First-time novelist Ameen Merchant is worried. He's worried about whether his book, the just-published The Silent Raga (Douglas & McIntyre, $32.95), is accessible enough. Over curry and naan, the charming author–born in Bombay in 1964 and living in Vancouver since 1989–says he struggled over "how many people would get the unsaid in this book". As a result, everything "in some roundabout way or indirect way has to be explained or clarified or inserted".
In part this is because Merchant is introducing a world unfamiliar to many western readers: that of middle -class Tamil-speaking Brahmins living in Madras in the 1980s and '90s. Though the setting is not your standard one, neither is it entirely new ground: Janaki and Mallika Venkatakrishnan, the novel's sister protagonists, must find good husbands while the community scrutinizes their every move; in this way, they could be creations of Jane Austen, but with the particular complications of their religion, caste, and class.
Hence the clarifications. "There was this expectation, I think, at some point, that all these things have to be explained," Merchant says of the book's setting and details. "I grew up reading about scones and jam tarts, and I didn't even know what they were. Nobody told me how is a tart different from a jam tart?"
There are no jam tarts in The Silent Raga, but there are madhyama and panchama, which form an important part of the book's foundation. Merchant uses these and the other notes of a traditional raga as the Proustian steppingstones for the memories the sisters recover as they contrast their versions of the past. Merchant chose music as the framework (the book is a kind of concert of retribution and reconciliation) because the Carnatic music of southern India is very much a part of his heroines' lives, and also because of its distinctive emphasis on pitch, which encourages players to bend notes in pursuit of subtle variations. "These are like the microtones," Merchant explains. "You explore them at one sound and see how far you can go within that one sound. The idea was to bring the notes as individual memories to explore the colour, to mine them."
Mining deep metaphoric meaning from music comes naturally to Merchant. When not writing, he works as a programmer for a new channel on CBC's subscription Galaxie network called Chowpatty Beach (it debuts later this month) that focuses on the music of Bollywood; before that, he hosted a two-hour show on UBC's CiTR radio station for a decade introducing Indian music to the Lower Mainland. Back then, it also felt like he was introducing Vancouverites to a world they had never encountered. "I was all sort of very thrilled with the idea that I was actually doing an Indian show, like there was nothing else on the radio [like it], except the occasional Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar. That was a big high at that moment. It lasted for about seven years–then it became an obligation."
As a programmer–and a novelist–Merchant is all about listening for unique voices. In The Silent Raga, the voices he heard were women's. The choice to focus on female characters was an easy one. "When I used to read books by American authors, say Updike or Roth," he says, "I would always think they were wonderful writers and great novelists, but I would always end up finding–maybe it is a limitation of a man–their women characters are always second-rate. Or they are there really to further the plot in some way, but there is absolutely no revelation, no understanding from their point of view, or?any attempt to see”¦from the heroines' point of view.
"Maybe it was the comfort zone for writers, in some ways, not to attempt things that they really didn't know about."