A novel that shows another side of the Maximum City.
The Bombay Book is a staple of our times. Shanta Gokhale’s Crowfall is, however, a Mumbai book. The tag derives not from the forced renaming of the city but from the worlds at the heart of this novel: those of middle-class Mumbai and genteel old money; of artists, musicians and journalists; of rural Maharashtra and displaced tribals; of people who stay away from the bright lights and drink more tea than champagne. This is a Mumbai that is comfortable with its roots.
The story weaves through the desperation of illegal shanties and the pretentiousness of opulent salons. It is hit by the dark and lumpen forces of the city. But its perspective remains that of a particular breed of Mumbaikar who leads an aesthetically refined middle-class life, finding refuge from the ennui of everyday existence in the beauty and fragrance of the arts.
The strains of the tanpura provide the background music to the story; ragas waft through its chapters; a singer’s dilemma and an artist’s torment ache to be resolved. And the role of the arts in a turbulent society is a recurring theme: “What can artists do when the world is taken over by monsters?”
Crowfall is a translation, by the author herself, of Gokhale’s award-wining Tya Varshi. The Marathi title, translated as That Year, refers to the time-frame of the novel: a year in the intertwined lives of its characters. The story is held together by a triangle: a classical Hindustani singer, Sharada; and a brother-sister duo, Anima and Ashesh. All three wrestle with inner demons. Sharada strives for freedom — from an ex-lover and an unforgiving guru. Anima grieves for a husband butchered in a communal riot while Ashesh struggles with the creative urge. And both wait for the return of their father who abandoned them without explanation. (Their ancestral home is set in a place called, not surprisingly, Surgaon.)
Music underlines not only the joys, but the tragedies of the two women’s lives. When a friend arrives to tell Anima of the senseless killing, the doorbell rings with “a trill of Bhairavi, the raag of endings.” The title itself refers to the surreal juxtaposition of an evening when dead crows rain down from the sky just as Sharada, practising Raag Bhairavi, is “about to touch the komal dhaivat note.”
There is a large cast of supporting characters, all skilfully etched. Some have shades of personalities from the arts circuit, a world that Gokhale knows all too well as a much-respected cultural critic. But precisely because they are so interesting, some of them do the narrative a disservice by diverting the reader’s attention. It’s one of two niggles one has with this passionate, arresting novel. The other minor grouse is about the long reflective passages on art couched in speeches. Both the passages and the device seem rather heavy-handed for a writer of Gokhale’s precision and spare, chiselled writing.
Don’t let those niggles keep you away, though. Crowfall is an immensely rewarding book for those familiar with Mumbai or music — and those who are not, too. The latter will enjoy a sense of discovery; the former will find small insider pleasures. This novel is, after all, not about maximum city but middle Mumbai.
It ends, appropriately, with an abhang of Sant Tukaram, the 17th century Marathi poet-saint: Music is filled with the colours of magic,/It is your gift to us, my Lord,/Accept it back from us.
Crowfall; Shanta Gokhale, Penguin Viking, Rs.499.