First of all let me clarify two things. One, I am quite late in reviewing this book around 6 years, after its release. Second, I don’t think am that sophisticated and learned a critique to write a complete and really critical and analytic review of such a magnificent piece of work. But after reading it, I simply couldn’t resist myself from penning down something about it, however insignificant.
The Last Song of Dusk is one of the most beautiful novels I have read till date, considering the poetic flow of language, the huge canvas of the plot, the emotional depth of the characters and the free and independent twists and turns in the stories, which have an artistic blend of the real and the surreal. The novel is beautiful because of its sorrow, its saga of pain and misery. The stories surrounding the life and times of the primary protagonists have been crafted with such delicate hand and passionate mind that you read one page and you are tempted to close your eyes and think about what exactly the character must have gone through at that point.
A website describes the author and the book as:
“First published in 2004 and just out in paperback, the book was
a No. 1 best-seller in India for two months. Shanghvi quickly became a celebrity on the level of a Bollywood star and found himself on India Today’s list of the 50 Most Powerful Young Indians. Paparazzi camped out near his home — “It was a literary freak shows for a bit” — tabloids turned him into gossip fodder. He fled to England to escape scrutiny and write.”You just get bitched at extensively, and screwed over from a great height,” Shanghvi says in a melodious, theatrical voice. “But that’s just how it is. Either you’re on the academic circuit and sell 4½ copies, or you’re on this side of the fence.””
Set in colonial India (1920s Bombay), the novel is about Vardhmaan, a doctor, his wife Anuradha and a cousin of hers, Nandini. Vardhmaan is an established doctor in Bombay and the plot moves on with his marriage to Anuradha, their initial acquaintance paving the path for longing and love, their erotic “fairy tale” love-making, the beautiful and magical songs which Anuradha learnt while in Udaipur and the birth of their child Mohan. Mohan as it turns out, comes to posses in some mysterious way, a unique flair for music, songs and the violin. Mohan however meets his fate and dies a tragic death in an unfortunate accident. The couple’s life is shattered and Shanghvi brilliantly paints the picture of a man’s pain when he lifts his son’s bier on his shoulders. Throughout the novel, memories of Mohan come on returning to both of them, to haunt them and even sometimes cause a strange disillusionment towards life. The author uses the power of imagery, by simply mentioning a violin to impress upon the reader a sense of loss of the child, and along with it the loss of the passionately romantic married life of Anuradha and Vardhmaan; or may be mentions white crows and drives some unknown fear into the reader’s mind; he even brings in a panther and symbolises a lot of things.
Then comes Nandini and brings along with her a whole new set of stories, emotions, pains, and paintings and a complete magical aura about her. She walks on water and paints on canvas the unknown and hidden traits of a man or woman, carries a snake round her shoulders and gyrates like anything in salons. She is extremely attractive and the sorrows buried deep inside her, makes her more beautiful and admirable as you read on. As the plot unfolds you cannot help thinking and analysing the different steps Nandini takes in her life. Her unsuppressed sexuality (as she seduces, “men, women and a certain beast of the jungle”), her superb talents in art and painting, her love for W.B. Yeat’s poems, her painful romantic attachment (here comes in the brilliant character of Sherman Miller), her desire for fame and success in a completely materialistic way, the selfish side of her character, her love for seclusion and a strange cynical attitude fuelled by her sorrows somehow gives you a gentle shock and food for thought. She is perhaps the most complex character in the novel.
After Mohan’s death, Anuradha and Vardhmaan moves into a new house, the Dariya Mahal. This house built once upon a time by an Englishman named Edward, has its own painful story. Here again Shanghvi leaves you mesmerised with his skills as a storyteller, a weaver of magical tales with a touch of the reality, with a touch of pain and misery. Shanghvi sort of personifies the house, makes it speak up for its troubles in its own ways; he gives the house a voice, a heart. His canvas, as I said, is immense. He showcases the political scenario of an India fighting against the colonial rule, an India torn apart by the racial divides of the era, an India trying to find international recognition in art and culture; he even brings in Gandhi, and you even find Nandini commenting on his loin-cloth! There are no set boundaries for Siddharth Shanghvi’s stories; he just lets them flow as freely as the wind. And that’s what is so loveable about the novel.
Then there is Shloka, the second child of Anuradha and Vardhmaan. He comes with his own love for melancholy and quietness. After a certain part of the novel, Shloka just becomes a shadow to the plot, which never leaves the reader and sits silently at the back of his mind. Towards the end of the novel, he jumps right back to become one of the most moving characters of the entire plot and you see that Last Song of Dusk is Shloka’s story. It’s a story that he had inherited. And he felt the need to share it. He needed to tell us that “there is a song, an evening song, which, when you take to the great and old mountains, will return no echo”.
Read Siddharth Shanghvi, not because he is just another writer into the Indian English circuit but because he offers you one of the most beautiful and thought provoking novels by an Indian writer. Hats off to this man! Hats off for his brilliant story-telling!