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The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

Difficult Loves: First Novel Heavy on Sorrow and Scandal

The focus of The Last Song of Dusk, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's accomplished but uneven first novel, is love. Set in turn-of-the-century India, the book makes a very pragmatic and very severe appraisal of a force that can bring meaning to life yet also great pain. It ponders how love is produced, what it is for, and what is to be done when it alone is not enough. And most important of all it asks: is the best that love can bring worth the worst it will inflict?

The Last Song of Dusk's meandering plot wanders around the marriage of two central lovers, Vardhmann Gandharva and his wife Anuradha. Anuradha is a young 21 when she is introduced to Vardhmann, a doctor over whom women feign illness, saying in seductive tones "Put the metal thing all over me, will you, Doctor?" Despite her age, Anuradha quickly takes the upper hand, disgusting her vegetarian fiancé with three chicken sandwiches and forcing him to prove his valor by overcoming his repulsion to request her hand. Even then, Anuradha declares that she will only marry Vardhmann if he gives her the right side of the bed.

Despite this youthful exuberance and equally strong ardor, things quickly turn. The book is barely 60-pages old before these lovers have lost their son and have been separated by an irredeemably evil stepmother -- it's clear that Vardhmann and Anuradha's marriage will be a difficult one.

What's less clear, however, is where the marriage is headed. Anuradha moves far away into a haunted house (a 19th-century Englishman died there waiting for his beloved) and meets up with Nandini, an artistic teenager who has been hardened by her parents' savage marriage and who describes herself with sayings like "Innocence never reigned. Ignorance did, but not for long." Nandini is a free spirit with awesome powers, a girl to whom walking on water and feasting on pigeons (there was some odd mating a few generations back), are entirely normal.

By the time Vardhmann rejoins his wife, Nandini has caught the eye of the famous Indian painter, Khalil Muratta. Soon the two women are off to Khalil's home so that Nandini can be his muse, and eventually his lover.

And on the plot goes, adding twist and turn, but never quite setting on a single direction. Instead it plays out like a hodgepodge, accumulating and then discarding characters and subplots. Some of these subplots work, as when Nandini touches off a mini-sari craze yet others feel like diversions that distract from the book's narrative drive.

Wisely, Shanghvi has chosen to include many enchanting details, which help to overcome the book's lack of narrative force. There are "flowers with such an aptitude for fragrance that several bees grew dizzy and promptly fainted in midair," "scaly-black crocodiles with calmly malevolent slit-eyes," and "an ashen parrot in a large copper domed cage yelling invectives at the servants like a haggard pimp who has done business with every kind of whore in the trade." This inventive writing keeps the book entertaining and helps smooth out some of the plot's bumps.

With so many delightful details, though, Shanghvi should have allocated a little more creativity to his characters; rarely do they overcome being interesting reproductions of well-worn archetypes. Some of the book's most dramatic moments misfire because a character has simply been too hastily sketched to draw much empathy.

Befitting a book so concerned with love, The Last Song of Dusk brims with passion, but perhaps it is a little overdone. There are more "tumescent" members than can be counted (or held) on one hand and the few times that Shanghvi delves into the detail of an encounter it sounds, as most sex in books must, cheap and boilerplate. I appreciate Shanghvi's desire to demonstrate the sensuality of his lovers but perhaps some things are more powerful when implied, or at least when not stated so often.

Overall, though, The Last Song of Dusk strikes more enchanting notes that stray ones. It is a diverting book full of many small wonders indicative of Shanghvi's talent. Despite its roundabout ways, the plot is original and generally holds attention all the way through. And perhaps best of all, the book combines much that is radiant about India with much that is difficult about love, producing an authentic story that is at times dripping with both pain and wonder. The Last Song of Dusk is a promising first novel.

Arcade Publishing (October 2004), 304 pages
ISBN: 1559707348