Kalu doesn’t have much to live for when he climbs the banyan tree; his foot infected and no way to make a living. Even shunned by those who previously helped him out due to the stench of his foot. He has climbed the tree to make a simple flute out of one of the leaves. He starts to play a beautiful melody, which catches the attention of a passer-by. Fate is smiling down on the boy as the man is a vaid, a traditional healer, who strikes up a bargain to heal Kalu’s foot. Soon Kalu is being whisked away to learn the true meaning of music.
“A raag is a framework. An ideology first and music second. Without spirit a raag is nothing.”
The novel supposedly mimics the structure and themes of the Indian raag; a musical form literally translating as “mood”. I had thought this would have meant an interesting narrative structure but it has resulted in the story taking far too long to get going. Part one, the aalapp, is a slow piece without rhythm which introduces the elements and the story introduces the characters. Part two, the antara, is a slow build, bringing in the percussion instruments and twining together two or three tunes. We get to know more characters and the lives of Bal and Malti, although separate from Kalu’s, are brought to life. Part three, the bol bandh, is really the climax, where melodies are broken up and regrouped. This is where the drama happens in the book. The final section of the book is headed by “repetition of the full composition once” which doesn’t really reflect the content of the text but serves as more of an epilogue.
Bal and Malti’s stories were the stronger elements for me; I felt like Kalu was lacking in personality and the main section of the book relies too much on an interest in the music itself. Whilst it was interesting to learn a little about the culture around the raag, I started to get a bit bored whilst nothing was happening. If you love books about music, do consider giving it a try.
The India portrayed is one very much on the edge of change. The story is set against a fairly rural community who still have very traditional values, yet there are glimpses of the world as we know it. Guriji’s home is somewhat of a retreat, removed from the people at large but in comparison to the village, it was a much more modern lifestyle. It was hard to place the story in time until later on, the acceptance of arranged marriage is still quite common but it was shocking that an intelligent woman would marry a man without speaking to or seeing him until after the wedding. There are also descriptions of punishments that seem archaic and cruel, not to forget the story starts off with a whole community ignoring the fact that a boy is about to die from an infected foot!
I did enjoy the more dramatic final stages of the raag more and there were some rather tender and tragic moments. It just took me so long to engage with the characters, that I felt the structure didn’t work for me.
Dancing to the Flute is Manisha Jolie Amin’s debut novel and is published by Alma Books. It’s available to buy now in paperback and ebook formats. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.