April 20, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
In An Atlas of Impossible Longing, Anuradha Roy offers a vivid glimpse into 20th century small town India through three generations of one family.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote of the book:
"Roy's writing is nuanced and luminous, never hurried, leading the reader through the lush Bengali landscape and into the hidden terrain of desire and loss."
It didn't happen consciously, but An Atlas of Impossible Longing is filled with different kinds of music. Some of it was in my own head as I was writing it, but a lot of music is referred to in the book as well.
India has its own sophisticated, courtly, classical traditions, both instrumental and vocal; there is devotional music, both Hindu and Sufi; there are varieties of folk music in the different regions of India. There are songs in Indian movies, in which the music is influenced by just about everything. All this music happens in many different languages and uses a huge range of eastern instruments such as the sitar, tabla, sarod, ektara and so on, as well as western ones.
My book is set in India in the first half of the twentieth century, in a small town with a rural, tribal hinterland. One of the important characters is Mrs Barnum, half-Indian half-British, married to an Englishman. Her kind of people made Indian music as diverse as it is. Music hall songs, pop, western classical music, jazz, church music – all came here with the British and French and Dutch and in time mingled with the local traditions of music. Fusion came here early.
My novel has a song in its first scene. It's a song full of longing and desire and is sung at a tribal dance. The actual songs at these dances are hard to come by – the recordings are bad and sound staged, conveying nothing of the magic of the real thing. But this Bengali folk song, although neither tribal nor very old, has something of thesimplicity and sensuality of village songs. It's sung by a young woman who is flirting with her husband's brother, telling him to share his umbrella with her as she walks because it's raining and that's going to spoil her hair and pretty sari. Sexually, tribal India in the time the novel is set was much more liberated and uninhibited than the rest of the country and it would have been amusing, not taboo, for her to flirt this way.
Satyajit Ray's first and most famous film, based on a Bengali novel, is called Song of the Little Road. One of its key scenes, where two children in a village in Bengal run through a field full of white rushes towards a train going past, is echoed in my novel as a kind of homage to the book and the film. The film has a beautiful score, especially a lovely theme tune, composed by Ravi Shankar in which the central melody is played on the bamboo flute, which is my favourite instrument. It's the first track in a CD called The Ravi Shankar Collections, Improvisations.
In the third part of the book, Mukunda, the orphaned boy whose fortunes are at the centre of the story, is going back to Songarh, the town of his childhood. He has not been there for years and has been separated for all those years from the girl he loves, Bakul. As he travels in a train from the plains of Calcutta to the uplands of Songarh, he goes through hilly, green landscape; the air changes; he is in love, he's both excited and tense, and his head is filled with fantasies of his first sighting of Bakul. He sees Bakul everywhere: as in this song.
There is more flute music in the book. One piece of music that plays right through is a flute melody from Sibelius's "Finlandia".Mukunda first hears it as a young boy, when he has never heard Western music and he doesn't recognize it as music at all. He thinks it is "a tremendous noise that sounded like a tree falling or a ship crashing into ice". Then five minutes in, the flute melody starts. It's tender and haunting, and he knows he will never forget it. It stays with him throughout his life, becomes a talisman in the years that he and Bakul are separated from each other.
Mrs. Barnum, stranded in a tiny town, isolated by the circumstances of her life, attempts surreal recreations her past – parties and dances – with the two children who are her only friends. Although she is with them, she's far away in her head, on the dance floors of her youth, in green silk dresses, in Calcutta's night clubs. In this song, the composer gives a clever, camp twist to Doris Day's "Give Me a Kiss to Build a Dream On" and turns it into an Indian cabaret number. The song is set in the 1930s in a Calcutta night club of the kind Mrs Barnum is dreaming of.
The children's father, Nirmal, is an archaeologist who is more at peace in the wilderness at his sites than with family or friends. Among the people he does tolerate is Afsal Mian, who teaches music, singing "in a rich, sad-sounding voice". Nirmal used to listen to classical music with his wife, lying in a darkened room, looking at the moon sailing past. It is only years after her death that he can bring himself to dust off the old records and play one of those ragas again. This recording is from much later, but the singing tradition and the raga itself are unchanged. Reams have been written on the raga, too complicated to begin to summarize here. The music is complex, abstract, and subtle as most classical music is. Warning: not easy listening for the uninitiated!
I didn't listen to western classical music much myself, but my husband is passionate about it so it plays in the house a lot, and I've absorbed some of it by osmosis. I absolutely love this famous duet from Bizet's opera Pearl Fishers which seems to me to contain all the longing and sadness in some parts of the novel. I used to listen to it often when writing the book.
I think of Suleiman Chacha, a character in the last section of the novel, when I hear this song. Suleiman and his wife become refugees at Partition. He is a deeply musical and learned man and when he has to leave, he is separated from his home, books, music, and his pet parrot, for a dark, uncertain future. In this song, from Ritwik Ghatak's famous film set during India's Partition, the man sings to a boatman who might be a symbol for God: "I have come to the river bank," he sings, "but Boatman, I don't know your name. Whom shall I call, how shall I cross the river?" This is a particularly appropriate song because the book is set largely in Bengal, a land crisscrossed by rivers. And one of those rivers is central to the book.
In one scene in the book, the two children are running back home through a big, open field. Night is falling. They are going to be late and in a lot of trouble. Despite their fear and hurry, they suddenly notice the stars— "so many stars that the sky did not seem to have the space for them"— and come to a standstill, wonderstruck. It's a magical moment in their lives. The opening movement of Philip Glass's Glassworks transports me instantly to that nighttime field full of stars and the two children standing under it hand in hand, rapt, still unaware that their life is about to change completely.
Anuradha Roy and An Atlas of Impossible Longing links:
Better Read than Dead review
Book Him, Danno! review
The Bookbag review
Books, Personally review
Books with a Cup of Coffee review
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
The Cyberlibrarian Reads review
The Hindu review
Independent review (by Shirley Chew)
Independent review (by Tabish Khair)
The Middle Stage review
Neel Mukherjee review
Reading Between Pages review
S. Krishna's Books review
The Scarlet Letter review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists