If you’d like to take a detailed fictional journey into the world of middle-class, Tamil-speaking Brahmin girls in India, this could be your novel. There can be no doubt that Ameen Merchant, a transplanted Indian now living in Vancouver, has a writer’s eye for colour and action, a writer’s ear for language and music, and a writer’s obsessive interest in the patterns of human behaviour. In The Silent Raga, his first novel, Merchant tries to, if not make sense of these patterns, at least describe them lucidly and cannily.
Imagine two sisters, living in a closed Brahmin colony an hour or two outside the city of Madras. After they lose their mother in a fiery bus accident, their father, a puffed-up bank functionary, decides to rearrange the household by pulling his older daughter, 13-year-old Janaki, out of school and sentencing her to a life of domestic drudgery. Janaki is a talented musician on the veena, an ancient stringed instrument with complex spiritual properties that the author never quite succeeds in explaining. The girls’ father magnanimously allows her to continue her veena lessons. Apart from her music, the other thing that keeps Janaki’s spirit alive is her besotted attachment to Bollywood movies.
Her sister Mallika, only six when her mother died, is as intellectual as Janaki is passionate and artistic. Her idea of fun is reading Dickens and Charlotte Brontë and playing chess with her father. She comes to view Janaki as her surrogate mother and hopes – unrealistically, given the usual fate of Indian middle-class girls – that she will always be there to care for her and her father.
But Janaki escapes at the age of 23 – and what an escape. After suffering interminable wedding negotiations from a long string of horrible but “suitable” suitors, she elopes with a Muslim movie star named Asgar, becomes his second wife, bears him twins, and sinks into a life of luxury in Bombay, where her one close confidante is her husband’s first wife. The first half of the novel tells this somewhat lurid and improbable story from Janaki’s point of view; the second half tells it from Mallika’s, the sister left behind to pick up the pieces.
Merchant is clearly more interested in Mallika’s predicament than in Janaki’s rebellion. His telling of Janaki’s story is unsatisfactory in the extreme; the reader is never given a clear sense of her relationship with the man for whom she was willing to break all cultural taboos. Her life as second wife to one of the biggest movie stars in India is portrayed as staid, calm, and mature – her most compelling interests are still her veena performance and teaching. None of this rings true, particularly her close relationship with Asgar’s infinitely wise and patient first wife, living out her life in a wheelchair after a skiing accident in Nepal.
The book is on firmer ground when it switches to Mallika’s version of events, and yet the problem here is that it’s very difficult to create a compelling story entirely out of resentment. Balzac managed it memorably in La Cousine Bette, but Merchant isn’t operating at that level. Mallika is resentful first of all of Janaki’s spectacular exit from their lives, which brought the caterwauling Indian press to the family home for three nightmarish days and thrust her into Janaki’s previous domestic role of Cinderella.
She’s also resentful of her father’s psychotic meltdown five years later (never sufficiently explained or explored), which lands him in a mental hospital, where the still-unmarried Mallika visits him on dreary Sunday afternoons.
Deepa Mehta captured the quiet horror of Indian female lives a couple of years ago with Water, her moving cinematic portrayal of Hindu widowhood. The Silent Raga occasionally rises to that level of pain and poetry, most notably when it tells the story of Janaki’s best friend Kamala, who is left devastated at the altar when the last of her family’s dowry cheques fails to clear and the groom’s entourage beats a hasty and brutal retreat. Kamala’s is the silent and tragic raga, or musical pattern, that Janaki feels impelled to play.
Giving voice to untold but commonplace suffering is ultimately what Merchant is trying to do in this novel. It’s a worthy goal, and the author’s empathy for his two female protagonists, particularly Mallika, is genuine and compelling, but the book needs a much more plausible fictional infrastructure to give it context and meaning.