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In a beautifully rendered but slight debut novel about the getting of wisdom, an Indian snake charmer struggles to find meaning after he impetuously destroys what he loves most. While Sonalal, the snake charmer, is a fully realized creation, his story may have been better suited for a novella, for it doesn—t, good as it is, quite fill out the more ample contours of a novel. Author Nigam, though, does lyrically evoke the place, Delhi, and the mood—arising from the consuming need to atone and understand--as he tells this story of the most talented snake charmer and musician in all of India. Middle-aged Sonalal is one of the many street artists and beggars who gather at Hamayun’s Tomb in Delhi to entertain or fleece the tourists. One day, to revive a tired Raju, his snake, who had been performing all day, Sonalal plays music that, had it been recorded, might have guaranteed him immortality. Raju responds, but when Sonalal goes on to play a note wrong, the snake stops dancing, and the humiliated musician picks him up and bites him in two. The act makes Sonalal a celebrity and temporarily wealthy, but he’s heartbroken and horrified by what he’s done to his beloved Raju. His wife is a shrew, his children despise him, and only Raju, he believes, understood him. Grieving, despairing of his life, he becomes impotent; he also fears that Raju’s mate is pursuing him. As he searches for answers, Sonalal consults doctors, magicians, and fellow charmers. Then his impotence is cured by Reena, a prostitute whom he loves, and he acquires another snake—even though he never attains with him that moment of godlike perfection he’d shared with Raju. A narrowly averted disaster helps him finally understand that the perfection he had briefly known (—the ether that smelled like a freshly cut mango—) still exists but is hard to attain. A small gem of a story that entertains, moves—and, naturally, charms.

Pub Date: June 9th, 1998
ISBN: 0-688-15809-9
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998