From the review: “Gazes ram into skulls. Hapless victims of crocodile attacks are “impeccably” ripped apart. When a house reputed to be haunted stands in “mysteriously luminous sadness”, we must confess we expected nothing better from it.”

 

(First published in the Sahara Times, May 2004)

The Last Song Of Dusk

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Penguin Viking

Rs 395, 298 pages

“What she was really moonstruck about was his knack for telling stories…”

“My beloved storyteller, she thought. Tell me not this story.”

In those two lines taken from the text, you have the complete history of Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s The Last Song of Dusk in a nutshell. He opens with bombast, moves seamlessly from pathos to bathos and back again, and delivers verbose prose in a ratio of ten rococo clunky sentences to every genuine scorcher. Somewhere in the middle of the muddle, there’s a story well worth the telling—perhaps the one thing that this young debut author doesn’t lack is imagination.

But to paraphrase his own words, a weep gathered in my chest like the white crest of a wave, approximately every three pages or so in the course of reading what I dearly hope isn’t going to be Shanghvi’s last attempt at a magnum opus.

LSD has all the necessary ingredients that go into the making of a historical potboiler with a touch of class: a stunningly beautiful heroine with a legendary voice, unaware that tragedy will follow romance into her life; a fascinating artist whose erotic escapades are a mask for the unspeakable darkness of her past; supported by a cast of glittering minor characters (M K Gandhi and V Woolf in walk-on parts). Shanghvi lurches between melodrama, which he does very well but often, one suspects, unintentionally, and black humour, ditto.

And reading this book proved to be a truly extraordinary experience, though not perhaps in the way the publisher’s blurbs had promised. Through the first third of the book, what came to mind was the last lines of ‘Heart of Darkness’: “The horror! The horror!” No Conradian protagonist, surely, had such a grim journey before him: dark vistas of impenetrable fiction lay ahead, marked by thickets of overwrought prose of impenetrable meaning. Swaggering cockades of smoke billowed over the haughty metal heads of trains. A tall muscular man saw, reflected in the mirror, a member between his legs that was lonely and strong willed and utterly gorgeous inside its own confusion. Gazes ram into skulls. Hapless victims of crocodile attacks are “impeccably” ripped apart. When a house reputed to be haunted stands in “mysteriously luminous sadness”, we must confess we expected nothing better from it.

But if you persevere—yes, the road is hard and lonely—Shanghvi’s true gifts begin to reveal themselves. As he switches from describing Dariya Mahal’s ever-present bitterness and malevolence to introducing Nandini Hariharan (“the beedi-smoking beloved of the art world”), from cariacatures, Lagaan-style, of spineless young British men to wickedly funny riffs on how to be an artist in Bombay, it’s the energy, and the inventiveness, of his mind that keeps you on the page. There are oceans and streams of stories here, tripping over each other, demanding to be told; and grant Shanghvi this much, he has a fertile mind. It’s enough to carry you over the stomach-churning sequence where he employs the time-honoured device of ellipses…many of them…chiefly in dialogue…to indicate great emotion… in a dialogue between Anuradha and a friend who is…terminally ill. (The last author I encountered who used the ellipse with quite as much zest was Barbara Cartland, who employed the three dots chiefly to indicate the virtuousness of shrinking maidens on the threshold of being ravished.)

Innocently or not, Shanghvi ends up parodying some of the most beloved and most vaunted conventions of fiction in English by Indian writers. Magic realism gets an unanticipated workout with protagonists who emulate Jesus by walking on water. There’s homage of sorts to Arundhati Roy’s penchant for capital letters, in the form of characters who answer the call of Destiny, are thwarted by Reality but manage to unleash the Hound of History all the same. Every Raj novel subsequently written will be in debt to Shanghvi’s account of the Billingdon Clubhouse; indeed, when he abandons his primal passion for literary fiction in order to have a fling with satire, he does considerably better.

Like a certain object previously described, this novel is utterly gorgeous within its own confusion. And though he careens wildly between the extremes of mordant wit and high passion, though he mistakes lush writing for luscious writing, Shanghvi has what a score of better craftsmen lack: genuine talent and a smouldering imagination. This book is like those peacock-feather fans you find in crafts bazaars: outre, pretentious, but also colourful and boldly seductive. I look forward with great interest to Shanghvi’s second opus, even if the first is the triumph of hype over experience.

Nilanjana S Roy