Q & A
Q. You write hypnotically and gracefully about Indian classical music – its beauty, its complexity. Can you explain the basic structure of this musical form for the Western reader?
A. Indian classical music is monophonic: it uses rhythm and melody. In voice, of course, words are used. Emotion, however, is conveyed not so much through the words of a ‘bandish’ or composition but through the notes, which express the mood of the ‘raga’ or the theme.
Since melody is what we hum or sing, it is closely associated with voice. Voice is said to be the highest art form, second only to poetry. In the second half of the last century, instrumentalists changed their style to emulate voice, making their own music more melodious.
Q. How does the classical Indian music you write about relate to, say, popular “Bollywood” songs or the Ravi Shankar music that was adapted by the Beatles?
A. Ravi Shankar is one of the foremost exponents of Indian classical music. He and the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan introduced Indian classical music to the West. As a result of their efforts, you hear a lot of Indian rhythms and melodies in America.
Before the word “Bollywood” came into common parlance, Indian film music did draw heavily on Indian classical music. The rhythms were catchier than in classical music, but the melodies drew on the ragas. Bollywood music is different now, with more rhythms from Indian folk or Western music. The melodies show a much greater influence of the West.
Q. Why did you choose this relatively esoteric music as the central theme of the novel?
A. You could draw a parallel between the Gregorian chants in Western music and Indian music. They were both used in prayer, from the earliest times. My mother, being an idealistic student of Hindi literature, emphasized the spirituality of Indian music. Consequently, I’ve always striven for ‘something higher’ in both music and literature.
When I started writing fiction in the late ’90s, I wanted to reproduce the beauty of Indian classical music through words. It seemed an impossible task. At the same time, the plight of so many unprotected women in society bothered me. I realized, as I began to write, that by centering everything in the music college I could show, without having to explain too much, distinctions of class, the power of one individual over another, and the role of our experiences in shaping us. In other words, the little world of the music college could function as a microcosm of Indian society, and, at an individual level, as a representative of dichotomies in all of us.
Q. Is the class consciousness you write about as powerful in determining people’s fate as the caste system used to be?
A. The caste system did create a dispossessed class. However, in this novel it’s not caste, but class. And yes, it is powerful in determining people’s fate. Although it’s always harder for women of any class, poor women do not have the financial wherewithal to pull themselves out of a bad situation. The number of poor women destroyed by society is disproportionately high.