Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Silent Raga by Ameen Merchant

A tale of two sisters, bonded by love, divided in hate and reunited; a plot oft heard and repeated.
But Merchant has a way of gripping the reader. His narrative flows, between years, events, past and present unfolding the story of love, betrayal and renewal of faith like the strains of a raga, smooth and melodious.

Janaki the female protagonist, caught in a web of imposed household responsibilities, at 13 becomes the caretaker of her home after her mother’s sudden death, unwittingly becoming mother to a younger sibling….thrust into maturity and immense responsibilities of a brahmanical living.

Reinforcement of her tedious daily schedule page after page is unnerving and invokes pity. Janaki’s hardship of living up to the expectations of the father, an aunt (who is in an illicit relationship with her father) and the society, ties her down in shackles. Her only getaway comes in the form of a weekly Veena class that she is passionate about.

Set in the Tamil Nadu of the eighties and nineties, the story illustrates the conservative Tamil Brahmin society of a shanty at the outskirts of Madras, where girls are sacrificed at the altar of back breaking household chores, easily withdrawn from schools; where dowry forces many a girl to plunge to her death from a Nagalingam tree.
In short, a society and living far removed from ours, yet so close that a peep into any neighbouring agraharam (compound for living near a temple) will spew forth several Janakis, Kamalas and Revathis crushed under the burden of being “nice brahmin girls”.

Janaki’s love for her sister is unquestionable. But her walking out is spurned by the rejections she faces at the hands of prospective grooms and their families. She fears that the only option for an unmarried Brahmin girl would be death, like her friend Kamala, and she, the optimistic fighter, loves life and what it has to offer her too much to end it in a cowardly act. So she flees.

Leaves her home and her sister in the same predicament she found herself in when their mother passed away. Except that her sister Mallika is lucky to continue her education while playing caretaker to the home and their father.

Perhaps the most poignant parts of the book deal with the mental breakdown of the father that Mallika first blames on her sister’s departure. In reality though, the father, somewhere deep inside knows that he had deeply wronged his first born, a shame that manifests itself in the form of a mental illness that requires him to be institutionalised.

Janaki’s flight and subsequent marriage to a popular Bombay film star gives her the breakthrough to pursue playing her Veena, leading to her salvation as she accomplishes her dreams. Her meeting with the sister after 10 years of stoic silence and their subsequent journey to their ancestral home leads the story to its climax.

Janaki is a protagonist with a heart of gold and guts of steel. A girl so hopelessly trapped in circumstances, and yet who finds the way out, makes an incredibly optimistic tale and serves as an inspiration for those of us, who under insipid circumstances also tend to get bogged down and lose our will to fight.

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