Dancing to the Flute

A Novel

About The Book

“Kalu picked up the flute by his side and started to play. The sound was deep and full, as if he were translating his thoughts into music. It stayed in the air like dust floating on the sunlight, and each note held the promise of something not quite spoken but maybe heard in the darkness of a dream.”

 

Abandoned as a young child, Kalu, a cheeky street kid, has carved out a life for himself in rural India. In the quiet village of Hastinapore, Kalu has also found friends: Bal, the solitary boy who tends the local buffaloes, and Malti, a gentle servant girl, who with her mistress, Ganga Ba, has watched over Kalu since he first wandered into the small town.

One day, perched high in the branches of a banyan tree, Kalu chooses a leaf, rolls it tightly, and as he’s done for as long as he can remember, blows through it. His pure, simple notes dance through the air and attract a traveling healer, whose interest will change Kalu’s life forever, setting him on a path he would never have dreamt possible and testing his belief in himself and his sense of identity.

Rich in texture and atmosphere, Dancing to the Flute is a heartwarming story of a community’s joys and sorrows, the transformative powers of music, the many faces of friendship, and a boy’s journey, against all odds, to become a man.

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.


Introduction

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 www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/ 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 www.last.fm/music/ Pannalal+Ghosh or visit manishajolieamin.com 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

Photograph by Maylei Hunt

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.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (February 5, 2013)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451672053

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Raves and Reviews

“Delicate, sometimes meditative and rich with allusions to India’s spirit as expressed through music, the novel offers readers color and culture, poverty and riches, through every sensory perception. A lyrical meditation on love, friendship and finding bliss in destiny."

– Kirkus Reviews

"A novel whose joys are to be found in a slow, sensory build-up."

– Booklist

“Amin weaves a lovely and subtle tale of music’s power and magic, using elements of traditional raag forms as the basis for the novel’s structure. Though primarily an uplifting tale, one in which Kalu makes for a charismatic protagonist despite himself, Amin provides an oft-unseen glimpse of the realities of life in contemporary rural India."

– Publishers Weekly

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