Thursday, September 09, 2004


A much-hyped debut from a young Indian writer is a dud

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2004).

The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvi. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. £12.99 ($23.32)

"SHE LOVED MOST the lusciousness of his buttocks, their dimpled circumference, as though God had created them only so she might pull him farther into herself and then muffle her rapturous pleasure as she had, only a few hours back, muffled her anguish."

This sentence isn't, as you might imagine, from a newly discovered novel published by the estate of the late historical-romance pulp novelist Barbara Cartland. It is from the debut novel of Indian-born, 27-year-old Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who is being hailed as the next Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Milan Kundera, depending on which press agent the reviewer has been listening to. It has also nabbed a Betty Trask Award in Britain, for first novels by authors under the age of 35.

Don't believe the hype. The Last Song of Dusk has no redeeming qualities. The book is inundated with purple prose, unconvincing period dialogue and all manner of couplings described in sentences that could occupy the first 20 spots of the British Literary Review's annual "Bad Sex" prize. Nobody in this novel is plain or ordinary, a little bit evil or a little bit good. Every character, by description, is the most beautiful and good or the most evil and hideous. But to the reader, all of them are most annoying.

The novel follows the married life of Anuradha Gandharva, née Patwardhan, a woman so beautiful (and unaware of it) that many young men in the Sonnets Society in her town claim her as their muse. As if that weren't enough, she also sings like a dream, so much so that "even the moon listens."

She marries Vardhaman, a doctor who is also an amazing storyteller. They have a son, who at the ripe old age of 18-or-so months, starts to sing songs of such sweetness that "the canary traders and the patrician widows, the females of flexible morals and the asexual philanthropists, upon gauging the first measure of his bizarrely sweet voice, would rush to the garden of Gandharva's Dwarika house and listen with their eyes closed, and without the slightest drift of concentration."

Inevitably, tragedy interrupts this idyll, and the Gandharvas' lives are never the same again. In steps Anuradha's orphaned cousin, Nandini, who at the age of 14 "was stunning any bloody way you looked at her."

She also walks on water, is an amazing painter and later has sex with man, woman and panther. One can accept all that with a little willing suspension of disbelief--here a very strong act of will indeed. But not even the most willing reader will believe her speech, which is supposed to reflect her English upbringing.

Shangvi has left nothing out of his story, which plunges from high melodrama into farce, skips through the dark passageways and torn bodices of the gothic, with a sickening dose of exoticism and bad writing thrown in along the way. Like a greedy boy given a huge sack of candy, he's snatched at everything--vanilla, coffee, lemon, kiwi, chocolate and peanut butter. The result, as expected, is a bad stomach.