If laughter is the best medicine, music is very close behind.
Publisher: Alma Books
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2013
Kalu doesn’t remember his early childhood. Living on the streets he takes any job he can get and has made several friends of the people who live in the town he found himself in. But Kalu has a gift for music and when he meets a healer who helps him with the wounds on his foot he’s not quite prepared for the offer the healer makes. A famous now-reclusive musician for a brother, the healer knows that he can help Kalu achieve his potential and give him a home. But it’s up to Kalu to decide if it’s for him, and wrapped up in his indecision are all the friends in the town who he would have to leave behind.
Dancing To The Flute is an intriguing novel that focuses on music and the way it changes people, both as a passion/career and a way of helping others in whatever ails them. Looking at Kalu but also involving the stories and lives of others, Amin seeks to provide an introduction to India, its music and culture, and proposes an artistic way of dealing with problems.
Amin writes in an interesting manner that begs inspection. The style is simple, reflecting Kalu’s age and nature, however the writing is not childish in any way. There is magic in it, a flow that makes it easy to read, the very sort that is appealing as a bedtime story – even if the content is not for children. Indeed, in regards to Kalu, there are times when the writing style more aptly describes Kalu and his friends than do the words themselves.
Most of this can be attributed to Amin’s decisions and artistry, but furthering that the writing has a certain atmosphere that ties neatly into the Indian culture presented. The slow pace, the peaceful nature of the writing – music aside – and the way the words drift along match the idea of “Indian time”1 where the pace of life is slower and things may take longer but everything is done well all the same.
There are gaps in time – the book is more a series of scenes than a flowing narrative – and whilst it is not a bad element, it does suggest that the author wanted to speed things up, to get through Kalu’s days quicker and to the end of the book sooner. This makes sense given that Kalu’s days as a student are somewhat monotonous, but it means that it may be hard for the reader to keep up with the changes that come with growing up, and it is hard to keep a hold on what is happening with the other characters, too.
This links in to a problematic aspect of the book, and that is the way the character of Kalu is presented and written. Amin seems to not be sure exactly of who her character is. When Kalu talks it is easy to gain an insight into him, as a child especially, however when Amin goes back to narration what she says confuses the picture and changes Kalu’s personality and feelings. It is difficult to truly immerse yourself when the main character is not developed in this key way, and sometimes there is even cause to wonder whether Kalu is truly passionate about music.
Whilst this issue does happen on occasion to other characters, for the most part they are well drawn and consistent. Malti in particular is a brilliant character, and the way Amin portrays the confident happy girl followed by the quiet sad woman is rather wonderful. Indeed at first it may appear as if Amin has simply changed Malti’s personality to fit the tale, but this is far from the truth. Where the older Malti is concerned, Amin at first denies the reader important information. The author provides clues but doesn’t spell it out until later on, giving the reader a chance to look at things from an outsider perspective before being informed as to the truth. It’s a very interesting method of storytelling and demonstrates just how much care and attention such situations require. Malti’s story is perhaps the best part of the book and whilst it may seem convenient to use Kalu’s gift in solving it, it fits the theme of the book and brings an atmosphere to it that may be puzzling at first but makes sense the more you read.
The book’s strength lies in the message, of music being an aid and of helping others in the way that best suits their needs rather than one’s own. Apart from the general narrative, Amin includes tales from Hindu mythology and people not included in Kalu’s life to further illustrate the power of music and in particularly the power and importance of music in India’s cultures and religions. She uses the famous musician of her story to relay facts about Indian raags at the beginning of each part of the book, and the book itself is thus structured to mirror this musical style. This means that the book does not conform to the usual build up and climax that many books contain, but moves along a different format, so to speak. To be sure there are climaxes but they are included in a way that allows the music to take precedent.
Dancing To The Flute may have its problems, but the music and the way it affects the people in the book make up for a lot. Incorporating Indian words followed by their English counterparts, the novel is a good choice for those who want to learn about language and culture without feeling lost (assuming the reader does not speak any Hindi, of course). The story could have been more developed but the sentiment is there all the same. Dancing To The Flute will appeal to those interested in culture, music, India, and the trials of life.
1 A concept introduced to this reviewer by an Indian, which the reviewer realises may not be used across the board.
I received this book for review from Alma Books.
March 13, 2013, 8:18 am
Very interesting review. India is one of my favorite places, so problems with the storyline aside, I might have to check out this book.
March 13, 2013, 12:52 pm
I really enjoyed this book. I do agree with your assessment of the issues that it has. But I also agree with you that the music/culture/beauty make up for it :)
March 13, 2013, 2:55 pm
Music has always been an important part of my life in one way or another and so, in that respect, this book appeals to me. Also the cultural aspect is quite a draw. I’ve heard mention of this book before and am considering reading it. I do worry that the issues you point out with the characterization will bother me too much as that’s such an important part of my reading of any book. But then, perhaps knowing ahead of time will be enough to make it easier to accept.
Wonderful review, as always, Charlie. Thank you.
March 13, 2013, 4:47 pm
Sounds like a mixed read. I’m not so sure I would like the change in characters personalities I do prefer to really get to know the characters well. On the other hand I am keen to read more about Indian and its culture.
March 13, 2013, 6:20 pm
This does sound interesting. I’ve read quite a few books set in India, my favourites being A Fine Balance and The White Tiger. I like the idea of incorporating music as well, which I’ve rarely seen done well in fiction. I hadn’t heard of this book, so thanks for drawing my attention to it!
March 15, 2013, 1:48 am
I like that this book is about music and its impact on people, though I think its flaws would bother me a bit, too. I do think that music can have a great healing power.
March 19, 2013, 7:28 am
Dear Literary Feline,
Thank you so much for this review and for your honesty. I’m sorry that you didn’t find Kalu all that engaging as a character, but couldn’t help responding, as your review and the responses to it were so interesting!
I’ve had a mixed response to Kalu – some people love him and some just don’t. Funnily enough I’ve also had a different response to Kalu from women and men! The women in my writing group, like you, much preferred Malti and her story – however I’ve had a strong response the other way too! I guess that’s the fun of reading.
You are one of the few people who has noted that sometimes the narrator sees Kalu differently to Kalu himself.
And Chris and Jennifer are correct in that I really wanted to take people to the India I knew and loved. That’s part of the reason that the Indian words aren’t in italics etc. As you know, this is my first novel and I was really interested in the idea of writing a novel that read like the music sounded in my head. At that point I never expected it to be published – so the genesis of the work was as experiment in creating a novel.
Thanks for your feedback and review though. It’s so valuable to hear what readers think, your feedback’s great for my new work too! All the best,
March 24, 2013, 12:24 pm
Chris: There is a lot about India here, including lots of language. It’s also away from the westernisation so you do learn a lot about India itself.
Jennifer: Yes, the methods and ideas Amin includes make up for a lot. I did wonder if she actively decided to make it that way.
Literary Feline: It is good for music lovers, though that said it was my love of music that led me to find Kalu’s lacking. I would say that yes, knowing in advance would help. You’d likely be able to read it with more focus on the music. Thanks!
Jessica: It is a bit weird, and I realise not everyone would agree. There just seemed to be this gap between what Amin said and what Kalu said himself. You will get a fair enough lot of information from the book :)
Andrew: Amin does include music in interesting ways, both usual and original. This did make me consider my thoughts a lot before I wrote the review, because the methods she uses could affect the book in a purposeful way that wouldn’t generally be accepted, so to speak.
Aarti: Yes. It’s going to be different for everyone, of course, but the way music can bring you to tears or delight you is just… yes, amazing.
Manisha: I do find it interesting that people didn’t prefer Malti – because the story you present there is such an important one to tell. The Indian words not being in italics means they feel (at least to me) more integrated into the text; sometimes the use of italics makes it seem like the words could have been edited out without losing anything but the way you worked them in made it natural and inclusive. Best wishes for your next book.