THE LAST SONG OF DUSK by Siddarth Dhanvant Shanghvi. New York: Arcade Publishing. Hardcover, 295 pages. $23.95. www.arcadepub.com

“Life was a process of expanding the imagi- nation till it could contain reality,” writes Siddarth Dhanvant Shanghvi in The Last Song of Dusk. Reality, in this novel, is a concept to be reckoned with and excitingly so. A winner of the Betty Trask Award for debut novels in the U.K. and a success in India, Shanghvi already has been compared to Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, and Zadie Smith. And at 27, this educated-on-three-continents writer has burst into the ranks of contemporary innovative storytellers.

954018de6138ac894898373a7b23d40e-1In an interview excerpted by VerveOnline, Shanghvi noted that “India is naturally and relentlessly dramatic: here, the narrative is of life’s conflict with itself—and this drama never folds up, there is no curtain call. The natural chaos of India makes you think in ways that are not always linear—and this either broadens your understanding of what is logical, or transcends it entirely. And when you sidestep logic, the world before you is much larger and zanier.” The Last Song of Dusk is infused with this conflict, drama, and chaos as well as the melodramatic, magical, and colorful, yielding a canvas that is not only several stages larger than life but also exhibiting every sort of love imaginable.

This tale of 1920s Bombay explores the substantial lives of a family and its extensions. Anuradha, who is so beautiful that peacocks line up to bid her adieu as she leaves her home for her impending marriage, is the anchor of the story. Through her zest for life and understanding of sacrifice, she offers us a life both lived and survived. Vardhmaan, her handsome and giving husband, is the doctor for whom young women feign illness just to have him tend to them. Mohan, their firstborn, at a too-tender age exhibits linguistic and musical talents exceeding the average child’s development, while Shloka, their second-born, is mute and sensitive. Shanghvi’s tour-de-force, however, is Nandini, the wild and artistic orphan who not only walks on water but is born with leopard blood coursing through her veins. Tossed into the mix are characters who touch other points of existence, including Pallavi, the generous and kind neighbor; Radha-mashi, the flamboyant and rich aunty; Divi-bai, Vardhmaan’s more-than-evil stepmother; Zenobia, Divi-bai’s parrot who gossips and carries on nasty conversations; and Dariya Mahal, the house with a tragic history and a territorial, protective personality of its own. In short, no one and nothing is ordinary in this particular world.

The marriage of Anuradha and Vardhmaan begins as a joyous one comprised of waltzes and songs, storytelling and lovemaking. Anuradha’s beauty is matched by Vaardhmaan’s, and both husband and wife are blessed with sharp minds, quick wits, and tongues to match. Their relationship is spicy and sweet, playful and sexual, active and appreciative. The only obstacle to their perfect life and continued happiness appears to be Divi-bai, who despises anyone or anything that exudes happiness.

Happiness for Anuradha and Vardhmaan Gandharva is manifested in their son, Mohan, who sang for the first time at 17 months, 4 weeks, 6 days. So beautifully he sang that people traveled from miles around solely to hear his voice. Clever, conversant, able beyond his years, Mohan is spoiled and demanding. His untimely death marks the time when perfection slowly begins to unravel.

Anuradha leaves Bombay for an emotional recuperation back home in Udaipur, and it is there that she meets Nandini, a young girl who walks on water as softly and gently as a cat. Legend has it that generations ago an ancestor mated with a leopard, and the cat’s blood continues through Nandini’s veins, making her wild and able to see people for who they are. Artistic and restless, she paints people as she sees them, including Anuradha, and it is Nandini’s deep vision into Anuradha’s grief that binds the two women together forever.

954018de6138ac894898373a7b23d40e-3Upon returning to Bombay, the Gandharvas and Nandini move away from Divi-bai’s wicked hatefulness and into Dariya Mahal, a hidden house by the sea. It is here that Anuradha and Vardhmaan pick up the pieces of their lives only to sense that the house has a life of its own and does not, like Divi-bai, want happiness to ruin its glorious despair.

The Last Song of Dusk is a pleasing novel, one that weaves romance and action, anguish and triumph, loss and gain in a voice so colorful and ornate that the reader’s suspension of disbelief is both effortless and comfortable. Part fantasy, part melodrama, part soap opera, part universal love story, it defies the rigid pigeon-holing of genre. If the characters sprouted wings and flew into the sky, the reader would believe it as easily as they feel the depth of the earth-bound love and sorrow of the piece.

“Life essentially seeks out balance,” says Anuradha when she reviews her life and the people and events that have contributed to its fullness. “I have found that it is in the habit of trading one sorrow for one joy until one cancels out the other.”

So what is the end result, Anuradha?

“Equipoise,” she continues. “That precise moment in the ocean when a wave neither falls nor rises.”

Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.
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