What happens when, in a country where making art is a political statement because it is bound to infuriate some group or other, an artist or musician wants to break from tradition to try something new? This is the over-arching theme of Shanta Gokhale's 'Crowfall'. It is also, for those who follow Indian media/news, a very pertinent and immediate issue of the present times, when writers and artists continue to be attacked — verbally and/or physically — for their work. This is not your typical Bombay fiction. It's not about the rags-to-riches lives of "slumdog millionaires", or influenced-by-Bollywood-and-underworld "Shantarams", or family sagas hanging in "a fine balance", or politics-and-religion sagas of "midnight's children", or... well, you get the point. This is the rare story about a group of upper-middle-class friends, and set in the worlds of art, music, and journalism. [Aside: This is not to say that those other books are no good; in fact, they are on my "Best Bombay Books" list too.]
What I like about this poem is that a Parsi poet, Keki N Daruwalla, has taken a significant moment from ancient Indian history, about how the Hindu Emperor Ashoka came to Buddhism, and made it globally relevant. And, he has done it in beautifully-rhythmic iambic pentameter with everyday language and descriptive imagery that stays with you long after you have finished reading. No, this is not a joy-filled poem about puppies, sunshine, and rainbows. But it is a poem that takes a single moment in history and helps us see it with fresh eyes. When a poem expands our thinking and understanding in new ways, it affects us deeper, cognitively and emotionally, than we can ever know.
A novel is a two-way street, in which the labor required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing - I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own hard-won skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer, and the composer gives her.