Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “The Silent Raga”

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Ameen  Merchant

Ameen Merchant

May 2009

Eric Forbes engages Ameen Merchant in a discussion about his poignant début novel, The Silent Raga, an intensely imagined and subtly nuanced exploration of the intricacies of family obligations and sibling relationships.

Good Books Guide, May 23, 2009
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Ameen  Merchant

Ameen Merchant

April 2008

Recently reaching bestseller status in India, The Silent Raga, Ameen Merchant's first novel, is heating up the scene abroad. On tour there in April, Ameen was welcomed by the High Commissioner of Canada, spoke at length with Sunil Sethi and was interviewed by The Hindu, India's national newspaper. Read that interview here.

The Hindu, Apr 6, 2008
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Ameen  Merchant

Ameen Merchant

July 2007

Ameen Merchant is a first-time novelist and author of The Silent Raga, a lyrical book that traces the paths of two sisters from Madras to Bollywood and back. Douglas & McIntyre recently had a chance to sit down with Ameen to chat about Bollywood, Brahmanism and the Beatles.

What inspired you to write The Silent Raga?

In one word: Memory. I wanted to revisit the many influences and experiences of my years in India.

The protagonist Janaki plays the veena. Do you play this or any other Indian musical instrument?

No, I don't.

Janaki's mastery involves a deep understanding of ragas -- the musical scales of Indian classical music. In the story, the raga seems mysterious and exotic—can you describe its fundamental structure?

The fundamental structure is no different from that of Western Classical Music. Seven Notes. There is the upward movement and the downward movement. A Raga is basically a particular ordering of those seven notes. Each order is given a name. Just as the scales have Major and Minor, the Ragas are also differentiated by these two categories.

Is all classical Indian music played within these scales?

In most cases, yes. Musicians have been known to create their own" experimental" ragas. The combination of two ragas, and the resulting "hybrid" is another modern twist. But, in a classical sense, the ragas are the foundation of Indian music.

Do the ragas and the veena have any spiritual connections?

The veena is the musical instrument of the Hindu goddess, Saraswati. She is also the goddess of Arts and Learning. Indian classical music has a distinct devotional component, particularly the Bhakti (Spiritual) tradition. A good many compositions set to specific ragas are also invocations to special gods and goddesses. The work of Saint Poets (lyrics) is also a segment in a vocal/instrumental classical concert.

Can one play the Beatles and Barenaked Ladies on the veena?

Yes. It is a set tune. It may not correspond to a raga, but you can definitely play the tune - bearing in mind that every musical instrument has its own limitations and strengths. You can also play the ragas with western instruments. The famous music group "Shakti" with John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain is a fine example of the crossover possibilities.

I understand Bollywood music often riffs on the raga. What are some examples of classical and modern ragas?

This will take pages. Here one has to be very specific: the ragas are always classical; it is the interpretation of a raga that has modern possibilities. If you decide to step out of the set order of one particular raga, you must also be ready to accept the corruption that comes with it. Bollywood employs ragas selectively. I mean this in an "authentic" sense. In a film with a classical music/dance background/theme you can expect a little more detail in the choice and delivery. However, Bollywood is not always a consistent showcase of the classical arts.

Back to the book, Janaki isn't really liberated from an oppressive existence, is she? Sure, she marries a famous Bollywood star and her live becomes materially comfortable but she has also lost something... Not to mention she is wife "number two." How would your story be interpreted from a feminist perspective?

For starters, there are many "feminisms", each one specific to culture/context/and geography. If there is any activism in the novel, it pertains to the availability of choices, and the consequences/responsibilities that come with choosing. I'd say that Janaki is a strategist with feminist insight. She tries to make the best of the limited choices available to her.

You are a man, and a Muslim, yet you confidently give voice to women within the confines of traditional Brahmin society. Have your own life experiences given you insight into such a reality?

It is a combination of experience, observation and reading. We lived in a Hindu, and predominantly Brahmin, neighbourhood. I learned to speak Tamil before I learned to speak my mother tongue, Urdu.

There is a tradition of writing whole novels about secondary characters who appear in other writers' stories. Jane Urquhart's "Changing Heaven" and Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargossa Sea" come to mind. Any comments?

I have not read the Urquhart novel you mention. If there is an element of writing back to an earlier novel in The Silent Raga, it is very small and tangential. As such, it is not a critique, which was the intent of the Rhys novel.

And lastly, the sections in your novel are titled Varnam, Alaapana, Krithi, Ragam Thaanam Pallavi, Padham, Thillaana, and Mangalam. Evidently these reflect the elements of a raga. To what extent did this imposed structure inform your creative process?

The sections in the novel correspond to the categories during a South Indian (Carnatic) classical concert. It is within these categories that the artiste explores the same or different ragas. The structure is integral to the novel in many ways. Most importantly, it captures the concert of emotions between the two sisters as they prepare for their meeting.

DM Marketing, Jul 22, 2007