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THE SILENT RAGA by Ameen Merchant. Douglas & McIntyre. April 2009. $17.95. Paperback reprint; originally published in Canada. 400 pages.

Where do middle-class Tamil Brahmin girls go when they turn eighteen?” asks Ameen Merchant in his debut novel, The Silent Raga. The answer is not simple. According to his story, some blithely move their indentured servitude from their father’s house to their husband’s house. Others exchange despair for freedom, leaving their family a goodbye note. Still others reach their destination at the end of a rope hung from the tree in the back yard.

The Silent Raga is the story of two sisters about to be reunited after having been separated a decade earlier by the desperate actions of one of them. Janaki, the older sister, flees home and village for the excitement and distance of Bombay and ends up married to a leading Muslim Hindi-film star. Hers is an escape from a stifling life of playing housekeeper-cook to her gruff and unappreciative father, servant to her self-important, high-maintenance aunt, and prospective wife to a stream of redundant, unwanted, potential husbands.

With her abrupt departure, Janaki also reluctantly abandons her cherished younger sister Mallika, whom she had raised since the untimely death of their mother. Mallika is forced to take over the Janaki’s responsibilities, and she blames Janaki for trapping her.

Neither sister really knows what to expect when they come face to face again, but at least one approaches the reunion with a sense of hope.

Set in the 1980s and early 1990s, The Silent Raga illustrates a suffocating, constricting life that allows girls nothing beyond the rigid confines of caste, class, religion, and agraharam. How careful Merchant is in choosing not to set his novel in the 21st century, where it would be too painful to accept this as current practice! The remoteness of decades shaves off some of the direness of the circumstances and keeps it at arm’s length.

There is an oppressive thumb held over nice Brahmin girls in the novel as they await their fate: decisions are made for them, chores are thrust upon them, and the prospect of education or individual advancement is pulled out from under them like a rug in a magic act.  There is no recourse other than acceptance, rebellion, or suicide. What Merchant gives the reader is an image of a society so bent on rules and appearances, traditions and sexism, that any spark of creativity, any indication of success other than to be someone’s wife/housekeeper/mother is wholly unacceptable. It is little wonder that the dowry system collides with the marriage process and yields unforgiving shame.

One of the principal truths in this novel is that all families have their dysfunctional sides, even strict Tamil Brahmin families. The only harmony and accord in the book are found in the scenes between Janaki and her husband’s first wife Zubeida, who bond effortlessly, and without the posturing or pretense one might expect from women whose common thread is their husband. Zubeida may be a minor individual in the overall span of the book, but she is the most positive and likeable character. She is honest, direct, caring, and understanding; virtues that appear to be absent in any of Janaki’s family members.

While the novel offers a new take on an old theme, the writing suffers from a lack of positive attachment to its characters. Janaki has spunk and ambition, but she is too much the target of Mallika’s festering negativity to be the all-around champion she should have become. Mallika could have been the character that readers feel sympathetic toward, but she is drawn as a sour, self-indulgent martyr for an inordinate amount of the story.

Those who give Janaki the happiness she deserves in life appear so briefly in the story that, other than Zubeida, they barely make an impact on the reader. Finally, the resolution is handled too quickly and tidily to balance the oppressive drama of the majority of the novel, and while it provides some interesting exchanges between the sisters, it doesn’t fully satisfy.

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

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in beautiful Central North Carolina where she is a long-time contributor to India Currents and a long-time Books for Youth reviewer with Booklist magazine/American Library Association....