The Immortals [NOOK Book]

Overview

In 1980s Bombay, a highly regarded voice teacher and his affluent sixteen-year-old student enter into a relationship that will have unexpected and lasting consequences in their lives, and the lives of their families. With exquisitely sensuous detail, quiet humor, and unsentimental poignancy, Amit Chaudhuri paints a luminous portrait of the spiritual and emotional force behind a revered Indian tradition; of two...

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The Immortals

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Overview

In 1980s Bombay, a highly regarded voice teacher and his affluent sixteen-year-old student enter into a relationship that will have unexpected and lasting consequences in their lives, and the lives of their families. With exquisitely sensuous detail, quiet humor, and unsentimental poignancy, Amit Chaudhuri paints a luminous portrait of the spiritual and emotional force behind a revered Indian tradition; of two fundamentally different but intricately intertwined families; and of a society choosing between the old and the new.




From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Gaiutra Bahadur
…the wry, knowing authorial tone…makes the book so pleasurable…Chaudhuri is clearsighted about what is closest to him, and he is candid without being cynical about the class of aspirants who have made India a global economic player. The Immortals confirms his reputation as a gifted miniaturist. Nothing much happens in this book, but its elegant sentences and dry, discerning portraits more than compensate.
—The New York Times
Kirkus Reviews
A subtly detailed picture of life in Bombay before it became Mumbai distinguishes this resolutely lyrical fifth novel from the internationally acclaimed Anglo-Indian author (A New World, 2000, etc.). The book incorporates an interlocking chain of contrasts between two temperamentally opposed protagonists, their families and the eternally opposed polarities of art and commerce. Shyam Lal, arriving at young manhood in the early 1980s, is a classically trained music tutor and vocal coach who has swerved from the path trod by his father, a much admired singer. "Shyamji" has tuned into contemporary culture, "tak[ing] advantage of the musical currency of the day, of the songs with which a middle class . . . expressed its dreams." Though Shyamji prospers most by indulging wealthy females in their pursuit of celebrity (think Slumdog Millionaire on a higher social level), he agrees to tutor the teenaged son (Nirmalaya) of wealthy Mallika Sengupta, still resentful that she sublimated her own musical gifts to perform as the obedient wife of a locally renowned corporate executive. As Shyamji balances his tutorial duties against carefully thought-out career moves, Nirmalya rebels, declaring pop music empty nonsense and demanding education in India's classical traditions (he'll eventually leave his homeland to study philosophy abroad). There's potential conflict here, but Chaudhuri softens every sharp angle, eschewing drama for a Dutch-interior succession of luminous visual and verbal images that chart the fading of Bombay's colorful elegance (e.g., when a popular cafe goes out of business, part of a culture seems lost forever) and the compromised integrity of fleetingly involved secondary characters(including Nirmalaya's ill-fated father Apura, and his posturing superior, an Englishman who "loves India while helping to appropriate and reshape it"). Chaudhuri's prose is unfailingly eloquent, but this prim novel's virtually plotless restraint repeatedly reduces drama to flat statement. We feel we know each word, because we've heard these songs before.
From the Publisher
A New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston Globe Best Book of the Year

“Vivid and engrossing. . . . In the gloriously crowded world of modern Indian fiction, Chaudhuri stands out as a master craftsman. With exquisite wit and grace, he can depict a rapidly changing India in a single life and an entire life in a single detail.”
Boston Globe
 
“A masterwork. . . . Chaudhuri’s characters evolve in subtle ways, through startling insights and observations. . . . Wholly absorbing. . . . Enchanting. . . . Impressive and rare. . . . Seldom has any contemporary author invested such detail in descriptions of place, behavior, and physicality. Chaudhuri is astonishingly precise.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Chaudhuri’s exquisite, highly-nuanced, often very funny novel . . . somehow took command of my thinking, my vocabulary, my sense of what’s important and what should be. This kind of surrender is rare, and is what I always seek in fiction.”
—Richard Ford

“Elegant. . . . Discerning. . . . Chaudhuri is a maestro of intimation. The Immortals confirms his reputation.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Chaudhuri lovingly evokes a fractious, contradictory city caught between tradition and modernization.”
The New Yorker

“A writer whose fiction is as beautiful as a classical ballet . . . a command performance. Even in the context of contemporary Indian writing in English, much of which is outstanding, Chaudhuri is the best.”
Irish Times
 
“The lyrical quality of [Chaudhuri’s] writing is striking. The terrain of the novel is the battleground of art and materialism. In this it invites honourable comparison with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.”
The Times (London)
 
“Chaudhuri is one of India’s most distinctive literary figures. While lesser writers obsess over the heat and dust, he charts the by-ways of the Indian soul. . . . The Immortals is a memorable work—capacious, multi-faceted but intimate, it is Indian to the core but universal in its implications. . . . Superb.”
The Independent (London)
 
“There are two Indian writers who are quite unlike each other, but whose sentences are immediately identifiable. If just a few words of their prose are read out to you, you will confidently call out their names—one is Rushdie, the other is Chaudhuri.”
The National (Abu Dhabi)
 
“Chaudhuri’s particular art lies [in] rendering beauty from normality. His characters linger in the mind; and his prose, with its exactness and elegance, its exquisite delineation of memory and emotion, has a strange, mesmerising grace.”
Financial Times
 
“An important novel. . . . There is a filigreed, Jamesian quality to [Chaudhuri’s] work, an urbanity and aesthetic style not often associated with Indian fiction.”
The Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“Amit Chaudhuri captures, as no one else can, the delicate, subtle emotions of people who inhabit an India of the past and the privileged. . . . His powerful evocations of people and places, his startling use of words and images and metaphors, leaves an impression that lingers in the reader’s mind for many days, more like poetry than prose. The Immortals is his most beautiful and complex novel.”
—Wendy Doniger
 
“I cannot speak here of the many-sided pleasure I have got out of reading the book. It’s a truly wonderful novel, and helps me to think about the myriad ways in which classical Indian music makes life so meaningful for me. Nothing happens in the story in a rush or bustle to precipitate action; yet it generates a low-profile chain of events, that for all its apparent lack of theatricality affects the writing as a stillness full of movement and vibrancy.”
—Ranajit Guha
 
“Chaudhuri’s refined and elegant novels never overwhelm the senses with colors and spices. They never trade on cliché. Rather, they go about their business quietly, illuminating the mundane routines of daily life with the intense light of poetry. . . . His descriptions of Indian classical music are expertly, lovingly rendered.”
The Washington Times
 
“Beguiling and silently moving. . . . [Filled with] deeply-etched but subtly-drawn characters.”
India Abroad
 
“Beautifully composed. . . . Tenderly funny. . . . Chaudhuri exquisitely captures the poignancy of our endless search for meaning, complex response to change, and wonderment and terror in the presence of the immortal truths of love and death.”
Booklist (starred)
 
“In The Immortals the reason for most things happening or not happening is simply time, its shadows lengthening between people. Chaudhuri finds grace and meaning in these shadows… Judicious and delicate”
London Review of Books
 
“Chaudhuri’s prose has a luminous, unforced elegance which is consistently engaging and wholly delightful. . . . Its spheres of enquiry . . . possess universal appeal which resonates beyond the confines of this accomplished and absorbing novel.”
The Spectator
 
“An enchanting novel about the place of traditional music in a modernizing India and what it means to be an artist.”
Newark Star-Ledger

Library Journal
India's new wealth and traditional values meet as an upper-class teen takes classical music lessons from a teacher whose clients are mainly interested in the popular. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 8/21/09)
The Barnes & Noble Review
Toward the beginning of Amit Chaudhuri's delicate yet expansive novel, 16-year-old Nirmalaya Sengupta stands on the beach near the high-rise towers going up on Bombay's Marine Drive. His father's recent promotions in a British company are moving his family up in the world, and their new flat in Thacker Towers, where his mother takes lessons in Indian classical singing, is supposedly more prepossessing than their former home on historically stately Malabar Hill. It is by now the mid-1970s -- marking the first full generation after Independence. The towers, dotted with tiny men on rickety bamboo scaffoldings, also mark vast change in urban landscape of Bombay, tottering expansion fueled by population growth and poverty and ambition and also by corruption, a chaotic urbanization that is sending the city sprawling outwards into tangled slums.

Nirmalaya, of course, doesn't quite grasp it this way, at least not right then on the beach. He's both too dreamy and too existential to think so sociologically. Instead he looks at the flies in front of him. He's got reason to consider them: Despite pretenses of wealth and glamour on Marine Drive, flies are multiplying within the walls of his parents' new luxury flat. They sit on his mothers' valuable Buddhas. They disrupt company. They buzz beneath her music lessons.

But on a "featureless strip of sand" Nirmalaya meditates on the their dark buzz. Bombay, as everyone had learnt in school, had once been seven fishing islands that had been presented by the Portuguese to the British as a part of Catherine of Braganza's dowry; "There was no-thing here then," the geography teacher had said...enthralled and relieved for an instant by the sheer recentness of what sometimes seemed eternal: the exercise books, children's voices, chalk dust. "Only these fishermen." Nirmalaya walks on the ratty, urbanized waterfront, pondering the relationship between the temporal and the eternal, the no-thing out of which Bombay, the colonial city, is even now dizzyingly springing. He sees upturned boats, fishermen, sour nets drying. The apparent nothingness fascinates Nirmalaya. The flies, with their chaotic regeneration, their impermanent permanence, are somehow a symbol of the rather evanescent eternity that he feels in Bombay, in India, and in his life in general. The flies persist. He thinks: "It was from here that the flies had moved into Thacker Towers."

The flies buzz within a book that is by and large is about Indian music, about the traditions that keep art alive, even as cultures shift. Despite the fact that it stretches across ten or so years, the book captures this flux at a stately pace, unfolding generous and keenly observed relationships. Bombay is vast; India is vaster: This is a novel of particulars. Scenes take place mostly within Nirmalaya's living room, at his mother's (and later his own) music lessons, at a few company dinners. There are forays to concerts and to the Lal family home across town; Chaudhuri's focus on the nuances of class relations recalls something of Upstairs, Downstairs. It is an elegant, almost Jamesian study of musicians and their patrons, of Nirmalaya's own elite family and his limited (though ruminative) glimpses into the lives of those that serve them.

From a certain vantage, it's almost startling how intimate the urban life captured here really is. While The Moor's Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie's sprawling allegorical saga, treats Bombay with razzle-dazzle and jangling noise, Chaudhuri's book feels startlingly quiet. It springs from a tradition that belies the Bombay against which it is taking place: It feels, in some ways, like a novel of village life. The pace is leisurely, suggesting Tagore's The Post Office or an R. K. Narayan tale -- local, mannered, bureaucratic, even infinitely slow. It is the India in which one waits, very calmly, a long time for trains to come. Meanwhile, the prose maintains the attentiveness of a Satyajit Ray film, in which little by little children grow up, kittens grow bigger, and at last, the train does arrive. This patient attentiveness does not preclude a wider world. Instead it provides a meditative vantage-an elegant picture window through which to view it.

After all, Nirmalaya's mother, Mallika, comes from a village world. She too knows the Bengali songs of Tagore, not the more commercial seeming Hindi ghazals of Bombay. Uprooted, now part of company life in the big city, she continues her studies-perhaps once ambitious to record her own music, perhaps now merely to keep the music in herself alive. Indeed, what the music is for, and what purpose it serves for each of them remains open and unfolding. Mallika's teacher, Shyamji, is the son of a famous, mostly forgotten artisan; saddled with a large family, he travels from various urban outskirts in to give lessons to people like Mallika -- wives who want to sing, and perhaps a few students who want to be in the Bombay entertainment world as well. But Shyamji does not really teach classical music proper any more, arguing that it won't pay bills, that it does not earn its keep. Instead he teaches many of his students the kind of music that may make them all money in the new Bombay, with its burgeoning film industry. Mallika doesn't really want to sing like this. Yet she persists, slightly anachronistic, full of patient (and Nirmalaya sometimes thinks, hopeless) devotion to song.

Years pass; small things vary, grow, and change; the tale is as meditative and elegantly put together as a raga. Still, underneath his music practice, Nirmalaya's mind buzzes with haunting questions: Where do these songs come from? Of what worth are they? Of what are they record? How do I belong to them? How do they belong to me? At moments, the music that his mother (and later he) studies seems as baffling and eternal as the flies themselves-a kind of endlessly regenerating no-thing -- and also that which persists.

In his world there are singers (the ghost of Ravi Shankar haunts this novel) and movie stars, masters and legends, but also many nameless people, forgotten or nearly forgotten, who carry forward a tradition but leave behind no mark of their personal selves. Even his own father will step down as the leader of the company he has chaired, the world of company life will be taken away from them. The uncertain status of leadership will fade into the uncertain status of merely trying to live.Against the backdrop of such changes, the classical music to which he and his mother aspire is continual, ongoing, a stream of learning which flows forward but is essentially authorless. As he encounters western art and artists he thinks of music by Bach, or Beethoven -- a known name; an author; an Immortal. Meanwhile, in Bombay, his teachers travel from house to house, sometimes asking for more money, seeking patronage, going on teaching the scales, offering a new variation of a tradition that buzzes through them, seemingly old as the flies themselves, sequences of repetition and variation, love and prayer, the utterance of song. --Tess Taylor

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307273000
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/25/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Amit Chaudhuri is the author of several award-winning novels and is an internationally acclaimed musician and essayist.Freedom Song: Three Novels received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. He is a contributor to the London Review of Books, Granta, and The Times Literary Supplement. He is currently Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia.

Visit the author's website: www.amitchaudhuri.com


From the Trade Paperback edition.
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Read an Excerpt

The notes of Bhimpalasi emerged from a corner of the room. Panditji was singing again, impatient, as if he were taking his mind off something else. But he grew quite immersed: the piece was exquisite and difficult. He’d composed it himself seven years ago.

From not far away came the sound of traffic; the roundabout, bewildering in its congestion. Bullocks and cars ground around it. The bulls looked mired in their element; the buses and dusty long- distance taxis were waiting to move. The car horns created an anxious music, discordant but not indifferent.

The Panditji wasn’t there: he’d died two years ago, after his third cardiac seizure. They had rushed him to Jaslok Hospital; on the way, in the car, he’d had his second heart attack. He had died in Jaslok, to the utter disbelief of his relatives: they hadn’t thought that he’d been admitted to a hospital to die. Now, his presence, or his absence, persisted in the small seven-hundred-square-feet house. The singing had come from the tape recorder, from the tape the grandson had played accidentally, thinking it was a cassette of film songs.

“Yeh to dadaji ke gaane hai,” remarked the boy, recognising his grandfather’s singing; was he surprised or disappointed? Next to him hung a portrait of his dadaji, enlarged from a photograph taken when he was fifty-seven. The face was an austere one, bespectacled, the oiled hair combed back. It was the face of—by common consensus in the family—a great man. The large forehead had been smeared with a tilak, as if someone had confused the portrait with a real person.

Already, the Panditji was becoming a sort of myth. It wasn’t as if a large number of people knew him; but those who did divulged their knowledge with satisfaction. How well he sang Malkauns, for instance; how even Bade Ghulam Ali hesitated to sing Malkauns at a conference in Calcutta after Panditji had the previous day. How Panditji was a man of stark simplicity, despite his weakness for the occasional peg of whisky in the evening.

But it was certain that Panditji was proud, a man of prickly sensitivity. He had been a man silently aware of the protocol between student and teacher, organiser and performer, musician and musician. If slighted or rebuffed, he sealed off that part of the world that rebuffed him.

This severity had probably cost him. There was a story of how Lata Mangeshkar wanted a guru to train her in the finer points of classical music, and of how she had thought of him, Ram Lal, having heard his abilities as a teacher praised highly. “You must call her, Panditji,” said a well-wisher. “She is waiting for your call.” Panditji did not call. “She should call me,” he said. “If she wants to learn from me, she will call me.” The call did not come. In the meantime, Amir Khan telephoned her and said that he was at her disposal. Word spread quickly; Lata turned to the distinguished ustad; and Amir Khan became known as the man who had taught Lata Mangeshkar the subtler intricacies of classical music.

And yet, for all that, his reputation as a teacher had remained intact when he died; like something small and perfect, it had neither been subtracted from nor added to. People outside the family remembered him less and less; if asked “Where did you learn that beautiful bandish?” they might say in a tone of remembrance, “Oh I had learnt that from Pandit Ram Lal,” for people used to drift in and out of Panditji’s life, and some became students for brief spells of time.

Shyamji’s life was to be different. This was a simple determination, but it was not a conscious plan. Consciously, Panditji’s life was the ideal life; when Shyamji mentioned it, it was as if he were speaking of a saint, and not of his father. That was all very well; but it was a life that could not be repeated.

Tonight was a night of upaas and jagran, an absurdity enforced ritually by the women. Shyamji succumbed meekly to being a witness. The abstention from food by the women, the singing of bhajans till dawn: these were necessary observances. Done repeatedly, they were meant to lead to betterment. Instead, they led to acidity, and a grogginess and lack of focus that lasted two days. But they were undertaken in light-hearted camaraderie.

The children and the men were fed. Then night came; and they began to sing the bhajans. The children had fallen asleep without any prompting, as usual, in the midst of the chatter, their eyes closed in the bright light of the tube-light. The low, droning singing began; not tuneless, because this was a family of musicians, but strangely soothing. Half-asleep, Shyamji watched his wife and his sister and, with them, an older daughter, Neha: they were about to lull him to sleep. Nisha, his youngest daughter, had desperately wanted to stay awake, and join the chorus; but she had fallen asleep at a quarter to eleven. His mother sat in a corner, in a plain white sari, with an absent look, yet entirely alert. Shyamji had a dream into which was woven the sound of the chorus; in which his father was also present, both as a living person and as a portrait, hanging in a reddish light. This dream, about the vicissitudes of Shyamji’s life, continued for a long time, taking one shape, then another. When he woke briefly, it was dawn; the women had vanished: they must have gone to bed, probably after having taken a glass of milk to break the fast. The room was silent, except for the noises coming in from outside.

Late one evening the door must have been left ajar—early evenings the doors were anyway wide open, to let in a continual trickle of visitors; people coming in and going out—but late one evening when the door was ajar, the rat must have got in. No one had noticed. But it was Neha who saw it later that night, as she was stepping out of the bathroom. It had jumped out, and scooted behind the pots in the kitchen once again. Expectedly, Neha almost fainted. It was really a bandicoot; cats were scared of them. They ran down the gutters and, at night, scurried down the narrow passage that connected the houses of the colony. They had the aggressiveness and urgency of touts.

The children danced, half in fear and in excitement at an undefined peril. Shyamji’s wife, never known to be particularly violent, had managed to chase it out with a jhadu; it darted through the kitchen window. Shyamji, not moving from the divan, was a picture of patience, and kept saying, as he did during most crises, “Arrey bhai, pareshan mat hona, don’t get agitated.”


*


On the way to the city in the mornings, he’d stop at Peddar Road sometimes, at his wife’s brother’s place; going up a steep incline and entering a compound that was not visible from the main road. Here, they lived in a single-storey house not far from a posh girls’ school.

“Hari om,” he said as he entered. It was an old joke, this invocation to God, a part of Shyamji’s “fun” mode: it meant he was hot, and that he was here, needing attention. “Water, jijaji?” asked the woman sitting near the doorstep; she had covered part of her face with her sari the moment he had stepped in. Shyamji nodded; then added affectionately: “Cold.” He lowered himself onto the mat and sighed.

It was in this house, oddly, that he’d first seen Lata Mangeshkar. She, sitting on the little divan in her white sari, talking to the members of the household in her baby-like voice. She had seemed tiny to Shyamji. He glanced at her; although her songs often floated about in his head, he was, at that moment, curious about what she looked like, sounded like. They brought her puris and potatoes on a plate—it seemed she’d asked for them specifically—and she ate them carefully and said: “I love eating anything Arati makes.” Arati was married to Motilal, Shyamji’s wife’s brother: everyone knew she was a good cook. A small cordon of family members, of children and cousins intermittently talking to each other, had formed itself around Lata. He was introduced to her as Ram Lal’s son, and at this she showed a passing flicker of interest. When you are introduced to the great, you have a fleeting impression that they have taken in your features and your name, and that they’ll remember you the next time you meet. Shyamji was happy to pay his respects with a namaskar, then retreat into the background.

Later, when she was practising a song with Motilalji—without accompaniment, without harmonium—he was surprised that he could not hear her. He then went a little closer; the familiar voice became audible, small and sharp. So this is what a microphone could do!

Motilalji himself was a marvellous singer, astonishingly accomplished; but this was the pinnacle of his achievement—to have his talent mutedly applauded by Lata, to give her a few tunes for the bhajans she sang, to accompany her on the harmonium at the occasional public concert she gave, and to act as a filler during those concerts: that is, to sing a song or two when she wasn’t singing, and the audience was distracted, going out for coffee or to the toilet. At first, they’d all thought it was a miracle—a result of “bhagya,” fate—this conjunction with Lata Mangeshkar, and it was expected that, when the time came, she’d surely “do” something for him. But she hadn’t “done” anything for him; he had continued to be her filler, he hadn’t become a music director. What could she do? explained the family. But the relationship with Lata, to all outward purposes, was cordial; it could even be described as “particularly close.”

Part of Motilalji’s problem was drink; no use blaming others for a self-inflicted problem. Drink made him more solitary; late in the evening, he would sit alone, talking to himself. The rest of the day, if he was sober, he was abrasive; as if the world somehow displeased him. And his talent became a problematic responsibility he did not know what to do with; it was as if, having given so much to his gift— hard work, practice—he wanted something in return; and not having got that “something,” whatever it might be, he had decided to punish both himself and everyone around him.

Motilalji came into the room, looked around him, and appeared barely to notice his brother-in-law. But he had noticed him of course; “Bhaiyya, at this time of the morning?” he said.

“No, I had a moment,” said Shyamji, “and I thought I’d stop for a glass of water.”

“Well, did you get it?”

“I did, and it gave much ananda,” said Shyamji.

Motilalji seemed to mull over this remark and dismiss it. He came to Shyamji and for the first time looked him in the eye.

“Where are you going now?” he asked; Shyamji smelled drink on his breath. Although the smell revolted Shyamji, he kept his expression amenable. He noticed that Motilalji’s teeth, bared briefly, had flecks of paan on them.

“I was going to see a chela of mine at twelve o’clock, but I’m in no hurry—he’ll wait.”

Shyamji thought of this student of his, an enthusiastic young man whose voice kept going off-key, and put him out of his mind.

Motilalji patted his hair and smoothed his creased kurta. “Come with me then,” he said, glancing at a mirror, and then at his watch.

It turned out that they were going to Cumballa Hill. This was not far away, and they might have walked it in half an hour. But Motilalji had lavish tastes; as they descended from the small hill on which the house stood, he hailed a taxi. They sat at the back, Shyamji wondering if they could have taken a bus. “Arrey, who will take a bus for such a short distance! And these buses tire me—I am not well.” He looked distractedly before him.

Besides, no bus would have taken them straight to the building. Motilalji began to hum with a sour expression on his face, as if he was never on holiday from his talent and vocation, and resented the fact, as the taxi made the round from Peddar Road to Kemp’s Corner, and then turned right at the Allah Beli Café and continued down the straight lane. Shyamji, by contrast, was wide-eyed and curious, as if he was still not bored by this area. He was also silent. The small intermission of the journey seemed to have mixed up daydream and reality for him. He watched the sunlight fall on the different buildings; the old, deceptively homely but expensive shops on Kemp’s Corner; the multi-storeyed buildings in the lane in which mainly Gujaratis lived, with their sense of crowdedness; then the sense of spaciousness again as they turned into the hill, with its older buildings.

They came now to an old, large, three-storeyed house. “Arrey, dekho,” said Motilalji, “I have only two rupees’ change in my pocket. These fellows will never have change for a hundred-rupee note. Give him five rupees, will you, Shyam?” and with that he got out of the taxi. Shyamji noticed, as he fished resignedly in his kurta pocket, that Motilalji’s dhoti was quite shabby. But he was not drunk; he was walking straight. They went up a single floor in an old lift, one that apparently never caught the sunlight. In a way that was both unworldly and dramatic, Motilalji rang the bell next to a large door with a brass nameplate.

The door was opened by an ageing bearer, a grey-haired Malyali, who’d grown inured to the incursion of people like Motilalji into the flat. Certain skills brought you into contact with the well-to-do, he’d decided; and in his thirty years as cleaner, boy, and bearer, he’d seen a range of skills. Besides, the lady of the house liked singing; the people he’d worked for had always had interesting hobbies, and he preferred the employers that had hobbies to the ones that didn’t have any. He was accomplished enough to feign a look of tolerance and respect toward Motilalji; he didn’t know the other man. Then, with an approximation of childlike enthusiasm, he padded off barefoot towards the bedroom to say, “Memsaab, music teacher has come!”

Motilalji sat on the sofa with a sort of half-smile on his face, while Shyamji turned his head momentarily to look at the flat; glancing back quickly over his shoulder, he saw the potted plants in the veranda. Motilalji leaned towards him to say something; but the lady was approaching them; he cleared his throat.

“Mallika,” he said, “I hope you don’t mind that I brought my dewar with me!”


The dewar, the brother- in- law, looked a bit startled; he felt, more than ever, that he was in someone else ’s house, and that he ’d been manipulated by Motilalji for a reason only he knew. He was also surprised, and mildly offended, that Motilalji referred to the lady by her name, rather than “Mallikaji” or “didi.” The lady smiled and nodded at Shyamji. John came out of the room with a harmonium, and placed it on the carpet.

“She’s been learning from me for seven–eight months now,” said Motilalji. “You should listen to her—she has a good voice. She’s very proud though.”

Shyamji quailed. He pretended he hadn’t heard.

“My dewar’s name is Shyam—Shyam Lal,” said Motilalji. “The late,” and he glanced at the heavens, “Pandit Ram Lal’s son. He’s quite a good singer, and a teacher too. He’s still young, though.”

The lady and Motilalji sat down to sing. First the parping sound of the harmonium, not very musical; then the lady began singing, while Motilalji sat there, feigning boredom. Her voice was fullthroated, surprisingly melodious.

“Wah, didi!” said Shyamji after she ’d finished; then Motilalji went through the motions—they could be called nothing else—of a lesson without bothering to raise his voice, but almost humming her a tune, which she followed assiduously, nodding appreciatively.

There was a break, and John brought them tea. Shyamji stirred his cup thoughtfully, and Motilalji declaimed,

“You must practise this song, Mallika! And you have to get the pronunciation right!”


From the Hardcover edition.
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    interesting look at Bombay

    The Immortals
    Amit Chaudhuri
    Knopf, Aug 2009, $25.95
    ISBN: 9780307270221

    In the early 1980s in Bombay, classically trained by his father Apura Lal, Shyam is in demand by the affluent to tutor them or their offspring in voice. Shyam has come a long way from his famous father who sang only traditional classics while he teaches singing popular tunes mostly to wealthy women.

    One of his better students Mallika Sengupta asks Shyam for a secret favor. She resents having to give up her chance for a musical career to marry a corporate exec so she wants to give her sixteen years old son Nirmalya a chance to make it in music. Shyam agrees to work with the rebellious Nirmalya , but the teen does not want to work with the teacher he scorns for selling out his soul for a few rupees; in fact the lad admires Apura for adhering to the classics; Nirmalya's preference.

    This is an interesting look at Bombay through the eyes of two families (representing three generations) as music connects everyone. The story line is vivid with the sound of music, but the obvious conflict between parent and offspring feels muted. Still, in spite of the toning down of the clash, fans will enjoy this stylish refrain as "the magic is in the music and the music is in me" (Lovin' Spoonful) and you; just the preference differs.

    Harriet Klausner

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