Here’s a confession. I don’t listen to music much. When I do, it’s western rock, grunge, or the glam rock of the 1980s, sometimes even disco depending on my mood. Never classical music, whether Indian or western.
But I do have some musical sensibilities and I totally identified with the horror and revulsion of Sandeep Solapurkar in the story A Farewell to Music from Shubha Mudgal’s first collection of short stories, Looking for Miss Sargam. When he was confronted with the “music” of the all-girl band called Badass Bandariyas, Solapurkar ran out of the room, presumably to vomit. Assaulted by this kind of “music”, I would have thrown up on the spot.
Hang on, I hear you say. Back up a bit. Did you say Shubha Mudgal? A collection of short stories by Hindustani classical singer Shubha Mudgal? Shubha Mudgal writes books?
Oh yes, she does, though it’s only one book so far — may there be many, many more — and she does it with all the verve, vividity and versatility she displayed when she sang the iconic pop/rock monsoon song Ab Ke Sawan Aise Barse in 1999, the energy of which sent thrills through my veins then and 20 years later, still remain in my head.
I don’t know what prompted Mudgal to write stories and who persuaded her to publish them, but I say a big “thank you very much” to all involved in bringing out Looking for Miss Sargam for the reading public. Not all the seven stories are hilarious — some, in fact, leave you feeling rather sad — but I promise you, every single one provokes at least a smile.
The one story that literally made me ROFL is the aforementioned A Farewell to Music, in which a young man with exquisite sitar skills who has been pushed into the corporate life by his parents and therefore is sunk in a depression, witnesses a meeting between the heads of India’s largest and most classically sound music company that plans to enter the youth market. Mrigo, that depressed young man, has been sent there by his parents in the hope that a corporate career in music will cure his depression. And one brilliantly described encounter with the Badass Bandariyas later, you would certainly believe that it has.
On the other hand, the eponymously titled story of harmonium player Manzoor Rehamati and the extremes of chamchagiri he goes to in his quest for a Padma award is rather gloomy, even though Mudgal’s descriptions of the characters in this story, including Ustad Riwayat Ali Khan, the Hindustani classical vocalist with the power to influence the Padma lists, are beautifully satirical. Not a single person in this story is likeable in any way, but what happens to Manzoor at the end is utterly tragic.
Not at all sad is Aman Bol, in which an Indian artiste and a Pakistani artiste, each as egotistic as the other, perform together for peace. What it takes to get this show together is the subject of the story, and Mudgal’s sly digs at the media corporation behind the show are hysterical.
The most powerful story in this book however, especially given the time we live in, is At the Feet of his Master. I cannot give you a synopsis of this story without giving the whole thing away, but trust me, this will be the one story from this collection to stay with you 20 years on.
Part of the joy of reading Looking for Miss Sargam is the possibility that Mudgal based the stories on real life people and events. So I often found myself wondering if that old disclaimer used with fiction that goes “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental” may actually not be true with this book.
Kushalrani Gulab is a freelance editor and writer who dreams of being a sanyasi by the sea...