Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review: Dancing to the Flute by Manisha Jolie Amin

When I chose this book as the first book of the summer for my summer book club, I got a little bit of push back. Apparently they are not all as enamoured of Indian-set novels as I am, but since they have ceded all choosing to me, I'd made my choice and was sticking to it. And thankfully none of them were as unhappy after reading the novel as they had been upon seeing the list. Isn't it funny though, how different our tastes are? The good news is that Manisha Jolie Amin's new novel, Dancing to the Flute, is a very engaging coming of age novel and ultimately worked well for the book club.

Kalu is a young orphan boy who lives on the street and gets by running errands for pay, scrounging for food, and accepting handouts. Despite his difficult life, he is a sweet boy who has made friends with Bal the buffalo herder, Malti a serving girl, and even acquired a patron of sorts in Ganga Ba, Malti's mistress who often finds or manufactures small tasks Kalu can do for her. In its own way, the whole village of Hastinapore looks out for him and ensures his nominal survival until he injures his foot so badly that he can no longer run the errands that gave him a purpose and a tiny measure of pride. He is hungry and in pain when he climbs a banyan tree, rolls a leaf into a flute, and blows sweet, pure music through it. Below the shady tree that morning, unbeknownst to Kalu, is a vaid, a traveling healer, who will change the path of Kalu's entire life after listening to Kalu's impromptu, entirely self-taught concert from high above in the leaves of the tree.

The vaid not only heals Kalu's infected foot but he also offers to take Kalu to his brother, an outstanding and reclusive musician, so that Kalu can study with a master and expand his gift. So much good fortune for a small, abandoned boy who had had faced such adversity already. And so Kalu goes off to the vaid's brother Guruji's home far away to learn the fundamentals of Indian music, specifically the raag. But as Kalu grows into manhood amongst new friends, he keeps his old friends, those who supported and loved him as an urchin, in his heart. He learns music to better his life as much for them as for himself.

This is a touching book about loyalty, friendship, and love. Written in sections meant to reflect the structure of the Indian raag, Amin has captured the story of a coming of age, the tragedies and the triumphs, the growth, the spirit, and the perseverance that make up music and life. Her depiction of rural India is beautifully rendered and very descriptive and her knowledge of music is extensive. Like the raag the story imitates, there is a slow build in the beginning, a joining in of the melody, an increase in tension, and a final breath of completion. Kalu's story contains all the power and strength of the emotion contained in his entire being. Amin's narrative is skilled and evocative and even those who don't understand music will be transported to Kalu's India and the true heart of a small boy forever loyal to those he loves.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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