simply stopped appearing in the lives of others: an altogether different species of vanishing. (124)

The writing always remains light, and even at its purplest when describing the scenery, is always rooted in characterisation:

Now the drizzle is at its barest. Tumesecent, faded purple water tulips bloom over the marshes that Anuradha’s gaze grazes on; coming down, in leisurely flight, white geese: behind them, a persimmon sky opens flat and far. (153)

Anuradha, Vardhmaan and the beedi smoking Nandini are memorable main characters, and their relationships with each other, and the people whose lives they touch are well drawn, but even the minor characters shine in this well written debut. There is Vardhmaan’s mother, the vividly ugly Divi-bai, who hates Anuradha for her beauty, Divi-bai’s pet bird Zenobia, the haunted house Dariya Mahal, who has rather a good role to play in the story and even gets some of the best lines, the self-pitying lovesick Edward, whose “breathless, crazy, deceived sadness oozed out of his flesh and seeped into Dariya Mahal” (76), the boy wonder Mohan, Or young Shloka, still in his mother’s womb:

Jolted inside its mother, it was now awake. Blinking its translucent eyelids. Struggling. For air. For life. Where was it? In a pool of some sort. With this tube. Fluid. Darkness. But just what had slammed against it? Was it a wall? Or the ground? And had something inside or around it burst open? The unborn had worries: because there she was, its mother, wham on her face, senseless and bloodly as something newly slaughtered.” (144)

Other minor characters like Nandini’s outrageous (and deceased) “genius” parents the Hariharans, whose fabulous fights and strange work practices is only outweighed by their slowly revealed crime, Anuradha’s gentle friend Pallavi, or the flamboyant artist Khalil Muratta will linger in the mind of the reader long after the story is finished. Like all good novels, the book raises plenty of questions: Is love enough, or do we need more–support, friendship, companionship, happiness? Is there really no mercy in life? Or are there indeed mercies in little moments, of story, song and love? The book answers these in its own way, in its dazzling and often bizarre stories where humans sleep with panthers, houses take on the pain of their owners, and sex is a cure-all (and poison). The Last Song of Dusk contains delicious spicy food, psychedelic colour, music, humour, tragedy (which will make readers cry) and comedy which touches on farce. This is a wonderful rich feast of a novel, and a debut which will leave readers hungering for more.

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