Book review: Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami


Published on 3 June 2017, on Scroll.in

How many times can stories without endings be written?

There’s always an inexplicable sense of anticipation every time a new Haruki Murakami book comes out. Yet again, one dreams, and happily so, of inhabiting a world where cats talk and women disappear without notice; where the real seems unreal, and the meaning of reason is effortlessly lost.

But can every new Murakami pull it off?

Murakami’s newest short story collection, Men Without Women: Stories, released in English translation in May, is, like most of his other works, laden with his signature themes of melancholy, alienation, infidelity, and introspection. Ardent fans will agree that Murakami is a master of open-ended mysteries, and this edition is no different. Dreamlike sequences pregnant with existential fears overpower each of the seven stories.

He takes control of each protagonist’s mind and soul, works his way around their thoughts and actions, and manages to satisfy the reader in his trademark enigmatic fashion. And yet, something is missing.

When she went away

Murakami begins this collection with “Drive My Car”, the story of Kafuku, an ageing actor and his pained withdrawal from all things fun after the sudden death of his wife. But it’s not just her demise that has left him in a state of unwelcome solitude; it’s her numerous secret love affairs that he struggles to comprehend.

In no way does Kafuku attempt to cap the weight of emptiness he feels day in and day out, but somehow he finds himself opening up to his new chauffeur – a young woman whom he appoints to drive his yellow Saab 900 convertible. Her impeccable driving and the absence of unnecessary small talk reassures Kafuku into finding himself comfortably seated in the confessional backseat, recounting the most personal events of his life without having the fear of being judged.

Then there is “Samsa in Love”, Murakami’s role-reversal take on Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, where instead of Gregor Samsa waking up to find himself turned into a roach, the roach wakes up to discover that he is a two-legged, fully-clothed human named Gregor Samsa. The story, however, is more than just about the bug adjusting to being human.

Murakami’s use of a politically loaded backdrop – the Prague Spring of 1968, when freedom of speech and democracy was quelled under the Soviet hegemony – is clever and sharp. And the story offers glimpses of typical Murakami wisdom: “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”

Every story is unique, if not incredible, to say the least, but “Kino” is a sure-shot stand out. The protagonist, Kino, after witnessing his wife’s adultery (he practically walks in on his wife and her lover together in bed) quits his job and takes to living a low-profile life as a bar-owner. “He couldn’t make anyone else happy, and, of course, couldn’t make himself happy…The most he could do was create a place where his heart – devoid now of any depth or weight – could be tethered, to keep it from wandering aimlessly.”

But it’s not just Kino’s ruminations that are appealing, it’s also, in fact, the overall mood that the story creates – a dim backstreet bar, old jazz melodies playing on a loop, a gray cat that has picked a display case to be its sleeping corner, and a returning customer who likes his glass of Scotch and keeps his head dug into a book – that makes the story as delicious as you’d expect.

Nothing like its namesake

The title, Men Without Women, is, of course, borrowed from Ernest Hemingway’s collection of short stories published in 1927. Murakami’s version, however, bears no resemblance to the legendary author and tortured Nobel laureate’s collection, which celebrated the muscular themes of bullfighting and prizefighting, as well as the customary matters of infidelity, divorce and death.

Western art has always influenced Murakami’s works and so, it’s not surprising that he has chosen to employ Hemingway’s famed anthology-title to offers his insights on what it means to be men without women.

“What I wish to convey in this collection is, in a word, isolation, and what it means emotionally. ‘Men Without Women’ is a concrete example of that,” said Murakami to New Yorker.

There are no extraordinary closures here. Men carry on with their glass of single malt accompanying their forlorn lives, women find peace in moving into oblivion, and the obedient jazz record lends musical life to the otherwise odd tales. Somewhat repetitive in places, a tad lacklustre this is Murakami on a slightly off-colour day. He still gets his magic right, but perhaps we’re beginning to sense what’s coming. And that’s not a good thing for a writer of Murakami’s stature.

Book review: Absolutely on Music by Murakami & Ozawa


Published on 7 January on Scroll.in

A series of conversations with a renowned conductor reveals a new facet of Murakami’s writing technique.

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Publishers will publish, bookshops will stockpile, and fans will comply. This is perhaps just one of the pluses of being Haruki Murakami. An idea is all he needs, and in no time there’s a brand new book ready to fly off the shelves.

So, when Murakami decided to record and transcribe his conversations on and about music – a total of six interviews during 2010 and 2011 – with acclaimed conductor Seiji Ozawa into a book, the success of the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Absolutely on Music is a gorgeous volume, detailing a significant facet of what inspires and rules Murakami’s very being – his relationship with music.

Like Murakami in global literature, Ozawa is renowned in the world of classical music. He served as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 29 long years, and was music director for the symphony orchestras of Toronto, San Francisco, and Chicago.

After decades of practising music, a sudden and unfortunate episode of esophageal cancer, followed by major surgery, compelled Ozawa to take a rehabilitation break. This is when Murakami caught his attention. Until then, the writer was just an “anonymous fan” whom Ozawa had heard of from his daughter. And it was only after they spent an afternoon listening to recordings by Glenn Gould and Mitsuko Uchida that Ozawa realised that Murakami “doesn’t just love music, he knows music.”

Not an amateur

That Haruki Murakami owned a jazz club named Peter Cat in Tokyo before he became a phenomenon in the literary world is well-known. But despite being an avid listener and collector of records, and someone who frequents classical concerts and operas, why he almost always identifies himself as a “musical layman” is unexplained. He says he took decades to understand the nuances of the compositions, and still insists that his “technical knowledge of music is limited.”

The truth is that Murakami’s affair with music has been dedicated and disciplined, definitive glimpses of which can be seen in almost all his works. For instance, not only is one of his earlier novels named for The Beatles song Norwegian Wood, Leoš Janáček’s composition Sinfonietta plays a critical role in the epic 1Q84. As Scott Meslow writes, reading Murakami is often like negotiating a playlist.

But Absolutely on Music isn’t just about music – it’s also about comparisons between different recordings and performances from two different perspectives, the expert’s and the outsider’s. Obviously, a firm grasp on the subject is imperative to appreciate the depths of the music being discussed in the book.

Fan moment

In Absolutely on Music, Murakami confesses to being self-conscious in the company of Ozawa. He recalls his visits to Ozawa’s concerts, where he shared a moment or two with the maestro he hugely admired. He avoided talking about musical, because he knew that “Ozawa is the type of person who focuses all his energy on his work, so that when he steps away from it, he needs to take a breather.” This formality gradually faded when Ozawa had time to spare during his rehabilitation, the period when he and Murakami became friends.

As in his fictions, Murakami doesn’t impose his love or understanding of music on the reader – and certainly not on Ozawa – through this book. But it’s certainly interesting to observe how he interprets a certain composition. While Ozawa reminiscences about his early career and narrates anecdotes from his days in 1960s New York, Murakami prompts and prods like a practised interviewer. In fact, his interpretation of Ozawa’s musical lifespan is fascinating to the subject too. At one point Ozawa exclaims, “I’m enjoying talking to you about music like this because your perspective is so different from mine. It’s that difference that has been making it a learning experience for me, something fresh and unexpected.”

Rhyme and reason

Like all musical compositions, Absolutely on Music too pauses for an interlude after every conversation. These are brief, self-aware breaks, interjected deliberately to maintain a rhythm in the narrative.

One such interlude is when Murakami deliberates on the effect of music on the craft of writing. Very lucidly, he explains to Ozawa how rhythm controls the flow of words:

“No one ever taught me to write, and I’ve never made a study of writing techniques. So how did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm. No one’s going to read what you write unless it’s got rhythm. It has to have an inner rhythmic feel that propels the reader forward.”

More than their shared passion for music, Murakami also aspires to draw out similarities between himself and Ozawa. In the Introduction he points out that both he and Ozawa are early risers, who spend those first hours of the day creating art – music and stories respectively. Both are happiest when they’re immersed in their work. And they both share the trait of stubbornness. Murakami’s original motive behind putting this book together is to bring out the ways in which each of them is dedicated to music.

But one can safely say that Murakami’s fans love his trademark eccentric worlds of possibilities rather than certainties, which seem to resemble theirs too. So, it’s hard to imagine Absolutely on Music hitting the same grey zone as his other books, for it digs deep into the technicalities of classical Western music, something that not every reader has their sentiments attached to. Still, because it’s Murakami, there’s still the unexpectedness of magic in this book.

Meet the four Indian writers in the running for 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize


Published on 24 April, 2016 in Scroll.in

Over 4000 entries from across the world were narrowed down to just 26 stories from 11 countries.

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An Indian may have a serious chance of winning, first, the regional 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and then the overall prize. After all, four of the seven entries shortlisted for the Asia region are from India (two are from Pakistan and one, from Bangladesh).

If an Indian does win the regional prize, their story will be one of the five competing for the grand prize. The last Indian winners were Siddhartha Gigoo, who won one of the regional prizes in 2015, and, before him, Anushka Jasraj, who won in 2012.

While the regional winners (£2,500 each) will be announced on May 4, the overall winner (£5,000) of the prize will be announced in June 2016.

The jury this year is chaired by South Africa-born and London-based Gillian Slovo, who has authored 13 books, including five detective novels, a family memoir, and a thriller. The other judges: Helon Habila, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at George Mason University, USA; Pierre J Mejlak, a writer from Malta, who has been living in Belgium since 2004; Olive Senior, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for her first short-story collection, Summer Lightning; Patrick Holland, an Australian writer who grew up working cattle and horses on the western plains of Queensland; and Firdous Azim, a Professor of English at BRAC University and a member of Naripokkho, the woman’s activist group in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Who then are the four new writers from India who have been shortlisted?

Dirty White Strings, Kritika Pandey
Growing up in a traditional middle-class family in Ranchi, Pandey ended up studying engineering even though she had a keen interest in books. Since Ranchi did not have big bookstores for a long time, this was a hindrance to her penchant for reading and writing.

Her first tryst with writing was in the seventh grade, when she wrote a poem on Naxalism. Life changed after she attended the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University, where her training in liberal arts contributed greatly to her work.

Dirty White Strings is Pandey’s attempt to grapple with the idea of love. Having grown up in a family of conservative elders who dismiss the very idea of love marriages, she tries to dissect the word “love” for ordinary, middle-class people. And it’s not just any love. Her story is based in the Kathputli Colony of Delhi, where a 45-year-old puppeteer, who lives from hand to mouth, ends up falling in love with his only daughter.

The reader, Pandey says, may not be entirely comfortable with the protagonist’s situation, but will still find it hard to judge him for the choices he makes.

Pandey finds her inspiration in the works of contemporary writers like Rohinton Mistry, Zadie Smith, Jerry Pinto, Aatish Taser, and Anjum Hasan. She is currently working on a sequence of interconnected short stories.

Girdhar’s Mansion, Sumit Ray
Ray’s parents were in the civil services, and he spent his growing up years in Kolkata, Mumbai, and, most prominently, in Delhi, attending as many as six schools along the way! He studied English at Hindu College, Delhi University and wrote prolifically in spurts – a guide book on Delhi, comics, artist interviews, essays, a short play, and every other form in between.

Girdhar’s Mansion flows out of Ray’s love for South Asian writers till the 1950s, who wrote stories that are social in intent but universal in communication. In this story, Girdhar is a farmer who has come into adulthood after India’s independence, and is trying to keep his family’s dignity intact when a calamity robs them of their means.

South Asian writing, Ray feels, has an incredible impact on readers. There is something very real and yet very provocative about them – the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, Premchand, Banaphool, Ismat Chughtai, UR Ananthamurthy, and Rabindranath Tagore being cases in point. In building his story around a farmer facing personal tragedy, witnessing India’s Independence and the Partition from a distance, and trying to make sense of a world gone haywire, Ray feels his work is not just part of South Asian literature but also a story about South Asia.

Cow and Company, Parashar Kulkarni
From keeping scores on Star Yaar Kalakaar (the TV game show hosted by Farida Jalal) to hanging out on the sets of Movers and Shakers, Kulkarni went on to study commerce at RA Podar College in Matunga. After meandering through a few economics related programmes in New Delhi and Germany, and working at some financial firms and NGOs, he went on to a doctoral programme in politics at New York University.

Cow and Company is about four men in search of a cow. Eventually, they do find one and take her to their office. Kulkarni spends a lot of time in the archives or with archival documents, and his interest in fiction is related to his research. The cow issue in the early twentieth century could have been a go-to for an entrepreneurial politician. Things haven’t changed much over the past 100 years.

Kulkarni likes reading GK Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, F Scott Fitzgerald, PL Deshpande (a short portion of whose work he’s translating), Arundhati Roy, and Premchand.

Instant Karma, Vinayak Varma
Varma moved to Bangalore from Chennai in 2000 to study art, design and filmmaking. Some of his earliest memories of writing are horror/sci-fi stories, which he wrote as a child. After that there were several adolescent years when he would begin and immediately stop work on several series of science-fiction novels. Somewhere in between were a few poems and also some comedy sketches. He took to writing seriously only after having worked a few years as an editor.

Instant Karma is fluffy spiritual comedy told in three parts and a few interludes. While the story, avers Varma, won’t heighten the reader’s sensitivity to the human condition, or reveal deep existential truths about old age and death, it will teach them to temper expectations.

Varma, who is currently working on a novel, has a reading list that includes American comic book writer and cartoonist Ed Brubaker’s entire oeuvre. He admits to having discovered the writings of Dorothy Parker, Robert MacFarlane, Margaret Atwood and Amitav Ghosh a little late in life, and plans to re-read Rafi Zabor, GV Desani, Saul Bellow and OV Vijayan.

OTT and loving it


Published on 12 December, 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

The fifth edition of the Delhi Comic Con brought with it fans, TV stars, socially-conscientious comics and plenty of good vibes

Kristian Nairn takes a selfie of his fans at Delhi Comic Con 2015

Kristian Nairn, aka Hodor, at the Delhi Comic Con. Pic courtesy: Comic Con India

A sunny winter weekend, plenty of excited (and painted) faces, and a zone full of superheroes: Comic Con India returned to the Capital with a bang and left fans wanting more. The NSIC exhibition ground in Okhla buzzed with action last weekend. Fathers carried their toddlers dressed as superheroes, teenagers pranced about as Hogwarts witches and a somewhat lanky, albeit enthusiastic Spiderman posed generously for every fan.

Founded in 2011 by Jatin Varma as an experiment, Comic Con India has grown with every successive edition: this one had more than 250 exhibitors. “Comics and most things nerdy have been a part of my life since I was a child. I’ve grown up reading what everyone else has — Tinkle, Asterix, Tintin, MAD, DC & Marvel — and later went on to lap up every local and international indie comic I could find. There are so many favourites, but if I were to pick one it’d be Superman,” says Varma.

The first edition, held in Delhi, was free and saw more than 10,000 visitors over that weekend. The footfall has grown massively since and keeps increasing each year.

Comic Con now attracts more than 35,000 visitors a day, with an average ticket price of ₹300 at each show.

Celeb showstopper

Northern Irish actor and DJ Kristian Nairn (who portrays the character of Hodor in the blockbuster television series Game of Thrones) stole the show with a jam-packed session on day two of the festival. With season six a few months away, it was clever of the organisers to have one of the GOT characters make an appearance for fans in India, where the audience for content-focused television has grown phenomenally in the past two years.

For the uninitiated, Hodor is a friendly giant, one of the nicest characters on the show, whose defining characteristic is that he can only speak a single word — Hodor. Fans queued up to catch a glimpse of Nairn as he politely dismissed all questions about the forthcoming season, and refused to reveal if Jon Snow was alive or dead. He humbly admitted to not having read any of the books, but hoped that George RR Martin keeps his character alive till the very end.

Nairn agreed that he wasn’t particularly impressed about being offered the role of Hodor. “The guy only said one word ‘Hodor’, which didn’t make any sense. It was crazy,” he said and added it was his mother who convinced him to take it up. It was only gradually that he started falling in love with the character. “The only way to play a part like Hodor is to have that connect. You can’t pretend: it has to be real. And apart from the size, we had a lot in common. I think I am just as nice as he is,” said an amused Nairn.

First-timers

Comic Con provides a platform for creators and publishers to showcase their stories and characters. But while the hero-villain duo of Batman and The Joker, made more popular than ever before thanks to Christopher Nolan’s films, take centre-stage every time, this year’s edition saw other interesting ideas as well.

Sharing space with established comics stars was a superhero called Shabash, who came all the way from Bangladesh with the Dhaka Comic Con team. The Dhaka team was in the Capital with their ‘Beyond Borders’ theme. The aim was to join forces with the rest of the comics world. Founded by Saadi Rahman in 2012, Dhaka Comic Con is Bangladesh’s first-ever official comic book convention. They’re all set to kick off their fourth edition later this week.

Standing out among the crowd was the ‘Share Good Vibes’ stall that sold merchandise with quotes on peace. “There is so much negativity around us these days. Everyone seems to be getting depressed because of so much wrong happening in the world. Our aim is to spread positive vibes and encourage people to become happier and more optimistic,” says Nikhil Sharma, one of the founders.

Books etcetera

Graphic literature has never really received the attention it deserves: not in the past and especially not now, when people prefer to watch a comics-based film or TV show over reading the original book. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Iron Man, The Hulk and Jessica Jones: these characters were born in the pages of Marvel and DC comics. But perhaps it’s less time-consuming to watch TV than to read the pages of a book.

This year, along with the usual fare, there were also some books that featured serious socio-political themes. Cartoonist Sumit Kumar’s book Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari, which was originally published as a webcomic, traces the dark history of the Naxalbari uprising and the Maoist conflict in central India. Ram Devineni’s Priya Shakti features a superhero who is also a rape survivor. Malik Sajad’s Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir is an autobiographical book that mixes history with personal recollections to give an insider’s view of the Kashmir conflict and how it shapes the psyche of a young boy.

So the Comic Con had something for every taste of every reader: from the rippling muscles of American superhero comics to the gritty realism of political graphic novels.

The real challenge, however, is to boost comics sales throughout the year, and it will take several successful Comic Cons to pull that off. But we spotted one diehard reader spending ₹50,000 at a single stall. May his tribe increase and flourish.

Men dance on deathless feet


Published on 5 December 2015 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Celebrating the relevance and genius of WB Yeats, who would have turned 150 this year

yeatsBorn in the summer of 1865 in Dublin, Ireland, William Butler Yeats, who died at age 73, was a man of many interests, many aspirations, and of many talents. He dreamed of shaping Ireland in his own vision and was committed to the idea of Irish independence, both in his literature and life.

This year marks the 150th birth anniversary of Yeats. Numerous events are being held around the world to commemorate the occasion. India too celebrated the ideas of the Nobel Prize-winning poet, especially since he had a spiritual connection with the country.

The India International Centre in New Delhi teamed up with the Irish embassy to celebrate his work through academic lectures, documentary film screenings, readings, and a play.

The auditorium might not have been packed, but every attendee listening to Dr Keith Hopper was a Yeats enthusiast. Hopper — who teaches literature and film studies at Oxford University’s Department for Continuing Education — spoke on Yeats’ interest in India. “Yeats looms over other Irish poets till today and has a tremendous influence on people who’re practising poetry. His agenda of remaking Irish culture was very popular. He put Ireland among the nations of the world. And what makes him all the more special is that everything he ever wrote was read,” he said.

Even though Yeats strove to remake Irish culture, he was never directly involved in the historical revolution, suggested a documentary titled The Mask: Yeats, The Public Man. He worked meticulously for the revival of the Irish language Gaelic, and was considered more important than the political leaders of his time in shaping Ireland’s destiny.

India calling

As a young adult, Yeats was drawn to theosophy. He met Mohini Chatterjee, an Indian theosophist, when he visited Dublin in 1885, and four years later he wrote three poems that referred to India — The Indian to His Love, The Indian Upon God, and Anasuya and Vijaya.

Though he never visited India, the country and its philosophy seeped into his work. Yeats was further influenced by the fourth-century poet and dramatist Kalidasa. He also wrote a poem inspired by the Bhagavad Gita in 1933 titled Mohini Chatterjee. In 1912, he wrote an introduction for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. He was also instrumental in bringing Tagore’s play, The Post Office to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in October 1913.

His prominence in literary circles led him to establish connections with other Indian poets such as Sarojini Naidu and Manmohan Ghose. His relationship with Indian poets was a symbiotic one; he encouraged a young Indian student in Oxford, Govinda Krishna Chettur, to publish his poems in 1922. Chettur dedicated the anthology to Yeats.

Experiments with theatre

Yeats’ greatest theatrical legacy to his country was the Abbey Theatre, which he founded in 1899 with dramatist and theatre manager Isabella Augusta Lady Gregory and Irish playwright Edward Martyn. Yeats was the key founder and lifelong supporter of the Abbey theatre (also known as the National Theatre of Ireland). He also succeeded in establishing the great modern Irish theatrical tradition.

Dr Vinod Bala Sharma, founder of the Delhi-based theatre society Shaw’s Corner, presented Yeats’sPurgatory, a play that the poet wrote a few months before his death in 1939.

The play tells the story of an old man and his 16-year-old son who are the only two living members of a family that has fallen apart. It deals with issues of decline and death. It also reflects Yeats’ interest in this life and the possibilities of the next.

Sharma, a Shauvian scholar, said at the sidelines of the play, “Yeats is better known as a poet than a playwright. I chose to stage Purgatory because there is something very Irish about it… the Irish never see straight. There is an undercurrent of humour, which is not negative, but neither is it positive.”

On his birth anniversary, there is no better way to celebrate the genius and relevance of Yeats than by reading and re-reading one of his many great poems, such as Remorse for Intemperate Speech, where his fanatic heart and silken tongue are on full display.

Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,

But outgrew that school,

Would transform the part,

Fit audience found, but cannot rule

My fanatic heart.

I sought my betters: though in each

Fine manners, liberal speech,

Turn hatred into sport,

Nothing said or done can reach

My fanatic heart,

Out of Ireland have we come.

Great hatred, little room,

Maimed us at the start.

I carry from my mother’s womb

A fanatic heart.

A reader’s guide to the six books in the running for the Muse India Young Writer Award


Published on 22 November, 2015 in Scroll.in

Meant for writers below 35, the award is helping the discovery of many first or second novels.

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Young writers are almost the default mode of Indian publishing in English. That’s why awards for young writers are always a valuable way to discover new fiction. Here are the six writers – and books – in the running for the Muse India–Satish Verma Young Writer Award, which is given to a writer below 35 years of age for producing an outstanding original work in English, or in English translation from any Indian language. This year, all the contenders are books in English.

The Dove’s Lament, Kirthi Jayakumar
Having worked as a volunteer with the UN agencies and collaborations, Kirthi Jayakumar has had a chance to speak to many victims and survivors of wars, conflicts and trafficking. This very experience forms the genesis of her book The Dove’s Lament, a collection of twelve short stories, each of them recording and reflecting on conflict and violence. While one story brings to life the Rwandan Genocide, another laments the Israel-Palestine conflict. From Baccha Baazi in Afghanistan to child marriages in India, and from suicide bombings in Sri Lanka to the drug trade in Colombia – every theatre is familiar and acts as a reminder of the wrongs that we desperately try to ignore.

The Courtesans of Karim Street, Debotri Dhar
Debotri Dhar with her new book The Courtesans of Karim Street challenges the conventional notion of the term courtesan and gives us two strong, intelligent female characters – Megan and Naina – who shine through the course of history, fiction and mystery. Megan Adams, a professor in the US, receives an anonymous letter stating she’s a whore, not a scholar. She enquires about her dead mother’s past and travels all the way to India to find the answers. Here she meets Naina, the daughter of her mother’s friend, who’s undergoing her own set of trials and tribulations. Together they form a bond of sisterly friendship and attempt to resolve matters of the heart and of the past.

Blue: Tales of Reddumone, the Two-Faced, MR Sharan
Twenty-five-year-old MR Sharan’s ultra-modern take on the Ramayana has everyone talking about him. An economist by profession who harbours a fascination for Indian mythology, he has produced a debut work which plays with philosophy while being grounded in realistic politics. Reddumone is clever, loyal and powerful. He is the perfect Lankan spy. Rama is noble, strong and brave. He is the quintessential king. Paired against the backdrop of gruesome civil wars, their friendship endures the test of ideals and mutual respect.

I Do, Do I?, Ruchita Misra, HarperCollins India
What happens when things fall apart suddenly? Story of most of our lives, isn’t it? Ruchita Misra’s I Do, Do I? has Kasturi Shukla in the limelight, a young lady who is all set to marry the man of her dreams and lead the perfect, happily-married life. But life’s never without hurdles – a messy engagement, a moment of indecision, a hopeful mother-in-law, an angry colleague, and so on. In Misra’s own words, “the book is a masala entertainer and full of hearty laughs with a love story that is full of theatrics.”

The Half Mother, Shahnaz Bashir
Shahnaz Bashir’s first novel The Half Mother is set in 1990s Kashmir, and focuses on the involuntary disappearances of young men during the long war. The story spans three generations in Natipora near Srinagar – there’s Ghulam Rasool Joo, his daughter Haleema, and her teenage son Imran. One night, Imran is mistaken for a separatist and picked up by the Army, and so begins Haleema’s search for him. She battles not for her own lonely existence, but for answers about her son. She visits torture camps, jails, and even morgues to find a trace of Imran. She hopes for a sign, a clue, that’ll lead her to him. The valley of Kashmir has so many untold stories; The Half Mother is just one of those.

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey, Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
The story is about a woman named Rupi in Kadamdihi, a Santhal village in Jharkhand, who was once known to be the strongest woman in the village. She is now found bed-ridden, rotting away under the influence of a mysterious disease given to her by Gurubari, the wife of her husband’s best friend. Rumour has it that Gurubari has used witchcraft to ruin Rupi’s health. The novel travels through the life of the Baskey family and unveils notions of good and evil in the village life.

How Benedict Cumberbatch is putting sexy into the world of classic literature


Published on 29 August, 2015 in Scroll.in

Photo Credit: GabboT / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: GabboT / Creative Commons

He became the 21st-century Sherlock. He terrified the audience by lending his voice to Smaug and the Necromancer in The Hobbit series. He was also sensational as the Creature in Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Frankenstein. And just the other day, he was Prince Hamlet at the Barbican in London.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s success can be attributed to a multitude of roles, but his portrayal of literary characters deserves special attention. One of the finest performers around today, Cumberbatch made his debut in acting with Shakespeare’s comic play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He played Titania, the queen of fairies who is made to fall in love with a weaver with a donkey’s head. It’s interesting to note that cross-dressing was a significant feature of Shakespearean plays on the Renaissance stage, where men dressed up as women and vice-versa.

Shakespearean highs

Cumberbatch, of course, may or may not have done it with the same intention. He was 12 and not getting to play the lead role must have been the least of his worries at the time. It was his enthusiasm for Shakespearean plays that landed him roles in several school productions as a student and later, as a professional actor.

He played the ideal lover in two of Shakespeare’s iconic comedies – Demetrius and Orlando in Open Air Theatre’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2001) and As You Like It (2002), respectively. He reproduced the obsessed and timorous love and moral cowardice of Hedda’s second-rate academic of a husband in Henrik Ibsen’s magnificent play Hedda Gabler (2005). He also explored the absurd way of life as the drunkard Berenger in Royal Court Theatre’s rendition of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (2007).

Essentially, Cumberbatch had literature all covered before he took off as the modern Sherlock Holmes in 2010.

Expectations soared – and rightly so – when it was announced that he was to enthral viewers with his portrayal of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s tragic hero in a brand new production scheduled to open at London’s Barbican. The show was set to open on August 5, but with Cumberbatch playing the confused prince, it wasn’t surprising that every single ticket of the performance sold out almost a year ago.

Fans waited with bated breath to see him enact the waves of emotions that Hamlet endures. They expected him to match the magnitude of Hamlet’s numerous outbursts of indecision, anger and audacity. And entertain he did, even though the somewhat lacklustre production struggled to wholly please the critics. The Daily Mail praised him with:

“For his Hamlet in a hoodie was electrifying, a performance that veered from moments of genuinely hilarious comedy to plunge down to the very depths of throat scalding tragedy,”

But The Guardian was clearly not thrilled:

“Cumberbatch, in short, suggests Hamlet’s essential decency. But he might have given us infinitely more, if he were not imprisoned by a dismal production that elevates visual effects above narrative coherence and exploration of character.”

It’s a known fact that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is by far one of the most difficult roles to pull off in the history of stage performances. The melange of drastic emotions paired with as many as 1,480 spoken lines is not child’s play. So it’s a relief that Cumberbatch’s acting prowess is incontestable.

The new-age Sherlock

It goes without saying that his version of Sherlock Holmes for the BBC One series turned the spotlights on him. His career took a mammoth leap of success right after he started solving cases with a panache that was missing in the Sherlock Holmes we know from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books.

In our minds, we’ve imagined Holmes as a brilliant if somewhat eccentric Victorian figure, but Cumberbatch’s revitalised avatar adds fresh and contemporary features, mannerisms, behaviour and responses to the character, which is not a bad thing at all. He brings a style, a bit of spunk, and a whole lot of sexy to the role.

Let’s face it – the detective whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created has survived mostly unchanged in books, films and on television, but the irresistible edge that Cumberbatch lends to the character is something else. Not to mention the fact that his chemistry with Martin Freeman, who plays Dr John Watson, is almost sizzling.

The reimagination of his adventures in the 21st century with heightened action, comedy and drama makes it all the more interesting. There are some glaring dissimilarities between Doyle’s Sherlock and Cumberbatch’s – the eccentricity is much higher in the latter, for instance – which may have contributed to this version of Holmes becoming a global phenomenon.

Voicing Kafka

Benedict Cumberbatch is a man of many talents. From making Smaug and the Necromancer sound terrifyingly real in The Hobbit series, to narrating Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for the BBC Radio 4 Extra in all its seriousness, he seems fittingly suited to lend his voice to literary characters and texts as well. His stint with the audio narration for BBC took place a few years ago, but the series was broadcast only recently, in May 2015.

Kafka’s 1915 novella is revered across the literary world – many consider it the beginning of modern fiction. It is the story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge monstrous vermin. The text is a third person narrative, and Cumberbatch is compelling as he conveys the absurdities of Kafka’s cynical, awkward world.

But if you’re beginning to think that his association with literature is limited to only privileged, grand roles and texts such as these, you’re mistaken. From playing Querry in Graham Green’s A Burnt-Out Case, to Bertie Wooster in P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster and Charles Kinbote in Vladimir Nabakov’s Pale Fire – among many others – Cumberbatch has brought more books, high and low, to life, than most individuals do. And he’s nowhere near done.