Singing up a storm: Neelum Saran Gour speaks about her new book, Requiem in Raga Janki
Set in twentieth century Allahabad, Neelum Saran Gour’s Requiem in Raga Janki brings into focus the life and times of the Hindustani singer Janki Bai Ilahabaadi.
Talking about the reasons for choosing Janki as her subject, Gour says that in addition to the singer’s intriguing life and the struggles she had to overcome, the author was particularly “struck by the fact that, other than an article here or a paragraph there, in some general survey of the gramophone era, no full-scale book was ever written about Janki, whose story defied all stereotypes associated with stardom.”
Here, Gour talks about the musicality of her narrative, the delicate balance between history and fiction in such literary endeavours, and about Allahabad as a living entity in her book.
Music permeates the very narrative structure of the novel. It's the title itself which paves the way for the musical journey. What was the thought process behind choosing the title?
Okay, think of a story, any story, as a raga. There is a fundamental notation, but the story can be told in so many ways, over and over again, each time differently. This is specially so when we try unravelling our own narratives.There is a series of life-episodes, a dominant mood, but there can be multiple renderings, producing multiple scales and resonances of meaning.
Yes, Hindustani classical music is something I long wanted to write a novel about. Ever since, thirty years back, a reader of an old short story of mine about a vagrant musician, asked me why I hadn’t thought of writing a full-length novel about music. That idea stayed with me and Janki’s story provided that ready format. It’s a requiem because it marks the passing of a great woman artist as well as the passing of an age. It’s a raga because it’s a story not fixed and absolute but fluid and open to re-telling as long as the landmark episodes stay constant.
The narrator very early on declares, "I will tell you what I know of her and also what I guess and imagine." How did that play out in your own writing process, delicately balancing fact with fiction?
That’s imperative when a writer re-figures a historic personality. You’ve got to maintain some basic fidelity to the character whose acquaintance you’ve made through books, letters, diaries, records, photographs, anecdotes. To return to the raga metaphor, this is the established alphabet of notes that you’ve got to follow, the notation of the self that is explored.
However, the terrain is vast, once you’ve traversed the substantial facts, and that’s where the elements of identification and intuition and improvisation come in. The element of play. In music it is called ‘vistaar’ and ‘behlawa’. If it is at all possible for the solid frontiers of personality to melt, it must be made to happen in the act of writing, when the writer, like an actor, becomes the character, enacting the borrowed self in willed self-forgetfulness. It’s in the gaps of known history that this psychological play can occur. That’s what I’ve tried to do.
What research went into Requiem in Raha Janki to make the narrative seem historically authentic?
I read whatever I could find about Janki, her life and times. The magazine narratives, the records in the music world, the history of Hindustani classical music and its mythology, accounts about Akbar Ilahabadi, Gauhar Jaan and the other personalities who appear in my novel, and about India and the world between 1880 and 1934.
I’ve always been fascinated by the rich oral narratives encircling the world of music. I’ve grown up with many of the stories I’ve recounted, having heard them from my father who was deeply into Hindustani classical music. That too was something inviting preservation and revival. Those stories lent themselves effortlessly to my project. I also combed through collections of ‘bandishes’, song compositions that I’ve selectively used where needed in the book.
Allahabad is almost like a living character in the book. How do you see the play with language itself, particularly in Indian writing in English, bringing to life the uniqueness of a culture of a particular place situated at a particular moment?
Yes, Allahabad is a living entity in the novel. I’m glad you met this being. It’s a city that breathes in many languages. There’s Bhojpuri, there’s Avadhi, there’s Urdu, there’s the local dialect called Ahiapuri, and there’s some Braj too in some of the songs. Done in flexible English, each one has a different tonal swing.
The English of the novel moves in different registers of rhythm, from regional miming to period archaic to contemporary informal. The mingling of voices is expressive of a mingling of cultures and classes in a particular phase in the city’s history when Indic, Islamic and European influences, classes and masses, all mingled in a rich confluence to produce a striking cultural texture.
The difficulty of one authentic narrative in a world where story telling forms an important part of life itself is alluded to throughout. Does that perhaps reflect your own views on the impossible objectivity of historical narratives?
Authenticity is at best an approximation. It only premises an absolute truth. It supposes that there exists a compact, causally connected, exclusive and definitive account of something. But the truth of the self is a shifting thing, the ‘actual’ is surrounded by a cloud of the possible, the alternative, the inverse, a sort of penumbra.
So many micro-truths float around the ‘mainstream truths’ of our lives. We free-wheel between our multiple truths and that’s what augments and extends our living. In Janki’s case it’s more specific. She consciously re-writes herself and possibly comes to believe in it too. But the historian of her soul can detect somewhat else beyond it.
Who are the authors whom you love to go back to again and again? Have any shaped your own writing style?
Julian Barnes, Jorge Luis Borges, Alice Munro. And Kipling, Huxley, Greene. Premchand, Rahi Masoom Raza, Bhisham Sahni, Vikram Seth. I’m not sure if there are any identifiable influences on my work. That’s for others to spot.
What are your upcoming writing projects? Are there any genres that you would like to experiment with next?
I’m doing some creative waiting. There’s something beginning to stir. A bunch of long short stories. That’s my favoured genre now. Not quite novella-sized, but longer than the usual short story.
Penguin Random House India, `599.