The Last Song of Dusk, By Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi

What Is It?

A fairy tale story between two wonderful characters – Vardhamaan and Anuradha Patwardhan, this debut novel by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi is a journey filled with passion, laughter, sorrow, hope, love and longing. But unfortunately, like all fairy tales, life interrupts and the couple’s perfect union is blighted by the hatred of Vardhamaan’s cruel and ferocious stepmother Divi-bai {who is always accompanied by her verbal malevolent parrot} and the death of their young son Mohan {who was a child of mythic good looks} —a misfortune that seems to confirm the sentiments of the melancholy “song of dusk” the Patwardhan women are fated to suffer during their lifetime.

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Shanghvi then shifts the story to Dariya Mahal, a mansion located on a beach in Bombay. The initial owner of the place had died from heartbreak and it is here that Vardhamaan and Anuradha, tried to reconstruct their life after losing their son. Enter Nandini Hariharan, who is the teenaged distant cousin of Anuradha. Seductive and gorgeous, she is a self taught painter who is irresistible to the opposite sex and self-assured in her skills, which eventually helps her to gain connections with some of the biggest names in the artistic and social worlds of Bombay.

Eventually, Anuradha bears a second son, Shloka, a physically perfect child whose slow speech ironically foreshadows Vardhamaan’s unexplained withdrawal from her. But as Shloka grows in language, love, and eventual independence, it validates the legacy of Dariya Mahal, which is almost a virtual character in the book and parallels Nandini’s liberation from her own inner demons. Intrigued enough to pick up the book yet?

The Bigger Picture

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Well here is a confession. For me prose supersedes the story, which is to say that if I am not liking the story but the prose is magical, chances of me completing the book are still high. And this book has some truly amazing and intriguing prose. I had rolled my eyes when I had read that the reviewers compared his writing to that of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy. But boy, Shanghvi nails it- making the writing of The Last Song Of Dusk arguably more accessible than the works of the other two writers. In fact, Shanghvi has managed to bring a tale so fresh in its approach, and so vivid in detail that it is difficult to believe a 27 year old wrote this one with so much maturity, simplicity and beauty.

Just a few of my absolute favourites.

How transient the brilliant flames of Joy are. 

She stood there for a moment, heard time drip from the arrows of the clock, felt the lines on her palm change course, and knew it was perfectly possible to live even if you didn’t breathe for a long, long time. 

He said he would teach me how to waltz. There were times when he would hold me and I could just let go. Because I was convinced he would always hold on. 

He wishes to tell her that he now knows what she has know all along ; that one day, this world will burn down from the love it cannot bear. Fire will reduce flesh to bone and bone to ash, ash to smoke, smoke to air : this is how we all will go. Here is when she sings – and at the other end of this evening, he catches her song. The song is whole and wondrous and it alludes the truth that there are small mercies in this life so small that they will break you more easily than the cruelties ever could.

Another place where the author succeeds brilliantly is when he portrays the feelings of his characters. He convinces you that life is a series of tragedies, and while some wait for daybreak, others lose themselves in the darkness itself. Because these characters are so pained, they tend to find healing and acceptance through songs, stories and paintings. In fact, their sorrow and pain are such strong undercurrents that they seem like actual characters in the book. So whether it is the sorrow in their songs, to the pain of losing the people they love, the longing for hope, the sadness of shattered dreams, the lonely childhood or the want to return home, each of these feelings come alive on the pages of the book through these myriad yet vivid characters.

Overall, the logic of the narrative along with the gorgeous atmospheric and verbal trappings make this wonderful novel insistently readable, particularly in its moving final pages, immensely satisfying as well. Highly recommended {there are very few instances where I recommend a book by an Indian writer, so you know this one is special} and I cannot wait to read more of Shanghvi’s work in the future.

Final Verdict

Newsweek calls it “an erotic tale of love and loss, loaded with magical realism.” I could not agree more. It is very sensual, not to be confused with sexual. That being said, as a first novel, The Last Song of Dusk is excellent, achieving a dreamlike surreality that other, more experienced writers strive {and fail} to accomplish and for that reason itself demands a place on your reading list.

Anything Else?

Siddharth Shanghvi wrote this novel when he was twenty-two as a way of dealing with a broken relationship. He soon forgot about the book, but when a friend read this manuscript he insisted that Siddharth show it to an agent and the rest they say is history. Today his work is compared with Marquez and Rushdie. Some things are destined right?

P.S. Shanghvi is quite a good looking author. Just saying.