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The Rivered Earth

January 14, 2012 Leave a comment

The sad thing about my reading a great book about music or poetry is that although I love reading it I can never fully understand it, and therefore never fully appreciate it, and so no matter how much I like or hate it I can neither trust my judgement of it nor fully articulate my half-formed opinions about it.

This was my problem with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music and is also my problem with his new book, The Rivered Earth. It’s about his collaboration with a composer and a violinist, the first part being memories and interviews, which I understood enough of to laugh/nod at the right places, the second part being the text that was set to music. I *liked* a lot of the latter; can’t honestly say I loved it or that it was particularly memorable or awe-inspiring, but then again, what do I know. I missed Seth’s usual puns and word play – there was such little of that in there. It’s a pity that I read something by such a great writer and look for gimmicks as handrails to his words, but in this case I should totally blame Seth. He’s conditioned his readers to *look* for, as he puts it, puerile puns and ciphers, acrostics and double/triple entredres.

I love his stories about his house. The fact that his house has history and character gives his work more heft – I think knowing his personal choices has given his work that extra shine, at least in my eyes. Where you live is such an incredibly effective way to communicate to the world the kind of person you are, more subtle, more powerful than the clothes you wear and somehow taken so much more seriously by ‘very important people’.

I wonder if I could do it – live in the house of, say, Virginia Woolf? Or maybe in her room. That would be such a delicious irony. But of course, it would force me to confront the madness in my head head-on – and it’s so much nicer to just have that on the fringes of my regular life, forming the fjords of my human-interactions. I like living in my very stable mainland.

Still, going back to the book, I found a lot of the themes pedestrian and the interpretations predictable (a collaboration across time and with influences from different parts of the world is called ‘Confluences’!! It’s as bad as when they named the theater group at our business school ‘Expressions’). The poetry was too often way, way literal even for me, the lover of all things direct. So much so that there was no fun in any of it. This is no Golden Gate.

But you know – the problem is likely with me. Indian classical music has a very different aesthetic from Western music. What is ‘kewl’ and admirable here is very different from what works there. And all my hours spent absorbing dhrupads isn’t going to get me anywhere with understanding this or Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Too bad, because there’s only so much I can glean from a cursory reading of my favorite author’s quickly jotted-off interpretations.

So yes, if you know anything about music, you should totally read this. And maybe explain it to me.

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