• Saturday, October 26th, 2019

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi was born in Juhu, Mumbai in 1977. In 1999 he obtained an MA degree in International Journalism at the University of Westminster in London, where he specialised in photography. He also received an MS degree in Mass Communications from San Jose State University in 2002.

Shanghvi worked as a chef and a kennel boy before becoming a writer. He writes articles for magazines and newspapers including the Sunday Times Of India, San Francisco Chronicle and Elle. He presently lives between Albany, California and Mumbai, India.

The Last Song Of Dusk, published in 2004, is Shanghvi’s acclaimed first novel which has been translated into several languages. It received the prestigious British Betty Trask Award given to outstanding first novels for writers under the age of thirty-five. It also won the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour for the Best Debut Novel and was nominated for the International Dublin Literary Award.

The story of The Last Song Of Dusk is set in colonial India of the 1920s. It starts with the beautiful twenty-one-year-old Anuradha Patwardhan, who is gifted with a beautiful voice and with such bewitching songs that they say that “when she sings, even the moon listens”.

The novel begins with Anuradha leaving her family home in Udaipur and travelling with her father to Bombay for a matchmaking marriage, all arranged by her aunt, Radha-mashi, to a man that Anuradha has never met before. The man is twenty-seven-year-old, very handsome, “highly thought of”, physician, Vardhamaan Gandharva, who is also a skilled storyteller.

The fifth line of the first chapter of the novel foreshadows future tragic events as a sort of kismet (fate). It is implied just before the protagonist’s departure for Bombay to meet her prospective suitor. Her mother clutches “her lovely hand through the window of the black Victoria and whispers: “in this life, my darling, there is no mercy”. The die is cast.

Later in the book, the author writes: “We’ll probably never save our soul (…) Life essentially seeks out balance. I have found that it is in the habit of trading one sorrow for one joy until one cancels out the other.”

The Last Song Of Dusk’s magic realism or elements of the fantastic, or “heightened realism” as the author prefers to call it, comes from the author’s fertile imagination. It is illustrated by Anuradha, who is a legend in Udaipur, her home town, for her spellbinding songs, which are entrancing melodies passed on by her family.

The peacocks gather in the train station upon Anuradha’s call to bid her farewell by “unfurling a melody”. The talking, malicious pet parrot, Zenobia, belonging to Vardhamaan’s ugly, sinister, abusive and jealous stepmother, Divi-bai. Vardhamaan and Anuradha shared the family house with her, preceding the terrible accidental death of their three-year-old son, Mohan, who probably died due to the curse of the couple’s stepmother unable to bear the happiness of others.

While still grieving their son’s death, Vardhamaan and Anuradha, who are slowly pulling away from each other, move to a new home by the seaside in Bombay. The “disconsolate” “Sea Palace” or Dariya Mahal in Gujarati is still mourning its previous occupant, Edward, son of Lord and Lady Beauford. Edward is a passionate lover, who dies heartbroken waiting for his beloved Indian, who does not share the same feeling and therefore never returns.

Since Edward’s death, the bereaved Dariya Mahal antagonises its new lodgers. Shloka, the couple’s second son, born in Dariya Mahal, stays alive because his mother makes a pact with the bedevilled house saying: “let my child live…and I’ll send the child away…from you…from all of this…to a place of safety”. Nevertheless, the child is born mute for no plausible reason apart from the pertaining evil house’s wrath.

Shanghvi’s imagination stretches further with the beautifully irresistible, fourteen-year-old orphan girl, Nandini Hariharan. She is a distant cousin, who joins Anuradha and Vardhamaan in Dariya Mahal. Nandini is a bohemian autodidactic artist who is not afraid of provoking scandals. She is a beedi smoker and walks on water as well as mates with leopards. Nandini is uncharacteristically precocious for her age and time.

The saying goes that: “seven generations back, on her maternal side, a woman had coupled with a leopard in the mountains of Matheran and to this day the family could not rid the bane of cat’s blood in their veins. Blood that made the women gorgeous and selfish and recondite”.

The Last Song Of Dusk is the saga of a family who, despite being struck by disasters, never yields. An original dark tale which depicts several calamities, loss, grievance and love. The writing is abundant with diverse, evocative, detailed descriptions as well as elaborate metaphors. The author makes his reader navigates amid a parade of colourful characters throughout the pages.

Nandini meets Gandhi and makes a daring remark about his hand-woven loincloth being sexy. She becomes the muse of Khalil Muratta; the sought after painter. Some of the characters are eccentric, like Libya Dass “who for years hauled along her alabaster bathtub to parties, where it was brought up like a palanquin”. Others are minor characters like Anuradha’s best friend, the terminally ill Pallavi and the sixteen-year-old Irish schoolboy, Sherman Miller, who is besotted with Nandini from the first time they meet.

The author portrays tormented characters evoking the reader’s empathy. As for the unnecessary crude sex scenes, they are used aplenty. The story, which entangles reality with fantasy, has an overall overwhelming melancholy feeling. The fleeting moments of happiness are brief – it is a mixture of tragic “kismet” and lust. The author says: “I’m very interested in the ways we transact sexual desire, the nature of longing, and how we grieve”.

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Category: Book Reviews
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