Shanghvi’s lyricism can be seen even before the story begins, which portends good things ahead. The dedication reads:
‘To Padmini, who, in her waltz with Fate, found her toes stepped on. And for Pappa, who brought along the music.’
I don’t know who he is talking about, but one of the more beautiful ones I’ve read.
The prose here has been compared to various luminary authors, but Rushdie and Arundhati Roy are the ones which strike me as most befitting. The writing has a lyrical, magical realism quality where real, seemingly earthly characters mix seamlessly with nature and normally impossible feats of wonder look commonplace. We have a lady who walks on water and more than an urban legend of her ancestor (and her) perhaps mating with panthers. There is a house, Dariya Mahal, which thinks and acts on its whims and causes upheaval in the life of its inhabitants.
The beginning section of the book was probably my favorite. Anuradha travels from Udaipur to Bombay of the 1920’s to meet and marry a man she has never before seen. From a lineage of almost mythically powerful singers on her mother’s side, she has no idea what to expect, except what her mother tells her as she is leaving – ‘In this life, my darling, there is no mercy’. Vardhaman, a doctor who sets hearts aflutter in Bombay takes to her immediately despite her bold assertion for chicken club sandwiches which initially stumps him. However, marry they do, and what a lovely union it is. As the melody of their lives engulfs them, they are blessed with an almost divine little boy. However, as it happens with the world, sheer randomness seems to determine the course of things and their lives are shattered in an instant. With the constant haranguing of the witch like step mother of Vardhaman, Divibai, Anuradha decides to move back to Udaipur while Vardhaman broods in Bombay.
It is in the next section of the book that we meet the walk-on-water, supposedly panther-mating wild child, Nandini, who goes on to become an integral part of the book from thereon in. And, while it is always beautifully written, I felt the subsequent sections did not live up to the brilliance of the first section. This is not to say it’s not interesting though. Vardhaman moves into a gothic-like mansion by Juhu beach, and invites Anuradha back, who brings along the precocious Nandini with her. However, the house, Dariya Mahal, has a dark past of its own and seems intent on playing havoc with all of their lives. While a subtle space opens up between Anuradha and Vardhaman, Nandini starts an unfettered exploration of life, love and art as she goes on to make a space for herself in the social circles of the city. But her own dark past keeps coming back to her and keeps her away from total contentment.
The prose is lyrical and slow burning at most places and mostly beautiful to wallow in. The descriptions of love making do get a bit too flowery at times, but this is forgivable. The characters are finely drawn out, with especially Nandini seeking attention from the readers. Her wildly erratic presence always keeps us in thrall of what she might be upto next, though it is hard at times to fathom whether she was intended as a demi-God figure, considering her shenanigans with water and panthers. A minor misstep is the character of Divi-bai, a character which when introduced looked like a fiery antagonist, but who with the move to Dariya Mahal vanishes from the story. Dariya Mahal is another ambiguous construct, a house which becomes a character in itself.
I liked it though. The quality of writing is consistently high enough to mitigate any niggling concerns with the story and almost larger than life characters.