Manisha Jolie Amin is the story of how an abandoned boy becomes a man in rural India. When the book opens, this young boy doesn't know his own name or where he came from. Where are his parents? Doesn't anyone miss him? He is left to his own devices. In the small village of Hastinapore, this young boy has found a way to survive. Doing odd jobs for the local businesses and villagers is keeping food in his belly. But he is really just surviving, he isn't really living. He has a passion for music, but it will take a very special person to bring it out of him.
This impressionable young boy eventually finds friends and most importantly a name. Malti, a young servant girl, and her boss, Ganga Ba, become his surrogate family. Thanks to Ganga Ba a formerly nameless boy becomes Kalu. Malti and Bal, a young boy sold into indentured servitude, teach Kalu the true meaning of friendship. Both Malti and Bal know what it feels like to not have family around. Malti's parents love her and are in her life, but her brother Raja is given prominence in the family. Raja is allowed to pursue higher education, while Malti has to earn money for the family. One day Malti will be married to a man of her parents choosing. In the meantime, her happiness isn't important. Bal has a family, but they've sold him into slavery. Bal keeps his head down and does as he is told. A happy and fulfilling life is also very low on the totem pole for Bal.
Kalu, Malti, and Bal are just existing. They seem like forgotten children. They live in the moment. The future is a foreign concept. Kalu worries about where his next meal will come from. He worries that people will reject him now that his injured foot is starting to smell. He doesn't desire to know about life beyond Hastinapore. After hours spent bartering his services for food, Kalu's sole refuge is climbing high into the branches of a banyan tree. Thanks to a makeshift flute, Kalu can sit high above the village and belt out beautiful music. Up in the tree there is nothing for him to worry about. He can just pour his heart out through the music. His musical talents attract the attention of Vaid Dada, a local medicine man/healer. The vaid changes Kalu's life in so many ways.
The vaid offers Kalu a chance to pursue his passion for music by studying with his brother Guruji, a renowned musician. It seems like an easy choice. Kalu has the opportunity to finally learn and escape life as a street kid. But what about Malit and Bal? Is it right for him to want for himself while his friends are left behind. He doesn't want to forget them. He doesn't want to lose their friendship. They can relate to him more than any adult can. But Kalu comes to realize that leaving Hastinapore is the right choice. Kalu transforms from a misguided street kid into a man. He has a voice and the power to be someone great, and all it took was guidance from the right person to bring it out of him.
Kalu is the main character, but I felt the most empathy for Malti. She has to sacrifice herself into a loveless marriage, just so her parents can achieve a higher social standing. Her husband doesn't care what she thinks or does, provided it doesn't embarrass him. I don't want to give too much away, but it takes a lot of marital strife before Malti finds her voice.
Dancing to the Flute give me a deeper understanding of the culture in India. Caste systems still have the power to influence society, and because of that Kalu, Malti, and Bal are afraid to go against what they've been taught. The prose is also very lyrical, which I didn't always like. Sometimes I felt like I missed something or I just wasn't getting the symbolism, so I had to reread some passages. As a whole, the book is very rich in detail and demonstrates how music and friendship have the power to change someone's life for the better.
Rating: Give it a try
Note: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (ATRIA/Simon & Schuster) in exchange for an honest review.