An Equal Music – Book Review

So where have I been you ask? If you are not, you should be, by now. Tch, tch.

I have been busy with this and that – mostly that and less this. You know the drill. Lots of reading and writing has been happening. I am nearly done with Vikram Seth’s ‘An Equal Music’ and I cannot, cannot believe I didn’t come across it earlier. Seth writes with exquisite beauty. And with beautiful knowledge. I must confess that ‘A suitable boy’ wasn’t exactly my cup of tea but ‘An Equal Music’ seemed more within my grasp.

I am a philistine when it comes to european classical music. Sure, I have heard of the composers and sometimes I see Miss A with her allegro sheets but I am the nouveau fan. Not the connoisseur by a long stretch. But. Yet. I could feel the beauty of Beethoven’s Opus, or the enigmatic power of the ‘Art of the Fugue’. Seth serves as a fine epicurean guide to Europe and the rich classical music it offers us – it would be futile not to be seduced. To see the beauty of Venice and Vienna and London even through his eyes is a treat. You can tell you are in the presence of a master wordsmith because you persist with the landscape and the melody even when you understand neither.

The characters are well etched but this is not really a novel about Michael or Julia. This is about Europe in spring or in autumn even, the transposed melodies, the art of making of low pitched violas and the dawn over the venetian canals even as Schubert plays in the background. Arty, sensual, deft, multi layered. Don’t let my vagueness put you off the book though – there is much beauty to be found in such an abstract landscape.

This brings me to the next part of my tirade. I love reading Indian authors. To see your home through the eyes of another is a fulfilling past-time. But I cannot, cannot bear the sari-curry books. No, I do not want to read of spices and I am not interested in a description of saris, curries, saffron rice and peacocks and weak analogies (was this a weak analogy by the way? I think it was). I am NOT a tourist, to me this is pointless exercise. Write of our music, of its finer nuances. Of our heroes. Of the tragedies that shaped us. Of the unique people we are with our age old and yet timeless beliefs. But do NOT make us look like a quaint diaspora because it is an easy way to appear exotic -you only do injustice to us by such a skewed view . Also, do NOT write  novels areound Indians cooking tandoori meals in a foreign country – it is not exotic, it is banal, as intellectually stimulating as reading a curry-house menu and shows an utter lack of imagination. If the urge is too great, write a blog post and be done with it (yours truly, the gourmand, does this, yes?)

And this is where Seth shines. As a fledgling and wannabe writer with lofty dreams in my eyes, I sometimes struggle to build characters who are not Indian or more importantly characters who are outside my comfort zone. I do not mean Indians living abroad – they are still Indian by the way! I find it hard to write my dialogue in the correct flavour with the correct local lingo and ensuring that it sounds authentic and congruous. It is not easy. You have to slip in to the garb of  someone you are not. I would like to believe that I am getting better at this (and certainly my creative writing mentor has alluded to this improvement, yay!) but it is a hard task. There is no curry and spice in ‘An Equal Music’. Not once does Seth lose his bearing. He doesn’t slip into familiar comfort zones, he doesn’t lose the flavour of the book, he doesn’t sound like anything but a European quartet player. This to me is what makes the book great. Here is a man who so completely believes in his characters that he forgets himself, the creator of this opus.

I may not have understood every word in the book or perhaps not fully grasped every nuance of the music he alludes to – but I come away a better informed reader, content in the knowledge that I have been in the company of something noble and beautiful and bigger than the horizons that define us. To make the music you have not ever heard sound divine through a mere collection of words is a humongous task, Seth does this with fine panache. 

Most importantly, I come away inspired. And though, for the sake of my own foolish vanity, I won’t say this aloud but a small voice in my head for the past many days has been going  ‘I wish I could write like that’. And that, dear reader, is what every author worth his salt aspires for. Seth has created a music so rare and so unequal that he deserves to rest much like the great composers he worships. Mere mortals have a lot of catching up to do.

PS: I am on a reading spree. More book reviews coming up soon. If you have read any good books lately, leave me a comment. Please.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ardra
    Oct 19, 2010 @ 19:52:03

    Finally…atlast…Good to see you back…and waiting for more…

    Reply

  2. Rajavel
    Oct 19, 2010 @ 20:32:33

    Quite tempting. But no one can trick me into reading the likes of Vikram Seth

    Reply

  3. Aria
    Oct 20, 2010 @ 03:28:51

    it’s one of my favorite books : )

    Reply

  4. Captain Nemo
    Oct 21, 2010 @ 17:19:50

    Good review, has got me really interested in this book. I had not tried it since I failed to connect and even complete ‘ASB’… Will give this a try.

    Reply

  5. suresh
    Oct 26, 2010 @ 13:19:44

    I think A Suitable Boy was way better than An Equal Music. Somehow, I felt the text here was contrived. Perhaps it was a reflection of the state of my mind. Of Indian authors, my current favourite is Amitav Ghosh. Have you read Carlos Ruiz Zafon?

    Reply

  6. enig
    Nov 08, 2010 @ 12:40:36

    it’s way up there as well…in my list of fav books…you’ve reminded me of this lovely novel again..perhaps I should re-read it ..I’m finding it hard these days to like any book…I have four started but not finished books lying around 😦

    Reply

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