It is the 1980s in Sripuram, Tamizh Nadu. When Janaki, talented in playing the Veena, walks away from her overbearing father and maternal aunt, she leaves behind not only a hard-earned, spotless Brahminical reputation but also her beloved younger sister, Mallika.
Ten years later, Janaki, now Janaki Asgar lives in Mumbai. She receives an unsigned but hardly anonymous letter from her maternal aunt informing her of her father's failing mental faculties and Mallika's financial struggles. Janaki writes to Mallika requesting to meet her in Chennai.
Both letters stir strong emotions for the sisters as each sister braces herself to meet the other. It is through their eyes and alternating narratives, that we piece together the story of their childhood.
We meet the mother, dead but still a silent observer in the form of a garlanded portrait. We meet the bank manager father, Venkatakrishnan, a man who is melodramatic even in his silences. He lives life on his terms, but ensures his daughters are brought up traditionally. Then there are Janaki's friends, Kamala and Revathi, who are as different socially as they are in temparament, but unanimous in their love for music and unconditional affection for Janaki.
We also meet Gayatri, the girls' widowed maternal aunt, who exerts authority over the goings-on in the household. Through Janaki's eyes, we come to realise the motives behind Gayatri's visits. Through Mallika's younger eyes, we see Janaki's gradual assertion of independence. When Janaki leaves Sripuram, we also sense Mallika's fear of having her own wings clipped.
When the sisters finally meet ten years later it is not the misgivings of the past that take centre stage, but the strong bond they share despite a difficult childhood in a dysfunctional family.
Silent Raga captures the social intricacies of Tamizh Brahmin life in an Agraharam (traditional living quarters for the Brahmin community serving the local temple) in small-town Tamizh Nadu. It conveys the conservatism, the thrift, the social mores imposed on young girls of marriageable age as well as the paradoxes that are not spoken about.
The vocabulary is authentic, the detailing is intricate and the protagonists are so well nuanced, that this evocative debut novel reads like a translation from the Tamizh language.
Nominated for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 2008 in the best first book category.
(An edited version appeared in Culturama's February 2011 Issue)