At the core of Krishna Sobti’s new book is a special friendship, explored both emotionally and philosophically.
The Christian poet George Macdonald wrote: “It is so silly of people to fancy that old age means crookedness and witheredness and feebleness and sticks and spectacles and rheumatism and forgetfulness! It is so silly! Old age has nothing whatever to do with all that. The right old age means strength and beauty and mirth and courage and clear eyes and strong painless limbs.” As with all tremendous paradoxes, perhaps the truth of this cannot really be understood, but only lived, or maybe gleaned, off the pages of a novel.
Krishna Sobti’s The Music of Solitude is the story of two elderly people, Aranya and Ishan, living alone in government flats in a trans-Yamuna housing society. In terms of plot, it is the gentlest of stories. Aranya and Ishan are neighbours. They go on walks together, share meals, visit the occasional friends and acquaintances — and talk a great deal. But there is a crisis running through their meanderings, a formidable existential crisis — what does one live for when the end of life is nigh? And allied to this, how, in infirmity and weakness, can one cope with the strong and the grasping, in surroundings so ruthlessly altering?
Adding to the drama of the novel is the contrast in the personalities of its protagonists. Although they both live alone, Ishan is a believer in community and family and the imperative of social duties, while Aranya, a writer, (drawn perhaps from the writer’s own personality) claims never to be unhappy in her own company. In one of the book’s best conversations, they talk about joint families. “Don’t forget,” says Ishan, “the family is a nest of security, the dense shade of mutual support. Family life is never monotonous.” “Is there any point,” answers Aranya, “in glorifying the kind of protections which scrape away at your self-confidence?” “It’s important to keep alive the need we have for each other. It’s not a bad thing.” “I've never lost faith in love or goodwill... But I do have a critical perspective.” Wisely, this debate is not ‘won’ by either side. Instead the conversation turns more philosophical, to a rumination on atma and the possibilities of attaining brahman.
But this (in this writer’s view) is less wise. The Music of Solitude contains many philosophical reveries, wherein Ishan and Aranya (Ishan, in this matter, leading Aranya) are drawn to such ideas as the illusoriness of appearances, the cycle of birth and death and re-birth, and finally, the notion of life as a series of notes, struck in childhood, youth and old age, which only when strung all together fashion the melody of time.
This is not the place to critique these philosophical notions, which are of course both venerable and substantial. But it may be hypothesised that they infect the novel with a certain lofty knowingness, a faint but real self-satisfaction that also handicaps the story-telling. Thus, the material hardships of old age tend to stay at an arm’s length from Ishan and Aranya. It is their acquaintances who suffer from scheming relatives, disrespectful children and domestic tyranny. On the one occasion Aranya herself is robbed, she shrugs off the episode with a remarkable stoicness, which (though it may have pointed to something sublime), seems prompted more by a rigid escapism. And the relationship at the core of the novel, the special friendship between Ishan and Aranya that springs up in the autumn of their lives, does not quite get its due. They are moved, but not, I think, moved enough. One wishes for something a little more stirring, for a little greater willingness to upset the supposedly known patterns of life.
A note on the translation: it isn’t easy to forget, while reading, that this is a translation, (there are oddly-worded sentences, which are not always easy to follow), but as a whole the book achieves a unique and consistent tonality.
The Music of Solitude; Krishna Sobti, translated by Vasudha Dalmia, Harper Perennial, Rs.250.