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Review: The Song Seekers

Saswati Sengupta’s sprawling debut novel is a mystery story wrapped in a work of historical fiction. But it’s also a scathing indictment of how society uses that all-protective sheath called ‘tradition’ to conduct itself in a manner that is dehumanising and downright violent. Ishan Chaudhuri writes.

books Updated: Mar 30, 2012 19:30 IST

The Song Seekers

Saswati Sengupta

Zubaan

Rs.395 pp 349

Saswati Sengupta’s sprawling debut novel is a mystery story wrapped in a work of historical fiction. But it’s also a scathing indictment of how society uses that all-protective sheath called ‘tradition’ to conduct itself in a manner that is dehumanising and downright violent.

Sengupta sets The Song Seekers in  early 60s Calcutta, a world in transition, yet to fully register the social tectonic shifts already underway. At the heart of the tale is the Chattopadhyay household, whose patriarch Ashutosh manifests his ‘liberal modernity’ by sending his only son Rudra to London for studies and by inviting, “in an iconaclastic reversal of norms”, his son’s prospective bride and her family over to Kailash, the Chattopadhyay residence for generations. Like ‘Tara’ in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and ‘Wuthering Heights’ in Emily Bronte’s novel of the same name, Kailash is a world unto itself and yet, also a hectic microcosm of the world kept at a distance outside. Inside this universe enters Uma, a young woman from Delhi, unfamiliar with the minutiae of a Calcutta zamindar family.

Sengupta spreads the tale out effectively, stitching flashbacks from the family’s past, creating furrows of parallel narratives that echo each other well. But the reader is made immediately aware that this is not a standard, ‘rococco’ historical work in the mould of a Sunil Gangopadhyay novel whose aim is simply to bring the past to life. The book starts with a gut-wrenching murder of a child whose death throes are witnessed by her younger sister. The reader burrows into a tale that begins with the murder of a child bride and whose dark aura becomes palpable as the novel progresses.

Uma plays the role of both a fellow traveller and investigator into the goings-on at Kailash. Uma’s codebook to unravel the Chattopadhyays’ past is the ‘Chandimangal’, an epic narrative written by her husband’s great-grandfather, Neelkantha, a man held in high-esteem as the founder of Kailash.

In all this, the shadowy character of ‘Pishi’ (literally, father's sister), a mysterious green-eyed elderly woman who lives alone in a room at Kailash and with whom Uma grows close, holds the key to the family’s dark past. Sengupta adroitly shows that history is written by those wielding power — in this case, the men of the Chattopadhyay family who, despite their ‘liberal’ tendencies and reputation as bhadraloks, have hidden something ferral and brutal. Think of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code written by a far more nuanced writer, in which a secret of the Church is replaced by that of elite Bengali society. That’s one way of looking at The Song Seekers.

What mars this novel is Sengupta’s overbearing dependence on historical information to tell her story to the reader. The passages on 18th century Calcutta, its mores and its people, then moving down the years to give the reader chunks about the use of the imagery of the Mother Goddess during the swadeshi movement come as obstacles to the narrative. That this heavy-handedness could have been avoided is actually proved by the author herself in passages where she weaves in background on the presence of the Portuguese in Bengal through dialogue rather than discourse.

The running story about caste intertwined with patriarchy is powerful — especially because Sengupta is not bent on giving us plodding history lessons here. The author seems to have been too keen on showcasing her knowledge of Calcutta history — borne out by the unnecessary bibliography at the end of the book — to have stuck to telling an otherwise thrilling story. This blemish apart, The Song Seekers is a powerful novel whose atmospherics as well as story stays in the reader’s head long after one’s done reading it.

Ishan Chaudhuri is a Kolkata-based writer