The Last Song of Dusk has been burning up the bestseller lists in India and has nabbed the Betty Trask Award in the United Kingdom. Media critics wonder if he’s the next Salman Rushdie or the new Arundhati Roy. The buzz surrounding it has landed the photogenic 27-year-old Shanghvi in the society pages almost as often as the literary pages of magazines and newspapers. No story on The Last Song of Dusk (cutely nicknamed LSD) seems to be complete without some reference to Shanghvi’s coif or his ethnic chic wardrobe. This is the portrait of the artist as a young celebrity but Shanghvi wears it with élan.
These days Shanghvi can be seen at the very salons of the Bombay literati and glitterati that he describes with wicked impudence in his novel. “They are twice the fun that I imagined,” says Shanghvi. “I was at one recently where a magazine editor who was completely smashed proceeded to show me a tattoo at a less than discreet place as I was surrounded by the industrial heads of India.”
It’s a situation his character Nandini would have relished. The beedi-smoking Nandini, who has a panther somewhere in her bloodline, shocks, titillates, and seduces Bombay high society with her mini-sari. And this is no ordinary high society. Here bosomy lesbians loll in alabaster bathtubs while painters look on with a “devdas gaze.” Society mavens breed terriers addicted to gin-and-tonic. And Mahatma Gandhi rubs shoulders with an up-and-coming author named Virginia Woolf.
But amidst the quips and putdowns, “ducky” and “canary yellow polka-dot knickers,” Shanghvi has written a book that at its core is about love, which he calls “the most irrepressible and most misunderstood of emotions.” Shanghvi, who spends half the year in the West and the other half in Bombay, says he has both an Eastern and Western perspective on love. “In the East you don’t have so much emphasis on love. It’s all about people staying together and having kids. In the West it is much more about individual feelings.”
LSD explores love both from sides. Nandini seduces people by just being Nandini. Blocked painters find their muse. The shy neighbor boy starts quoting Yeats. The British governor’s pasty son is reduced to a stuttering glob. But Nandini, who is haunted by the image of her corrosive marriage, is also searching for love and security with a vulnerability that belies her tough-as-nails exterior. “I wanted to use her to examine ideas of sexuality and how we form sexual consciousness and what is it that we need to do to be loved,” says Shanghvi.
The other end of love comes from the novel’s protagonists—Anuradha Patwardhan marries the handsome doctor Vardhamaan in an arranged marriage right out of a fairy tale. Shanghvi says the idea of love and arranged marriage fascinated him because “I wanted to understand what happens when the elements unifying two people in love and marriage are negotiated as in an arranged marriage.” Anuradha and Vardhmaan fall in love in course of their marriage and have a perfect prodigy son. But when the son dies in a freak accident they have to learn whether love is enough to absorb the grief of the loss of a son.
Shanghvi knows a bit about the subject. He was a 22-year-old student in California when he was so in love that he felt his world was complete. In some ways the book is his love child. “I was so happy within the relationship, the idea of publication didn’t enter my mind,” he says. “It was only when the relationship collapsed and I returned to India that my friends said, ‘Siddharth, you should do something. Otherwise you’ll hurt yourself.’”
Shanghvi finished the book and sent it to agents. He recalls that even as his agent was calling him with excited news about how the book had been picked up in Italy and Germany, he was thinking, “Oh God! But you don’t understand, my heart is broken and I am supposed to be saying how wonderful it all is.” Then he adds philosophically, “Loss happens, love happens, you recover, you move on, you write books, you talk about them.”
But what would he do if he had the chance to choose between the two? He doesn’t hesitate. “I think being in love is so much more interesting than doing something as boring as writing a novel.”
Shanghvi’s ideas of love and loss were also shaped by the time he spent in the San Francisco Bay Area. Though America doesn’t really play a role in the book, its influence, says Shanghvi, was profound. “I remain in thrall of the Pacific Ocean. Its silver breadth is the visual representation of imagination itself. Towns like Pt. Reyes or Olema Valley are where I think through my stories: something about the crash of the ocean and shade of the redwood I carry into the tale,” he says. He reflects it has been amazing for him to be in the Bay Area and watch “people stand up and fight for their right to love. There’s something almost Gandhian in this fight for the freedom to love.” And as he watched people test the boundaries of gender on the streets of San Francisco he wanted to connect it back to his knowledge of Indian history where “a thousand years ago they had views on sex and gender that are amazing. Seven types of men existed then.”
His years in London also play an important role in shaping the book and not just because of all the drinks that helped spur it. That’s where he was introduced to the works of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorothea Lange whose art and philosophy inspire his writing.
But in the end, the book, of course, is about Bombay. “Bombay for me is the most chronically sexy city in the world right now,” he says. “Bombay powers you with resilience: you’re either fast or finito here. I am constantly on my toes in Bombay, and its wickedness as well as its unexpected reprieves reinforce life’s volatility.” It’s where he grew up and read books in the solitariness of a tree house. He credits that for helping him to learn “to engage in solitude. It also allowed me to stand back from life, and perhaps it’s vital for writers to stand at the peripheries of society if they want to write about its center.”
The two things that sustained him over the years that the novel gestated within him, says Shanghvi, were music and spirituality. As he would return again and again to scenes he’d left off and abandoned while working on the book, it was always a snatch of music, whether Chopin or Lata Mangeshkar, that would take him back into the scene. “The music allowed me to return with an immediacy that otherwise my memory wouldn’t allow me,” says Shanghvi, adding that were it not for “having the tonality of a crow,” he would much rather be a musician than a novelist. That is why though most reviewers have commented on the striking visual images in the novel, Shanghvi was most excited when some Italian readers said they “heard” the book. “That got me very excited because I wanted to preserve the Indian traditions of the oral narrative,” says Shanghvi.
Like music, spirituality is also his place of private refuge. He describes Northern California as “effortlessly spiritual because of its landscape—the redwoods and the oceans make you aware of something huger and more authentic than your insignificant self.” But whether it’s Vedanta Ashram in California or Sai Baba’s Ashram in Shirdi, Shanghvi says “writing is a spiritual exercise: it’s a way to reach into my most authentic self, what might be called an atman. I want to be able to test ideas on karma and maya in the space of a novel.”
The other influence was his grandfather. A student of Carl Jung, he would encourage his family members to come to him with “shards of their sleep and he would deconstruct them.” Young Shanghvi kept a leather-bound journal of his dreams under his bed in Bombay. “Very early on he made us take our subconscious lives seriously. And he allowed me to put narrative over image. Because when you are talking about dreams all you can do is describe them,” explains Shanghvi. “That was the first and crucial practice for the craft of fiction.”
Of all those “shards of his sleep” there’s one image that the storyteller in Shanghvi thinks rings the truest. “It was of me as a very very old person telling stories to my nephews. Here, the noise of being a writer, the interviews—that’s just stuff. The real thing inside is the story and the telling and the most important and authentic image of my life is of an old man telling stories to the children.” n
|Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.|