It is difficult to capture a sense of The Immortals in one sentence, or even a paragraph. It is a novel about people, in particular three people living in Bombay over a period of around twenty years. It has no story as such. It meanders, perhaps, or sprawls through a fairly bourgeois world with brief glimpses of another kind of India. We follow the everyday struggles of Shyam, Mallika, and Nirmalya, and sometimes there are events, but often we are simply sharing their existence, their thoughts, their conversations and aspirations.
Shyam’s dead father was a famous singer. Shyam has a beautiful voice himself, but never as good as his father’s. He teaches the rich and the bourgeouis, those who can pay him, who have a willingness to learn ragas, ghazals and bhajans. He is a patient teacher, respected. We gather that he has a different kind of teacher-student relationship then most gurus, that not all of the customs of such a relationship are shown.
He teaches Mallika. She is Bengali and finds it hard to sing Hindi songs. She has an old fashioned voice, not the girl-like timbre that is popular, but one which still mesmerises people when she sings. She could have been famous perhaps, but devotes herself to her duties to her husband, ‘married happily to a successful man, moving about in sparkling, if occasionally vacuous, circles’
Her son, Nirmalya’s story is perhaps the most emotionally interesting, immediate and evocative. At the beginning of the novel he is an anxious boy, afraid of the sea, not keen on parties, and obsesses about small things (a drunk man throwing himself at their car, a photograph of Tutu Nuaga who died when he was 7.) He grows up asking questions about life, music and spirituality. He wanders the streets around the Taj, studies philosophy, and gains a love for Indian classical music, always with an increasing sense of self.
The Immortals is the kind of novel that will appeal to each reader in a different way, some might be drawn to the music; how it exists in their lives as an art, an occupation, a dream. Music inhabits every page of this novel, just as ‘The raga contained the land within it – its seasons, its times of day, its birdcall, its clouds and heat.’ Music as art is explored in-depth and with passion in this novel, especially from Nirmalya’s point of view.
Other readers might be drawn into ideas around how we reconcile the need for commerce, money and livelihood, with a love and passion for music and art. Mallika almost separates these aspects of her life, abandons art for the lifestyle and status she gains through her husband. Shyam abandons classical music to pursue what is fashionable, because it makes more money, and he wants to provide a good life for his family. Nirmalya is young and perhaps freer, and distances himself from the corporate parties and the luncheons, so he can devote himself to studying philosophy and classical music, yet ironically it is his father’s status and money that allows him this luxury.
Then there is a sense of another Bombay interrupting their lives from time to time. There are ‘lepers whose noses and fingers are wearing away’, Red Cross volunteers, and ‘grimy men in rags that opened onto bits of skin, who were neither maimed nor blind, only forlorn and nameless.’ Jumna, who works for the Senguptas, lives in a slum. Her husband knocked her front teeth out once, another time he dowsed her in Kerosene and tried to set her on fire. These are cursory details in the novel, but are enough to give a sense of a grimier side of Bombay, one of poverty, disease, and violence; aspects of society that other Indian writers such as Rohinton Mistry explore in much more depth.
The Immortals is a novel that gives beautiful insight into the ‘everyday’ – people stopping at their friends’ houses for drinks or food, playing music, travelling to work. It is poetic; capturing the nuances in relationships, making tiny character observations, and conveying a sense of music embedded in prose.
If you like plot to drive a novel forward, or if you want events and action, then you might find this novel difficult. The narrative wanders through characters’ lives, at times without any clear purpose. It progresses at its slow pace, life perhaps getting slightly different or better.
It is a novel to relax into, without having expectations. Enjoy the beautiful language, experience the lives of characters as they meander through life, and perhaps there will be some kind of shift in understanding, an increased awareness of music or simply you will reach the end and think, ‘that was a really thought-provoking book.’
Any Cop?: If you like meandering character-driven plots, prose with poetic insight, and Indian culture, then this is a book you might love.