The Zennish Panda

The Immortal Music of The Mortals


Dearest reader, this post contains spoilers. Please forgive me. I have SO much to tell you about the book, and I didn’t want a boundary. Thank you!

Neelaranjani — the warrior princess, as our heroine Janaki calls her — is a tribal gypsy. She is dying of thirst, so she enters Janaki’s backyard, seeking water. How can she enter an agraharam! What a blasphemy! But Janaki, although scared that her gossip-hungry orthodox neighbours might witness her clandestine act, allows Neelaranjani, and her son to shower in her backyard, and offers a portion of her breakfast. Before leaving, Neelaranjani holds Janaki’s hands, and utters a prophecy. Janaki should not quit practising veena, for only she can bring a silent raga to life.

The phrase — silent raga— keeps appearing over and over again, as though it is an underlying current that connects every character in the book.

Everybody has a silent raga playing in their lives.

Janaki, who is coerced into looking after her family after her mother’s untimely demise, has a loud silent raga. She wants to continue sharing her soul with veena, the heavenly instrument. But how can she, when she is expected to labour from dawn to dusk, for her family who fails to appreciate all that she does for them?

Mallika, Janaki’s younger sister, has a silent raga. Her mother might have died. But she has Janaki. Her everything. Will she have Janaki with her forever?

Venkatakrishnan, Janaki’s father, has a silent raga. A note that is unkind, immoral, and out of place. Who can fix the notes?

Gayatri Chitti, Janaki’s aunt, has a silent raga. With her face caked with inches and inches of talcum powder, with her head filled with lust, and in the later part of the book, with her body filled with pain, she is unapologetically herself. Her raga fills me with rage. But that woman is something.

I can’t hate anybody in Ameen Merchant’s The Silent Raga. Every character is extraordinary in their own ways. Sometimes magical. Sometimes painful. Extraordinary all the same.

This incredibly atmospheric novel is set in a small, sleepy, judgemental town called Sripuram. Unlike other Brahmin families, Venkatakrishnan’s is aloof. Besides her two close friends, and her music teacher, Janaki is not allowed to talk to anybody. Even if she tried to befriend her neighbours, she would only be judged more because it’s that kind of a community.

Merchant observes that the walls don’t speak if the people behind them don’t. Sripuram’s walls are replete with stories. And even the trees have many tales, because girls hang themselves from them.

10 years after giving her heart and soul for her father and sister, Janaki escapes from the clutches of Sripuram. She marries a Bollywood actor, who is a Muslim. Venkatakrishnan becomes more insane. Mallika feels abandoned. How could Janaki do such a thing? Deserting her family for a Muslim man?

Mallika, and Venkatakrishnan move to Madras, because Sripuram would never allow Janaki’s story to be buried, when it has reached national dailies, and tabloids.

In a decade, after Janaki’s abrupt exit from Sripuram, life only becomes bleaker for Mallika, and her father. He becomes delusional, and he is sent to the Institute of Mental Health. He loses all orientation. He cannot remember Janaki’s ‘betrayal’. He cannot remember all the carnal pleasure he shared with Gayatri chitti. He cannot remember that Mallika is now left alone. He is completely functional in his own world.

Maybe, Mallika would have preferred that to the lonely life she is made to lead. Despite a great job, and kind colleagues, she has no respite from her bitter past. And to add insult to the injury, Janaki returns after 10 years.

How will the sisters reestablish the bond that was deemed to be killed? How will the sisters bring themselves to forgive their father? How will the sisters see each other for who they are? How will they make peace with the past? How will they give second chance to their future?

Ameen Merchant weaves a tale of a dark sky that is adequately embellished with stars. He hands us myriad notes to compose our own silent raga.

Women. Ah the women in The Silent Raga. There is a Brahmin woman, who is suppressed, and who breaks free to present her talent to the world, and to marry a Muslim man. There is a Muslim woman, who offers golden philosophy, as a cigarette dangles in between her lips. (Zubeida, I love you.) There is a Bengali woman, who doesn’t want her daughter to be in an abusive relationship. There is a Brahmin widow, who shares the secrets to bargaining, with a 13-year-old girl — dress well, and go to the stores which are run by men. There is a Brahmin young girl, who kills herself, after her bridegroom walks out of the wedding hall, because the dowry was five thousand rupees short of what he was promised. There is a music teacher, who prays to her saki, who also took her own life. And there is this warrior princess, who can see beyond.

Women. They are all perfect. Imperfect. Conservatives. Rebels. Ugly. Beautiful.

They fight. They lose. They win.

I heart them.

There are some things about your life you learn not to share. Not with anyone. Like the answers to questions you never summoned the courage to ask, or the inner voice no one else hears.

Memory is binary. The moment, and the feeling in the moment.

If hopes and dreams and wishes all could be reduced to one single essence, one otherwordly scent, that would be attar.

In the darkness of my head, I saw the notes rise slowly, glowing like flames on a copper tray. And then the raga spoke. It was my voice, through my fingers. Lord Shankara closed his eyes.

It’s been 12 hours since I finished reading the book, I am still in a trance. It’s the sort of trance that I don’t want to break. It’s the sort of trance I wish I could return to whenever I want to. It’s the sort of trance that makes reality an illusion. It’s the sort of trance that makes illusion real. It’s the sort of trance that sends melancholy to the dark chambers of my heart. It’s the sort of trance that lights up the very chambers with hope, and redemption.

(Archived from my deceased website. Some posts had to be exhumed. They were way too close to me.)