Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Music Room by Namita Devidayal

This is the first book that I've read along with Google -- i.e. using the search engine to look up pictures and other details regarding the people and places that are mentioned.

It's so exciting to get a satellite view of the neighborhood where the author grew up (Cumballa Hill) and then move east across Mumbai to Kennedy Bridge, the run-down neighborhood, where her teacher, Dhondutai Kulkarni, shared a two room apartment with her mother and the retired nurse who owned it, and then later follow the teacher to her own subsidized apartment in Shivaji Park.

And so we're introduced to the geography of Mumbai, as well as the private lives of the leading performers of the Jaipur Gharana, a lineage of Hindustani musicians, including the notorious diva, Kesarbai Kerkar, and the founding master, Alladiya Khan.

But something is missing: the music itself -- the powerful force that pulls these lives together and gives them purpose -- and I can't find any recordings currently on disc. (even though Dhondutai Kulkarni was still performing into the 1990's. Elsewhere, the author addresses this issue here )

And what's also missing is the life of the author, Namita Devidayal. We can find her here in her role as journalist for the Times of India - but a looming, unresolved issue remains: will she carry on the tradition in a serious, productive way ?

Like her teacher, Dhondutai, she had a supportive parent who loved Classical music and wanted her daughter to take lessons. But unlike Dhondatai, she had no parent obsessed by it, who would devote his life to chaperoning his precious Brahmin daughter through a demi-monde populated with Muslims, courtesans, and popular entertainers. Namita was destined to get married, go to university, and have a modern, respectable career in journalism, in which, this book plays an important role - especially as it advances her political concern with inter-community harmony. The world of Hindustani music has been both Muslim and Hindu since the time of Akbar - and indeed, Alladiya Khan seems, incredibly enough, to have been both - keeping the women of his family in purdah, but also wearing the Yajñopavītam and singing to the Goddess in the great Mahalaxmi temple.

Will Namita ever concertize and take students herself ? Perhaps she will teach her daughter who laughs in perfect pitch ?Does her husband oppose it ? (she's not very forthcoming about that relationship -- it does appear to be problematic. I don't think he's listed in the acknowledgments., and I suspect that, like her teacher, she will spend her old age by herself)

It's interesting to compare her world of female musicians with that of the "Singsong girls of Shanghai" . Her Chinese counterparts seem to lack the religious/devotional aspect of Hindustani music, although they share a courtesan tradition. Even the divas of Chinese opera (as related in this novel ) seem to be expected to perform more than music. Does the courtesan trade have a future in a world where attractive, talented women have many more options? (I'm sure there will always be a market for it)

Things I remember most:

*The importance of establishing the quality of a single note, the sa - which would seem to correspond to establishing a single form in the figurative arts.

*The moment, near the end of the book, where an old man (in white pajamas and a Gandhi cap) walks up to the singers and remembers hearing Dhondutai when she was a young girl, and then admonishes the author to "learn to commit" and "work on your sa"

*The idea that in order to become a great singer, one must either be very rich, or a poor fakir to whom material things have no value.

*The loving care that Dhondatai gives to her religious figurines - eventually throwing them in the ocean so that they may return from whence they came.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Taking a brief respite from foreign novels, I listened to this book while driving down to Cincinnati last weekend on melancholy family business. From one Ohio boy to another -- it seemed like it would be a good novel for this trip. And -- it's supposed to be a classic of 20th C. American literature.

But I was not impressed.

Because it's not really about Winesburg, Ohio --- but only about the sad, lonely, dreamers of that satellite of Cleveland -- the ones who just can't get connected to their lives.

All the characters just seem to be variations on the author himself - who abandoned wife and children to become a great writer. They're all angry, frustrated, shabby -- and always on the brink of some violent act.

I suppose it's been celebrated because it offers the downside of American spiritual life - where religion is phony and individualism means solipsism. None of his characters are devoted to anything other than their own blurry fantasies of self.

But who knows -- perhaps a non-American reader would find it a fascinating window into our world.

And, there is something about northern Ohio that I've never really liked.

Moon Opera by Bi Feiyu

Ouch! This is the first Chinese novel that I couldn't finish (even if it is barely a hundred pages)

Chinese novels are often about miserable characters in bad situations -- but, until I read this one, they've always been redeemed by the sensitivity of that most important character of all, the person who tells the story.

But this author is just so heavy handed.

I feel like I've been taken to a carnival side show (instead of a Chinese opera), where the viewer is expected to gawk, rather than be introduced to the inner dynamics of a person or social setting.

Even Mian Mian's miserable autobiographic story was better - because at least it felt real.

This one felt like a cardboard puppet show.