Canadian Living: What was your inspiration for this novel?
Ameen Merchant: In the late '70s, a Tamil novel was being serialized in a popular weekly. I read a few pages of the first chapter (I was a dismal student of Tamil, and it would take me hours to read one full page), but I never read the whole novel. In 1997, when I went back to India after seven years in Canada, that bit of the story came back to me. In those first few pages that I’d read years ago, there was a mention of Janaki, the older of the two sisters, running away. There were no reasons given, and I didn’t even know if she came back in the later chapters of the novel. It became one of those nagging things at the back of the mind, and soon it turned into an obsession. I had to find out what happened to Janaki.
I contacted the author and took her out to dinner in Madras. I mentioned the serialized novel from the '70s, and asked her what happened to the character named Janaki. She said she didn’t know, as that character never came back into the story after the first few pages, and the novel was all about the younger sister and her struggle to become a writer! I was devastated. I asked her for a copy of the novel, and she told me it was out of print. I searched all the second hand bookstores in the city, but still didn’t find a copy.
I came back to Vancouver from Madras and started to write what I thought had happened to Janaki.
CL: What is your favourite part of the book and why?
AM: I love the opening for the tone it sets for the entire book. I also like Janaki’s scenes with Zubeida. The link between these moments reveals how far Janaki has walked from those mornings at the milk depot.
CL: What is a raga, and why is it important in the story?
AM: A raga is a scale (the closest technical western classical term), and as such, it can also be song or music. The Silent Raga in the book is a prophecy that keeps repeating itself – in the same words – at different junctures. But that is on a literal level. My own take on the title, The Silent Raga, is that of a love song – sung and unsung.
CL: Are there any characters particularly close to your heart?
AM: Gayatri Chitti is close to my heart. She lives her life without regret. And she lives it fully and unapologetically.
CL: It seems that most novels focusing on female characters are written by women. Why do you think it is? Did you see any contradiction in writing a novel focused on the lives of women?
AM: This is my theory: If you want to really know how good a male author is, pay attention to his women characters. It is not easy for a man to write from a woman’s point of view, and here’s why: Women readers will spot a false note on the second page, and that will be the end of your book. For me, it was a challenge. I did not want to dismiss or disrespect the perceptive and intuitive intelligence of women/readers. I actually wanted to celebrate it.
Page 1 of 2CL: How did you do your research for this novel?
AM: I am not a musician, nor do I play any musical instrument. So the music part of the book took many months to research. I read up everything about the veena and South Indian classical (Carnatic) music. I spent months in India interviewing musicians and scholars. I also read surveys and articles on the subject of Status of Indian Women, and the new role of women in the (huge) Indian middle class. I read all the news stories on “dowry deaths” in the last decade. I haunted the music and mythology sites on the Internet for years. I still do.
CL: Would you consider the book's themes to be feminist? Why or why not?
AM: I am glad you asked me this question because it is something I’ve been very cautious with in the novel. Yes, it would be fair to say that the themes of The Silent Raga do have a certain feminist over/undertone. But I’d also like to stress, and I am sure many of your readers will agree, that there are “feminisms.” An understanding of Anglo-American feminism might not work when put to practice in other geographies; it might even prove to be counterproductive. Hence, before we apply the term “feminism” to the thematic impulses of a work, we have to consider the specifics of culture, economics and class as they relate to women in a particular society. For example, Mrs. Samanta’s understanding of her place and identity would have nothing in common with Gayatri Chitti’s. Zubeida’s philosophy might have a few connecting points with Nalini Miss’s, but even in those instances, the class and exposure divide would be immense. In other words, the feminist “consciousness” of the characters in The Silent Raga is, and can only be rooted in Sripuram, Madras and Bombay. Not Vancouver, London and New York.
CL: How representative is this story of the lives of Indian women both in India and in countries such as Canada?
AM: Only representative Indian women from India and the South Asian diaspora can answer this question. I’ll say this much: I have done everything not to misrepresent them or their lives.
CL: If you were organizing a book club discussion of your novel, what are some questions you would like to see discussed?
AM: a. Are you Mallika or Janaki? Or are you Gayatri Chitti? Why do you identify with a certain character?
b. How do the women in the book negotiate their caste/class status?
c. Although the novel is culture specific, what were the points of cultural connection for you?
d. The novel is divided into first person and third person narratives. Which narrative voice worked for you, and why?
e. Have you been to India? How do you feel about India as a country after reading The Silent Raga? Will you plan a trip?
f. Appa, Asgar, Ted Pope: Have you met them?
CL: What are some authors and books you're inspired by?
AM: When I first arrived in Canada, I walked to a secondhand bookstore on Dunbar in Vancouver. There was a cart of books for $2 at the entrance to the store. I asked the storeowner, “Are there any good Canadian novels in this pile?” He came out and picked three books for me: Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm, Timothy Findley’s The Wars, and Alice Munro’s The Moons of Jupiter. The best Can-Lit immersion I’ve ever had – and all for $6!
Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry are always a joy to read. As a TA, I taught Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Every time I revisit these novels I discover something new in them. When I was in India, I read everything written by Anita Desai, V.S. Naipaul and Nayantara Sahgal. I am always eager for a new work by Richard Ford, Toni Morrison and Peter Carey.
CL: Can you describe your writing process?
AM: I have to know everything in detail – emotional/contextual/expositional – about a particular moment in the narrative, before I attempt to write it out. My working/writing hours are from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., five days a week.
CL: Can you give us a sneak peek into any future projects?
AM: I am working on a novel set during the last decade of the Indian Independence movement (1937-1947). It ‘s about a dancers’ commune, and this time there is a fine Canadian protagonist!
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