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  • Published 4.02.05

The last song of dusk
By Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi,
Viking, Rs 395

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi?s debut novel, The Last Song of Dusk, is a tale of love and longing, of magical songs and mournful lives ? lives that are perennially haunted by the dead. Indeed, the mood of sadness so suffuses the novel that it is often easy to miss the scattered brilliance of Shanghvi?s words and the charming felicity of his language. Yet this is what puts the magic into his magic realism. The rest is just a clutch of sad characters trapped in the well of their loneliness.

So there is Anuradha Gandharva, blessed with remarkable beauty and a preternatural gift for singing, who nurses the memory of a dead child and mutely watches her husband, Vardhmaan, drift away from her. There is Vardhmaan, Handel-lover and dazzling raconteur, who is so stricken by the loss of their three-year-old boy that he slowly descends into a terrifying silence. There is Khalil Muratta, the ageing Afghan artist, who has not painted a picture in decades and looks for a muse to put the life back into him. And then there is Sherman Miller, the young Irishman, who is utterly besotted with the wild and wonderful Nandini. But he, too, must learn to live with loss, doomed to loiter palely in his blank, Nandini-less state.

Even Dariya Mahal, the ruined haveli by the sea where Anuradha and Vardhmaan make their home, is a sort of latter-day Hungry Stones ? a house that hugs secret sorrows to itself, where ancient longings ooze and fester, curdling any happiness that comes its way.

Only Nandini Hariharan, that capricious orphan girl of prodigious sexual appetite, rises above this mood of studied dolefulness. Dressed in a ripped gown, with a lit bidi between her lips, she is like a shriek through the elegant set of Bombay in the Twenties. She dances on tables, walks on water, mates with leopards (and quite a lot of humans too ? both male and female), and is prepared to go to any lengths to set herself up as the great artist that she knows she is. But she, too, is tortured by grisly memories and is running, sometimes from the creatures of the night, and always from her own lacerated past.

Shanghvi fixes his story in Twenties Bombay. There are desultory references to the freedom movement and Gandhi puts in a couple of appearances ? chiefly to laugh uproariously at Nandini?s risqu? repartees. His merriment doesn?t ring very true, though. In fact, Shanghvi is at his weakest when he tries to inject a shot of Zeitgeist into the proceedings. Whether it is Gandhi, or jazz or Bollywood (was there such a word in the Twenties?), they seem to have been put slam dunk into the story to give it a flavour of the times. But the flavour remains elusive and the props merely irk. Shanghvi also dwells quite a lot on the nature of love and the inevitability of loss. ?All that the heart esteems will be snatched from it,? Nandini declares. It?s a bleak world view and it crops up again and again in the book like a sad refrain to the author?s melancholy song. Ultimately, the story, such as it is, runs aground, swallowed up in the haze of its own melancholia.

Still, it is easy to dip into the elegant cadence of Shanghvi?s prose. It has a pleasing, lyrical quality that trips easily along, flashing out an opalescent twilight here, fleshing out a passionate lovemaking there. One may not find its effect quite as psychedelic as the book?s initials (LSD) seem to promise, but certainly, Shanghvi knows how to wield a magical pen.

All in all, a promising debut.