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.

Viking ways


Published on 21 February, 2016 in The Asian Age

The local life in Denmark is quiet and charming, in contrast to the buzzing hub of its capital, Copenhagen, writes Arunima Mazumdar

Vikingespillene i FrederikssundFoto: Wesseltoft 11/2004

Scene from a Viking play

There’s something about summer in Denmark. The sun is imposing, it shines overhead like a big, bright jewel, and yet, at the same time, there’s a nip in the air. Locals while away their days and evenings by the harbour, never tiring of the Danish way of life.

I am sitting by the edge of the sparkling blue waters of the Roskilde Fjord, away from the modern Copenhagen city, watching tourists move around in bundles from point to point, and children prancing about in capes and horned-helmets, dressed as little Vikings. Looking at them, I am reminded of what Mette, our guide here at the Roskilde Ship Museum, had said, “The Vikings never disappeared; they just changed their way of living. Slowly, they stopped being Vikings, had children and had families, and so on and so forth. They are our ancestors.”

Sailing alongside history
Roskilde is known as the Viking city. This is where five original Skuldelev Viking ships were found some five hundred years ago. The king and the bishop, two of the most powerful men in history, who lived here at the time, used these ships to block one of the three major sailing canals to prevent enemy ships sailing into the city. With a population of about a little more than 5,000 people, Roskilde was almost like the capital of Denmark. Much later, in 1962, all of these five Viking ships were excavated around 20 kms off the Roskilde Fjord. These nearly 1,000-year-old vessels now preserved in the Roskilde Ship Museum are proof that apart from being eminent sea warriors and tradesmen, the Vikings were above all experts in boatbuilding.

“The word Viking actually means a pirate, so not everyone would want to consider themselves as a Viking during the Viking period. It’s now cool to refer to oneself as their descendants,” says Mette as I prepare to hop onto one of the replicas of the Viking ships and set sail.

Poetic relics
Known to be outright opportunists, the Vikings made monasteries their main target of loot. Here were men, followers of Christianity and without any weapons guarding over silver. A lot of silver! Imagine how easy it’d be to simply crush over them and steal all their wealth. Ironically, much of what we know about the Vikings is second-hand information. They never wrote about themselves and whatever information we have is from what others recorded. Naturally, their portrayal and interpretation is a bit crooked in the pages of history. But not everything is negative. The museum’s bookshop has a lot of interesting volumes and I am pleased to spot a book on Vikings’ poetry.

According to the book, the Vikings are more renowned for their combat than for poetry, let alone love, but had a keen and overlapping interest in all three. They were known to be cruel and barbaric, but this book by several anonymous contributors has compiled verses written by them. For them, poetry served as a repository of stories about gods and heroes, expressing the ups and downs of daily life.

Village life
Summer days in Denmark are awfully long. There is still time for dusk, so I decide to take a detour to Frederikssund for the annual Vikings Festival in which every summer, hundreds of locals come together and volunteer to put up a traditional Viking play, alongside a huge Viking market with stalls and workshops.

A short bus ride away from Roskilde, Frederikssund is a treat for the eyes. This year’s play is called Hroar and Helge, a tale of two brothers who battle with the enemy king to win back their deceased father’s throne. The play is Danish, but the English scripts provided to us are of great help. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before — extravagant costumes, real horses, fire play, incredible music, and an impeccable performance by 50-odd men, women and children. There’s no better way of getting a taste of local life in a foreign land.

It’s dark enough to retire to the plush quarters of Vesterbro, Copenhagen. En route to my hotel there, I pop into a local microbrewery in Halsnæs Bryghus for a quick beer. “Try our Classens Lise, it’s an American pale ale, flavoured with chamomile and heather honey, and has history behind its name,” I’m told. How so, I ask. “Well, you see, Major-General Johan Frederik Classens founded the towns Frederiksværk and Liseleje; the latter is named after his beautiful stepdaughter, Lise, and the beer is named after her,” he explains. I smile back and request him to bring me the mug of history.

Meet the four books from India in the €25,000-Frank O’Connor Short Story Award longlist


Published on 2 May, 2015 in Scroll.in

Jhumpa Lahiri, who won for ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ in 2008, is the only previous winner with an Indian connection.

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The eleventh edition of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award Longlist has four Indian authors’ works in the running – A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories by Siddhartha Gigoo,Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa by Damodar Mauzo, Passion Flower: Seven Stories of Derangement by Cyrus Mistry, and Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy.

The long list is, well, long. A total of 90 collections of short stories from all over the world are on it. The €25,000 prize is given to “the best collection of stories published in English for the first time anywhere in the world”. Named after the short story writer Frank O’ Connor, it is also currently the world’s richest prize for a short fiction.

The 90-strong list will be whittled down to a shortlist of about 6 books in late May, with an announcement in June. The prize-winner will be revealed in July. Meet the Indians in the fray:

A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, Siddhartha Gigoo
Author Siddhartha Gigoo is having a great year. First, one of his stories – The Umbrella Man – from this won the Asia regional prize in the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Award. And now, the anthology itself has made it to the 2015 Frank O’Connor Short Story Longlist.

The stories are varied, but they follow a shared theme: the inability to control one’s life. A researcher uncovers bizarre secrets about a dying clan, a perfectly normal municipal commissioner suddenly goes mad, two inmates who share a love for chess are unable to escape from a prison even after it is not a prison anymore, and a refugee traverses through time to find a lost friend. Gigoo’s prose is simple and straightforward; he seamlessly weaves in themes of exile, conflict and loneliness into stories that don’t despair but offer slivers of hope.

Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa, Damodar Mauzo
The Sahitya Akademi award winning Konkani author Damodar Mauzo writes about everyday people and their simple lives in Teresa’s Man and Other Stories from Goa. A helpless farmer who must sacrifice his beloved animals to survive through poverty, the parents of a differently abled child and their efforts to put together a normal and embarrassment-free birthday celebration for him, a woman who is forced to concur with the wishes of her husband and mother-in-law, and eleven others.

Translated from Konkani into English by Xavier Cota, the stories bring to light the nature of human relationships that change with time, and the emotions and challenges that give rise to dilemmas of everyday life. Mauzo worked on the collection over several decades and the fiction is set in a Goa of the 1970s, still untouched by commercial tourism.

Passion Flower: Seven Stories of Derangement, Cyrus Mistry
The DSC Prize winning author Cyrus Mistry’s first collection of seven short stories reveals a side of human psyche that is dark and crudely real. Mistry plays with household elements like prejudice, suspicion and insecurity to stitch together stories that seem strangely familiar, as if we’ve all been witness to them before, but have been trying to avoid them all along.

A 34-year-old man whose life changes after he encounters a ghost in the washroom of a public library, a young mother who’s going mad between the demands of a newborn baby and a supposedly cheating husband, a story of two childhood friends who are now rivals at work, a man obsessed with finding everything about an elusive species of Passiflora, and several other tales. Morbid and real, the stories are compelling and precise, just like short fiction is supposed to be.

Don’t Let Him Know, Sandip Roy
Journalist and writer Sandip Roy’s debut book of short fiction is one that revolves around the theme of family and homosexuality. The stories are interconnected to each other and revolve around the lives of the Mitras – Avinash Mitra is a closeted gay man who keeps this fact hidden from his wife, Romola, for the longest time. What he doesn’t know is that Romola is fully aware of his orientation and preferences, but remains silent by choosing to ignore what she knows. Their son Amit later finds out through a decade-old letter the truth about his father. Betrayal is another of the strong themes that hovers like a bad omen and secrets have a life of their own.

Conversation in and about Urdu


Published on 19 September, 2014 in Mint

A series of book reading and discussion sessions, New Urdu Writings begins in the Capital

Among the many casualties of the Partition of 1947, Urdu too has suffered. Many mistakenly believe that Urdu was the language of a particular community only. Urdu has shrunk in importance in India, becoming a language of the ghazal and the musical soirée.

Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil

In an attempt to revive what’s lost, writer and literary historian Rakhshanda Jalil is initiating a monthly book-based series called “New Urdu Writings”, which will focus on fresh writings in Urdu literature. Launched in collaboration with Oxford bookstore and Jalil’s organization Hindustani Awaaz, the series will start in the Capital on 23 September.

“There is more to the language than just ghazal and there is more to the ghazal than shama-parwana-bulbul. I want people to uncover the range of subjects and the eclectic nature of Urdu writings and writers. The idea is to introduce new Urdu literature to the audiences,” says Jalil. The first session of the series will see Jalil moderating a conversation between noted poet Farhat Ehsas and modernist writer and novelist Khalid Jawed, who specializes in magic realism writing in Urdu. The discussion will be centred on Jawed’s new novel, Nematkhana, followed by a reading from the book by writer-artiste Mahmood Farooqui.

Today, the number of people who read Urdu is shrinking and mostly people access Urdu through translations in English or transliterations into the Devnagiri script. But Jalil believes translations are necessary evil. “Much of what we consider world classics have come to us through translations: the Greek epics, the works of Russian masters, the complex stories of Márquez and Proust have all come to us because they were written in other languages. The world of literature would be a lesser place if it were not for translations. Of course, there is an inevitable loss in translation but sometimes the quality of the original work is such that, in the hands of a skilled translator, it soars intact and reaches across to the reader in another language,” she says.

Hindustani Awaaz has been working towards the popularization of Urdu-Hindi culture, language and literature since 2002. With this new series on Urdu writings, Jalil hopes to lift the curtain of neglect, of ignorance and misconceptions about the language.

New Urdu Writings is on 23 September, 6.30pm, at the Oxford Bookstore, Connaught Place, New Delhi. For details, call 9818853266.

Writing wrongs


Published on 27 June, 2014 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Debut author, Deepti Kapoor, on the swagger of male novels and darkness of Delhi

DeeptiBorn in Moradabad, educated in Bahrain, Dehradun and Delhi, Deepti Kapoor worked as a journalist before she left it all behind to live in Goa. She took up yoga and began to write about the Capital, which despaired and inspired her. Intrigued by the city’s aggression, the male gaze and the threat of sexual violence, she reveals the bold escapades of her 20-year-old protagonist, Idha, in A Bad Character (Penguin).

Kapoor speaks about choosing not to write a run-of-the-mill love story and focussing on desire, pain and control. Excerpts from the interview:

Sexual liberation is not tantamount to sexual equality. Do you agree?

I do. Sexual liberation against a background of sexual equality would be ideal, but that’s wishful thinking today. The mirage of sexual liberation is often a tool, simply designed to sell things, made by marketing men, driven by money. In the novel, my character Idha experiences a certain amount of sexual liberation, but that in no way leads to equality, either between her and her boyfriend, or between her and the city/society. In fact, it leads to a kind of domination and more danger. Through sex she may seem to become free, but it leads to a state where she is dominated by him, his gaze, his ideas, and his actions.

What do you think about society’s double standards on sexuality?

It makes me angry and it is one of the greatest problems India faces, though it’s by no means restricted to India; it’s a global issue. Yet, Indian society, in particular, does a wonderful job in harbouring hypocrisy, patriarchy and misogyny. Desirous women are labelled as sinful and wrong. They’re suppressed; they’re declared bad characters. They’re punished for it — get her married off, shame her, kill her. But you can’t kill the desire, can you?

It seemed things were beginning to change after the December 16 gang rape and murder of the paramedic student, but women say it’s worse now. That they have to plan their lives around safety, their public life is reduced, their private life threatened. What I want is to be in control of my own destruction.

a-bad-character-400x400-imadx22z8zypz2s7How realistic is this book?

The city is real. I know all the places in the novel, though their representation is often distorted and amplified, built from memory. The Irish guy in the hotel room in Paharganj is real; I can still see his face. The Israeli cow story is real. Aunty is just an aggregation of the ideas of the Aunty, a necessary, well-meaning, but to the narrator, a suffocating presence.

Are you like your protagonist, Idha?

I wasn’t like her, and yet I was. We have been in the same places and situations, but she isn’t me. She’s perhaps one aspect of me, brought out from a nightmare and magnified.

How easy or difficult was it to put the city’s aggressive character into words without setting a stereotype?

It took a long time to hit upon a style that allowed me to write without simply recounting or complaining about it. Novels by men, about men in the city — regardless of their suffering — have a swagger to them, a certain freedom of the city. They pursue women in their stories, succeed and fail, but she remains the centre of attention. But I wanted to write from a woman’s point of view, the point of view of the pursued.

I decided to combat the city’s aggression by becoming it, by embracing it and owning it, and altering it to my own version of history. The city’s aggression, in terms of writing what goes on in it, was quite easy. I have soaked it up and absorbed it, and it has eaten my insides for many years. All I had to do was close my eyes, open them and write.

Literature was all that mattered


Will there ever be a literature festival devoid of bans on books, protest groups breathing down the neck of speakers, waiting for them to make foot in mouth statements, or perhaps having police guards escorting the calmest of all species such as authors?

As much as I wanted to avoid beginning this article with a question, I couldn’t detach myself from the truth – the sad, sordid state of India’s democratic system, a system that loves boasting its secularity on stage, while conforming to tactics of pleasing religious allies and vote banks behind closed doors.

Originally published in The Times of India

Confronting religion in ‘The Good Muslim’


Book title: The Good Muslim
Author: Tahmima Anam
Publisher: Penguin Books (2011)
Pages: 304

Among the myriad books that deal with Bangladesh’s war of independence in 1971, Tahmima Anam’s ‘The Good Muslim’ is the latest to join the league that questions the legacy of events during and after the war.

Any country that has battled for independence is aware of the severe consequences. In ‘A Golden Age’, Anam’s debut novel of 2007 and part of a planned trilogy, she had chronicled the story of Rehana Haque, a widowed mother who is estranged from her children, Maya and Sohail and her subsequent attempt to reunite the family like old times. However, the country’s political turmoil proves stronger than her challenges as a mother and the presentiments of her children participating in the freedom struggle, unfortunately comes true.

Originally published in The Times of India