Humour and keenly observed details inform all seven stories in acclaimed singer Shubha Mudgal’s literary debut Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure, and yet one cannot miss a pervading feeling of loss and heartbreak. The saddest story is perhaps the one of Miss Sargam herself.

Miss Sargam “was a firecracker” – “a lady dressed in a three-piece suit and hat, singing in both male and female voices and mixing pop and classical”, who “gave [up her popularity] and returned to her first love, which was classical music”, and who then retired and gone into oblivion. No one knows where Miss Sargam is anymore, but she returns to the narration through the memories – mostly good – that the characters in the stories have of her.

Mentions of Miss Sargam – a truly intriguing character – appear in four out of the seven stories in the collection, although Miss Sargam does not have even a single story devoted exclusively to her. This irony, perhaps, sums up the theme of most of Mudgal’s stories: Disappointments and failures that can be life-changing.

Ringside view

In “Aman Bol”, the ambitious vice-president of a major media company – “that owned, among hundreds of other assets, the country’s once most prestigious and currently most successful daily” – brings one popular artiste each from India and Pakistan together on the same stage for “a mega event”. What follows is a clash of egos that nearly sabotages the show.

On the billboards, the face of the Indian artiste, Sikandar Sufi, is “just a little larger” than his Pakistani counterpart, Hayaat Ali, because the event is being held in Mumbai, in India. One can sense Mudgal has an inside track on thinly-veiled real life proceedings as she comments on matters ranging like the organisation of such high profile events, music reality shows, and the affected way in which some people from the Hindi-Punjabi belt speak:

“What I wanna say is that I lurrrrve Sikandar Sufi too too much. Minns, I’m his biggest fan I think. And me and my baby and her Daddy, we juss have to, have to, have to get passes for this concert or I will toh die.”

The business of music

Indeed, Mudgal’s vantage point of being one of India’s most well-known contemporary musical stars is evident in all the stories, which revolve not only around music but also around the business of being a musical artiste. Thus, “Foreign Returned” looks at the politics of sending classical artistes on foreign tours.

“For decades, Asavari Apte, Hindustani classical vocalist and teacher from Pune, had longed to bag a ‘foreign’ tour”. Yet, all her efforts at travelling abroad through proper sarkari channels had failed. When Apte finally gets to go to the US, the first foreign tour in her life, with the help of Upendra Oak, “a young and talented Pune-based tabla player” known “for his ability to organise and manage overseas concert tours for vocalists he accompanied”, it is a journey she will not forget. From jet lag, through the accented rendition of Hindustani ragas by NRIs, to a shocking betrayal, Apte endures it all.

Vishwas Saxena, a respected senior classical vocalist from Meerut, the protagonist of “Taan Kaptaan”, is quite like Apte. If Apte longed to go abroad, the “benevolent and cheerful” Saxena longed to prove his worth by becoming one of the organisers of “a nationwide [talent] hunt for the best in classical music.” Manzoor Ahmad “Rehmati”, the harmonium player protagonist of “Manzoor Rehmati”, is like Saxena and Apte too, harbouring dreams of winning a Padma award from the government – an end for which he can give up even a priceless treasure of his.

Dreams and despair

Mudgal excels in presenting details about local life in mofussil India. “Baat suno, aap na, cum-po-jeeshun par concentrate karo – Listen to me, concentrate on composing,” Saxena’s wife advises him in “Taan Kaptaan”, and it is worth noting that Mudgal writes these details in a language, a style, that would have actually been spoken by her characters had they been real.

The engrossing narrations of both “Taan Kaptaan” and “Manzoor Rehmati” lead to heartrending conclusions, presenting the sad outcomes of following one’s dream. “A Farewell to Music”, on the other hand, has an alternative take, a practical one at that. Set in Kolkata, on the premises of India Musica, “the country’s oldest and most influential music company”, “A Farewell to Music” is seen through the eyes of Mrigankomouli “Mrigo” Bhattacharjee, “[t]hirty two…[a] bachelor…MBA from Harvard Business School”, who had “wanted…to be a musician, a sitar player, because he was reared by his parents to love and respect Hindustani classical music.”

Imagine Mrigo’s shock and disappointment, then, when his art aficionado parents themselves oppose his dream of becoming a “shaytar” player because music is not a profitable vocation! Perhaps the funniest story in the collection, the “guzzles” in “A Farewell to Music” will have me laughing for weeks.

In “The Man Who Made Stars”, an established classical vocalist narrowly escapes being exploited by an arrogant and unscrupulous Bollywood film producer who has no regard at all for copyright laws. And in “At the Feet of His Master”, a small-time classical vocalist gets exploited by an EDM duo but, in a thrilling turn of events, it is the exploitation that saves the classical vocalist from an unpleasant consequence.

Shubha Mudgal’s debut is confident and promising. Now all we want in her next book is that Miss Sargam progresses from cameos to protagonist.

Looking for Miss Sargam: Stories of Music and Misadventure, Shubha Mudgal, Speaking Tiger.