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Dancing to the Flute

Reading Group Guide

    This reading group guide for Dancing to the Flute includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Manisha Jolie Amin. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


    Kalu, a homeless orphan, survives on odd jobs. in the quiet rural indian village, Kalu has made a home for himself, and also made friends: Bal, a bonded laborer who herds buffalo, and Malti, a servant, who lives at her mistress Ganga Ba’s home. Kalu’s life is forever altered when a vaid, a traveling healer, passes through the small town and overhears the boy producing pure, simple notes from a rolled banyan leaf. impressed by Kalu’s talent and passion for music, the vaid proposes an apprenticeship with his brother, Guruji, a famous musician.  

    Kalu and his young friends grow up apart from one another, yet still connected by bonds of deep affection. When Malti’s arranged marriage reaches a crisis point, and Bal’s struggle to find freedom and independence leads to tragic consequences, Kalu questions his beliefs regarding life and music. he travels the world playing his flute in search of peace and understanding, and only when he finds the right harmony in his raag will he return home to those he loves.  

    Topics & Questions for Discussion 

    1. one of hinduism’s popular deities, Krishna, is often pictured as a cheeky young boy playing the flute, much like Kalu. Krishna’s role in hinduism is to restore dharma, or natural balance, to the earth. in what ways does Kalu work to bring balance to his life and those around him?
    2. Physical touch plays an important role in Kalu’s life. he says, “it was as if he had discovered a secret language communicated by touch rather than words. one Kalu had never learned.” (p.92) Why is Kalu hesitant to share physical contact? What is his initial reaction to those who try to share a physical bond?
    3. Consider the role individual independence plays for each of the characters. how does the desire for independence affect Kalu? is it the same for Malti or Bal? Discuss your answer.
    4. Guruji instructs Kalu to wait before learning to play the flute, and to focus instead on reading and singing. how does this approach shape Kalu?
    5. Doubting the accuracy of a book about plants, Kalu digs up a tree in order to measure its roots and proclaims, “at least i know it was true.” (p.105) how do other characters in Dancing to the Flute seek truth? What kind of truth is Kalu searching for?
    6. The music learned by Kalu in india differs from the classical Western canon as evidenced by the improvised songs, imitation of animal sounds, and emphasis on a free-flowing exploration of mood. When does Kalu use raag to show mood? how does it affect his listeners?
    7. Guruji says that “each raag has a particular time and place.” (p.127) Kalu struggles to learn which raags are appropriate for specific circumstances. at what points in Dancing to the Flute does he match a feeling to a place, finding the right balance for his raag?
    8. in what ways does the narrative mirror the flow of a traditional flute raag? how does the mood change in each section? how did the emotional highs and lows of the writing affect you as you were reading?
    9. Ganga Ba, reluctant to criticize caste, once said, “it didn’t pay to mix things around too much. always more trouble came that way than it was worth.” (p.178) how does Ganga Ba’s attitude about social caste change over the course of the novel? What causes her opinion to change for both Kalu and Malti?
    10. What are the indications of caste in Dancing to the Flute, and how do class distinctions differ from those in the country where you live? how are Malti, Bal, and Kalu constricted by class distinctions?
    11. Discuss the process behind Malti’s arranged marriage. Both parents want specific criteria in a mate. how do Malti’s or Ganga Ba’s criteria differ from those of the parents? What are the pros and cons of such a process?
    12. While both Kalu and the vaid are comfortable constantly traveling, many of the other characters find it hard to venture from home. Why is Malti resistant to leaving hastinapore? Why does Ganga Ba stay, even though her daughter leads a comfortable life in the United states? Why does Guruji remain sequestered in his mountain home?
    13. Bal muses: “You can never go back, Kalu. only forward. if people like us focus on the past, we can never move forward.” (p.163) how is this true for Kalu, Bal, and Malti?

    Enhance Your Book Club

      1. at the beginning of the novel, Kalu buys a box of the traditional indian treat barfi. Try serving this simple delicious cashew fudge at your book club meeting. For a barfi recipe, visit views/Cashew-nut-Fudge-230905.   
    2. Pannalal Ghosh is considered the founding father of modern bansuri flute music. To set the tone for your book club discussion, consider playing his music. To learn more about the famous flautist and to listen to “Pannalal Ghosh Radio,” visit Pannalal+Ghosh or visit for links to music by a range of musicians.   
    3. The banyan tree, the national tree of india, needs warm and mild temperatures year-round. While not native to the United states, banyans are commonly grown as houseplants. Provide banyan tree seeds to your guests to help grow a beautiful and unique tree.

About the Author

Manisha Jolie Amin
Photograph by Maylei Hunt

Manisha Jolie Amin

Manisha Jolie Amin was born in Kenya to Indian parents. Though her family immigrated to Australia when she was a young girl, she grew up listening to her mother tell her and her sister mythical tales about India while her father played the Indian flute. Today, she lives in Sydney, Australia.