Abandoned as a young child, Kalu, a cheeky street kid, has against all odds carved out a life for himself in rural India. In the quiet village of Hastinapore, Kalu makes friends: Bal, the solitary buffalo boy, and Malti, a gentle servant girl, who, with her mistress, Ganga Ba, has watched out for Kalu from the first day. Perched high in the branches of a banyan tree, Kalu chooses a leaf, rolls it tightly and, doing what he’s done for as long as he can remember, blows through it. His pure simple notes dance through the air attracting a travelling healer whose interest will change Kalu’s life forever, setting him on a path he would never have dreamed possible, testing his self-belief and his friendships. With all the energy and colour of India and its people, Dancing to the Flute is a magical, heart-warming story of this community’s joys and sorrows, the nature of friendship and the astonishing transformative powers of music.
Author: Manisha Jolie Amin
Length: 352 pages
Source: Copy provided by the publisher
Dancing to the Flute is not the sort of book I would usually buy, but I was pleasantly surprised by it. Kalu, a young orphan boy, has been just about surviving in Hastinapore, but when his foot gets infected, even the odd jobs he was doing before dry up. Climbing a tree with a makeshift flute made out of a leaf, he captures the attention of Vaid Dada, a travelling healer. Drawn in by Kalu’s music, the vaid heals Kalu’s foot, then encourages him to practice more with his flute. Eventually, the vaid offers Kalu a chance to meet Guruji – the vaid’s brother, a reclusive former musician. Although reluctant at first, Guruji warms up to Kalu, and begins to teach him, changing Kalu’s life forever.
As well as following Kalu’s story, we also get to see the lives of his best friends Malti and Bal. Malti is a servant girl who works for Ganga Ba, sending money back to her family to pay for her brother’s education. She is sweet and mild-mannered, and knows that one day she will marry the man her parents select for her. Bal is a young buffalo boy, sold by his family and generally ignored by everyone. The characters were all complex, and I particularly enjoyed the back story of Ganga Ba, one of the supporting characters.
We predominantly follow Kalu’s story as he learns to play his flute and defies the caste system. Living with Guruji in virtual isolation, Kalu learns everything he can about music, whilst also developing socially and emotionally. I liked Kalu, however, for me, Malti had the most impact as a character. You can’t help but want things to work out for her, as she works so hard for her family without a trace of bitterness. Without giving too many spoilers away, her marriage is definitely not the stuff of fairytales, and your heart breaks for her as she has to adapt to her harsh new reality. I felt that Malti grew the most as a character throughout the book.
I enjoyed the plot, although I admit I was lost a few times by flashback scenes/divergence into Hindu lore. For me, even by the end of the book, Kalu’s history was still a little vague. The novel also builds slowly, which I occasionally found frustrating.
Dancing to the Flute is enjoyable, poignant and beautifully brings India to life as you read it. There is a glossary at the end for Indian words included, which took some getting used to but was something that I really loved about the book. There’s not a lot of romance in Dancing to the Flute: romance was definitely in addition to the plot, rather than being the plot, which was great.
I’ll definitely be looking out for more from Manisha Jolie Amin, as Dancing to the Flute was evocatively, vividly, beautifully written. Despite not being a book I would usually pick up, it very impressively managed to draw me in and keep me reading.
Buy it? This is something I’d either buy on a deal or borrow from the library.
In a nutshell: An unusual, beautifully written debut.