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An Equal Music – Vikram Seth

I’ve started a little thing over the last couple of months. Instead of knowing beforehand what I’m going to read next and ordering the book online, I now go to a neighbourhood bookstore and sift through the trove of books they have whenever I’m ready to pick up something new. Buying from a brick and mortar store certainly costs me quite a bit more per book but it’s one of the very few luxuries I afford myself, so I guess it’s not terrible! And it surely enhances the reading experience. Now I get to discover books rather than just order them online.

That is how I picked up ‘An Equal Music’. Vikram Seth was a name I was definitely familiar with but had not ever read. The back cover highlighted how the Daily Telegraph had extolled the book as ‘a brilliant novel’ and the ‘fullest account of a musician’s relationship with his music’. At 470 odd pages, it did seem like a daunting task to read through a book based so much on classical music, but I wasn’t completely fazed and I went ahead and bought it. And it turned out to be beautiful!

Seth talks about a musician living in London named Michael and his love for a woman named Julia. It’s a story of love lost, regained and lost again. The ecstasy and misery of it all. How does one handle that? Can one survive that? Well I didn’t think so but if Seth is to be believed one can. “Music, such music is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness, why hope not to grieve?”, the author says towards the end.

Seth talks about classical music in some detail, about Schubert, about Beethoven, about a string quartet, about tuning down a viola and so on without making it sound dull, even for a reader like me who doesn’t know the first thing about classical music. He makes the reading of these parts enjoyable even. Definitely not tedious!

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Michael sees Julia in a bus across the street in London after 10 years, hurries down from his bus, desperately chases after her, loses her only to have her show up at one of his quartet’s performances soon after. After the briefest of chats she leaves him but Michael finds himself exactly where he was 10 years ago, deeply in love with her. “How would I sleep tonight or even believe all this when I’m all alone?”, he says to himself.

Julia is married now and has a kid. “To love her whom I had never forgotten is inexpensive for me but for her it could be costly indeed”, he thinks. But they both loved each other passionately at one time and passionate love is like that, it doesn’t see reason, it doesn’t follow logic and it doesn’t care about consequences. Like a tidal wave you rise to the moon with no concern for the flood you may cause. Michael and Julia re-kindle their love and throw themselves into it not knowing how it’ll end. Michael pines for all the time she is away. “By day, by night I sink my face into the sheets. I am in all the hours we have ever spent. I am in all the rooms in which we haver ever been”. Beautiful, I thought!!

As fate would have it Julia ends up playing the piano with Michael’s quartet in Vienna, the place where they had originally met, as students of music. She also agrees to go with Michael to Venice soon after, a trip they had planned many years ago. “Ah..fugitive love”, Michael thinks.

The author beautifully describes the time they spend together in Venice. And he also describes well Michael’s despair and desperation when eventually they are back in London and Julia doesn’t want to see him anymore. The dreary long days and nights he goes through. “I turn off the ringer and sit still, hour following hour, listening to nothing, waiting for nothing”.

Though Michael’s love for Julia is a big part of it, but at the end of it all, I think this book is about music in a big way. Classical or any other form, I personally also think that music is one of the most amazing things in life. It is one of the very few things with the ability to cleanse your soul. It can transport you in a second to a different place and a different time. Numerous times a song comes up on my playlist and in a second I’m back in my dorm in Philly or my apartment in NYC, doing the same things I used to do, thinking the same things I used to think. Music is inspiring. It’s uplifting. Music is amazing! And so was this book!!

Published in Reading

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