Sudha Balagopal reads from her debut collection of short stories, There are Seven Notes. Although the stories are thematically connected by Indian classical music, each story is a distinct entity, with unique characters and situations. The seven stories in the book reveal the pervasiveness of classical music in Indian culture: an attempt once again to fathom the distance between life and art. The usual Karnatik ensemble consists of a singer, a violinist, a drum and a lute, although the combination can vary. All of the music is based on a set of scales, or ragas, and each raga has seven notes, hence the title.
“It is pretty obvious from the title that music is integral to this book. I love music and I love writing. This collection is a marriage of the two,” says Balagopal. All seven stories in the collection are set against the backdrop of Karnatik music. “Most people want to know if I am a musician. That I am not, but I am a writer and I hope I have expressed my fondness for music through the stories.”
Each story is a distinct entity, with unique characters and situations. Some stories are set in India, others straddle continents. For example, the first story, Singing Lessons, is set entirely in India while the second story moves with the protagonist from India to the United States.
“It is not necessary to know Karnatik music to enjoy the stories,” says Balagopal who hopes the issues and characters stay in the readers’ minds long after the stories have been read. The first story, Singing Lessons, tells the tale of eight year old Hamsa, a reluctant classical music student. She must suffer through her vocal lessons to satisfy the cultural aspirations of her family. Priya’s Pursuit, on the other hand, is set in the United States. It reveals the norms and traditions of an extended Indian family and the burdens and benefits of the same family bonds. The collection is capped by the story which inspired the title There are Seven Notes, which examines the tortured feelings of a professional musician who suffers a breakdown in the middle of a concert and steps away from the performance arena to re-assess his life. Most of the stories involve the passing down of Indian culture from one generation to the next.
While the issues the seven stories confront are serious, they are painted with both bitter-sweet moments and touching humor —with characters that, hopefully, will stay in the readers’ minds long after the stories have been read.
May 5, 3 p.m. University Press Books, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. (510) 548-0585 (800) 676-8722. [email protected]