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.

Why writers from Pakistan are looking to publish in India


Published on 9 October on Scroll.in

Indian publishers are readying to bring out a host of books by writers from across the border.

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That India and Pakistan share cultural similarities is not new. What is new, perhaps, is the fact that an increasing number of writers and translators from Pakistan are finding respite and respect with publishers here in India.

It began as a stream with well-known journalists and authors like Raza Rumi, Bilal Tanweer, Saba Imtiaz, Bina Shah, and Musharraf Ali Farooqi, among others, all of them publishing with Indian publishers. Now, the stream has almost become a flood.

A multitude of factors contributes to this increasing number. While some feel Indian publishers understand the nuances of their themes better, others blame the political history (or the lack of it) of Pakistan that has consistently and systematically destroyed the literary culture of the country by not investing in public libraries and shutting down independent presses.

Add to that the emergence of literary agencies in India who are matching Pakistani writers with Indian publishers, and the momentum is evident. Kanishka Gupta of Writers Side alone represents more than 22 Pakistani authors, almost a third of whom were added in the past 12 months.

New books in the offing

Lahore-based social scientist, book critic, and translator Raza Naeem has clinched a three-book deal with Speaking Tiger (to be published in 2017, 2018, 2019).They are all translations: a novella and a collection of long short stories by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, and a novella by Abdullah Hussein. Both Qasmi and Hussein are regarded as giants of 20th century Urdu literature, who are woefully – and shockingly – under-translated.

Haroon Khalid’s third book, Walking with Nanak, is slated for a November 2016 release with Westland. The book describes Khalid’s travels across the length and breadth of Pakistan as he visits the many gurdwaras and other locales associated with Guru Nanak, delving into their history and musing about their place and significance in a Muslim country.

Pakistani columnist Mehr Tarar too has found herself an Indian publisher. Her book, Many Malalas: Ordinary People Fighting for Change in Pakistanwill be published by Aleph sometime in 2017.

Two of Sabyn Javeri’s novels – Nobody Killed Her and Hijabistan ­– are slated for a 2017 release from HarperCollins India’s literary imprint Fourth Estate. While the first is a literary political thriller centred on the assassination of a female politician, the latter is a collection of interlinked short stories exploring the world behind the veil. Then there’s Faiqa Mansad whose debut novel This House of Clay and Water is going to be published by Penguin.

“Publishing in Pakistan is a pretty slipshod business”

Ali Madeeh Hashmi, the grandson of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and the author ofLove and Revolution: Faiz Ahmed Faiz – The Authorized Biography (Rupa, March 2016) recounts his experience dealing with a Pakistani publisher: “Except for one or two (Oxford University Press for one, although they have their own issues), publishing in Pakistan is a pretty slipshod business. The way it works is that you write something (book, poetry, whatever), then go around looking for publishers, begging them to publish it. If one of them does decide to take a chance on you, forget about anything like a contract or money. You’d be lucky if you don’t have to pay them to publish your work. They make the author do all the work – including proof-reading, editing, even composing the manuscript and the cover – and then sell it to make money off it. The author will never see a penny unless you are a big name like Mustansar Hussain Tarar or Amjad Islam Amjad in Lahore. And if you are a first time author with no connections, it’s quite possible that your manuscript will be stolen and published under someone else’s name. You will have no legal recourse since there is no written contract. So, it’s a pretty depressing landscape for authors with little or no incentive to publish locally. We (Faiz Foundation) dug up Faiz’s translations of Iqbal’s Persian poetry from 1977, a rare treasure. I had the whole manuscript re-composed, proof-read and prepared and then we had to pay a local publisher Rs 1 lakh to publish it! It has sold really well of course but we haven’t seen a penny of the royalties.”

No country for picture books and baseless rejections

Karachi-based Ayesha Tariq, author of Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter (Penguin India, 2015) met with many difficulties when she approached publishers back home. “Most books published here are textual and coffee table books require the author to be well-connected (to be able to generate sales). My book required full page printing, which makes it expensive. Secondly, people usually avoid touching upon risky topics to avoid negative results. Since our publishing industry is young, the book to print may not have been financially viable for a lot of publishers.”

Similarly, Haroon Khalid’s first book, A White Trail: Minorities in Pakistan(Westland, 2013) came to be published in India only after an initial and complicated rejection. “I was in talks with a major Pakistani publisher forA White Trail and, as is the convention, I sent them a sample chapter and synopsis. Usually publishers either sign a deal after looking at the initial proposal or reject it, but since I was a first-time author I was asked to submit the whole manuscript. I was told that the manuscript was being vetted internally and would be sent to external experts for feedback. Later, they asked for my resumé. I think that’s where things didn’t work out. After almost a year of reading and re-reading they finally rejected the book without any explanations.”

Khalid doesn’t want to name the publishers, but mentions that they prioritise academic books and even though his book was academically solid and significant, he has been unable to put a finger on why things didn’t work out.

A short (and it cannot be long) survey of recent English erotic writing in India


Published on 29 May 2016 in Scroll.in

erotica

Cinema, television and life itself have raced far ahead of what’s been written under the label.

It was about eleven in the night when a friend called up for a chat. He asked what I was up to and I cheerfully told him about the book of erotic short stories I was reading. He smirked at my response and asked me to “carry on”.

I am not sure what it is about erotic writing that, on the face of it, amuses people. The impulsive tendency to relate it to something perverse is rather strange and I wonder if it’s the doing of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy written by EL James, that has confined erotic literature to a space where it is perceived as kinky, and not beautiful. Of course, a good portion of that perception comes from how comfortable one is when it comes to talking, writing, or reading about sex. But it’s not for nothing that the trilogy sold over 200,000 copies in India which goes on to show that some readers are slowly embracing the genre, albeit shyly.

I don’t have statistics to qualify my point here, but most of the readers I have encountered reading the book – in trains, buses and offices – have been women and the slight smile forming on the corner of their lips appeared to symbolise their fascination and fantasies.

Formula sex writing

Making headlines in the world of book publishing are Sunny Leone’sSweet Dreams and Sweet Dreams Part 2. The former adult film actress has discovered the power of the written word, thanks to Chiki Sarkar’s Juggernaut, which has made her erotic short stories available for download at a most reasonable price of about Rs 6 per story.

Sadly though, the tales aren’t stirring enough. Regular episodes of a home or office situation, a predictable sexual tension building between two characters, some teasing here and there, eventually leading to you-know-what. Leone tries very hard to inject romance and emotion, but it just doesn’t work. Her prose is simplistic and the content is over-focussed on getting the scene right.

The two books are the top-sellers on the Juggernaut app, which helpfully lists the top of its own charts. But they only suggest that sexually stimulating writing is still pornography by another name for many – fortunately, not all – erotica writers. Not that there is anything wrong with pornography, but you don’t neither need the erotica label, nor the packaging of a book, to read as much of it as you want, thanks to the internet.

Sex as liberation

And yet, there were signs that erotic writing in India might have been coming of age, although whether readers are beginning to accept without preconceived expectations and moral judgement is another matter.

Take for instance A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, an anthology of nine short stories by Aranyani, the nom de plume of the Goa-based Amrita Narayanan. Published by the Aleph Book Company in 2013, the stories have women taking the lead, unabashedly expressing and being led by their sexual fervour. The act for them isn’t limited to penetration. Eroticism is synonymous with liberation here, and there are heavy undertones of arousal in ordinary household chores such as chopping and cooking.

These are everyday women and it is a relief to know they’re aware of their appetite for sex, which is not dependent on anything remotely phallic. Aranyani’s tales free themselves of definitive closure and deliberately so, for the purpose of leaving the reader feeling a pleasant kind of heavy is successfully achieved.

Sadly, the book has turned out to be more of an exception than the beginning of a rule. Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s Sita’s Curse: The Language of Desire (2014) did try to take up the cause of the quintessential middle-class Indian housewife and her hush-hush sexual plight. This is traditionally fertile ground for pornographic fantasies, but Kundu’s book managed to hit the right spots and bring sex to the fore, though in an over-cooked and not really liberating manner.

Life or art?

Ultimately, it has to do with the success of the writing in provoking expectation and desire, in reaching out to parts of the body-mind combination that are not usually touched by the mundanity of everyday life, even of everyday sex. Graphic descriptions of checkbox sex are increasingly irrelevant for titillation in a world ruled by free video.

So, if erotica is really an upgrade of the commercial love story, with more explicitly depicted sex thrown in, it falls into the no-person’s land between merely entertaining and deeply affecting and disturbing. Ananth’s Play With Me is an example of a commercially-oriented love story packaged with a racy, narrative generous with sex.

It’s not often that you get to know the genesis of a book. Ananth’s idea started out as a conversation at the time when EL James was ruling the shelves. He said, “This genre was largely untapped, especially in terms of contemporary fiction. I had earlier written two erotic pieces for my own pleasure that I showed to the editors and that’s how the idea for the book got started.”

The question, of course, is, whether erotica is being written for a market or as a form to express an essential aspect of life. Says Ananth, “I didn’t approach the subject reluctantly and there was no back-footed approach to sexuality in the book.” He believes he wrote about pleasure in the context of a romantic – or not – relationship. “This is something that we don’t do in real life – approach the effect of pleasure on love,” he elaborates. “It’s dichotomous and one can’t say at what pleasure crosses overs to love.” But while that might be a fascinating literary approach, more often than not, erotica is commissioned, or accepted, with both eyes set firmly on sales.

To complicate matters, real life sexuality and sexual behaviour in India are far ahead of their literary depiction. It’s edgy, it’s multi-layered, it’s outside conventional moral standards, it’s even radical in many cases. At the same time, it also operates within the conventions of patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of regressive orthodoxy. Capturing any of this is obviously a challenge.

Then there is the question of personal comfort in taking on a theme that isn’t widely written or depicted. There are hindrances and restrictions that we create for ourselves when it comes to talking, reading or writing about bodily pleasures.

Yet, there have been one or two inspiring projects. Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories edited by Ruchir Joshi is one example of a bunch of Indian writers coming together to produce heartbreakingly real stories “about and around the erotic and the sexual.” In the book, Samit Basu writes about passionate seduction and voyeurism (The Wedding Night Or, Bachelor’s Boudoir), Abeer Hoque breaks all barriers of lust (Confessions), Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan puts to rest the curiosity about a man’s perfect first time (The First Time), and Rana Dasgupta unveils action in the swimming pool (Swimming Pool). The anthology has a total of thirteen effortlessly written stories that are provocative and interesting to read.

Perhaps that’s the thing about excellent erotica. It is devoid of boundaries. It is bereft of rules. It may or may not have sex at all. It may or may not have more than one participant. It may or may not have participants of different genders. It is meant to be fluid, powerful and intense. It should not tug only at your heartstrings, but pull at your very being. It should allow you the pleasure of your imagination. And it should satisfy you right upto the very end.

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.

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.

Short stories: why you can love Murakami even without reading his novels


Published on 28 February in Scroll.in

Haruki Murakami’s stories are like soft shadows – the fainter of the footprints he has left behind.

In his introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, an anthology of 26 of his short stories, Haruki Murakami writes, “If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” He doesn’t compare the two forms. In fact, he goes on to say that he enjoys writing both every now and then, and as readers, the least we can do for an author whom we like as much as we do him, is to gracefully accept the strange stories, both long and short, he loves to bewilder us with.

It’s no secret that his books are insanely popular worldwide. They sell more than a million copies at home and are translated into over 40 foreign languages from Japanese. They’re reviewed and mentioned in the most renowned publications of our time, and it’s not for nothing that he is expected to win the Nobel Prize in Literature every year.

But what about his short stories?

So, if one truly reveres Murakami’s works, one must find it next to impossible to ignore the other works of fiction he experiments with. For the best example of these, turn to his three short story collections: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, The Elephant Vanishes, and After the Quake.

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The New Yorker, which has been carrying Murakami’s essays, excerpts, and short stories for years now, as it does of several other acclaimed authors, published his latest story, Kino, recently. It is the story of a man named Kino who, after encountering his wife in bed with his friend, chooses to lead a solitary life by running a humble bar in a quiet neighbourhood. A strange man named Kamita becomes a regular customer, and both Kino and he begin to feel comfortable in each other’s silent company. Things develop and Kamita, amazingly aware that the place is no longer safe for Kino and that something fatal is going to happen, suggests that he go away:

“Here’s what you do. Go far away, and don’t stay in one place for long. And every Monday and Thursday make sure to send a postcard. Then I’ll know you’re O.K.”

Kino is uncertain, but he takes Kamita’s advice and agrees to his terms. He doesn’t challenge the impending catastrophe and is somehow certain of Kamita’s concern (even though he doesn’t know him well) and that he must obey it, lest something bad befalls him. We never get to know the practical details like why the bar wasn’t safe, or who Kamita was after all, but the very nature of intuition is dark and mysterious, and as humans, we’d do anything to escape the fear of the unknown.

First draft novels?

A significant aspect of Murakami’s short stories that any of his fans must be familiar with is that many of them are amplified into his novels. That is to say, there are apparent allusions to the short stories and their characters in his books. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, for example, the protagonist’s trip to a hospital with his cousin is starkly similar to a section in one of Murakami’s earlier novels, Norwegian Wood, where Toru Watanabe recalls a similar trip he took with his friend some years ago.

It isn’t just these references that make Murakami’s short stories worth remembering. Each of them works around a single concept to achieve a level of profundity. The Year of Spaghetti is an utterly frank, to the point of being banal, story of a man obsessed with cooking spaghetti to counter loneliness. The Second Bakery Attack is about redemption and in a way, a tale of coming to terms with prickly guilt.

Samsa in Love is a stunning interpretation in reverse of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; here the ‘monstrous verminous bug’ wakes up to find himself in the human form of Gregor Samsa, and not the other way round. He is attracted to a hunchbacked woman locksmith who visits his house, the reference to the woman being a hunchback being a deliberate contrast to the animal instinct taking root in Samsa, the bug’s heart. It feels like an imaginary prequel to Kafka’s novella. Scheherazade is a modern rendition of the legendary Arabic queen’s story by the same name; besides being a storyteller, she’s a sensuous caretaker in Murakami’s version.

His short stories are as extraordinary as his novels. Of course, it’d be incorrect to say that all his stories are equally incredible, but there are several that stay with you for a long time. Almost involuntarily, on a dull summer afternoon, you may find yourself drawn to a story you had read a long time ago. And at times, while re-reading a story, you’d discover connotations that you overlooked in the first read. But if you need a definitive conclusion or specific closure, sadly, you’ll be waiting forever. As so many of Murakami’s people also seem to do.

Five must-read travel books about India


Published on 7 February, 2015 in Scroll.in

Whether they urge you to visit the places or not, these will surely enlighten you the way no guidebook ever can.

People take to fiction more easily than non-fiction, especially when it comes to books. And amidst the non-fiction spread, it takes a while, even for the “avid reader” who undertakes the annual book-reading challenge on Goodreads, to warm up to literature from the travel genre.

Certainly, there’s no dearth of such books in the retail or online market, but the intuition of readers seems rather tangled. Perhaps it’s easier to pick up a bestseller that everyone’s reading or it’s safe to stick to classics are unlikely to go wrong. But as a result of this, travel literature unwillingly takes a back seat.

In fact, it wouldn’t be inappropriate to say that travel books are usually bought when the reader decides to travel. The book is hurriedly ordered with an intention to prepare for the best and worst of the city or country in question. Whether or not he or she visits the same spots, eats the same food, or stays at the same hotel, is a different matter, because, let’s admit it, everyone sees and experiences things differently.

Travel literature is a tricky genre. Contrary to popular belief, it may or may not urge you to visit the place being written about. Not every description of a sunset or sunrise will make you envious of the writer. And adventure in the real sense of the word could mean anything – signing up for a week-long walking tour of villages in Madhya Pradesh under the scorching summer heat; sharing a compartment with a self-confessed kidnapper on the train to Assam; or prodding into the caste-ridden history of toddy shops in Kerala.

We bring to you five such books written about India, by Indian authors, who’ve mastered the genre of travel writing by making the read not enticing but uniquely gripping in every way possible.

Following Fish – Travels Around the Indian Coast, Samanth Subramanian
From a proud moment of mastering the craft of eating Hilsa in Kolkata, to daring the act of swallowing a murrel live, a notorious tradition that claims to cure asthma in Hyderabad, Subramanian’s discoveries along the coastal states of India are centred on anything and everything that is remotely connected to fish. Nine extremely well-researched essays, made witty by an almost organic sense of humility, narrate his encounters with the aquatic species in many forms – recipes, cultures, religions, superstitions, and the fishing business. His writing follows the wonderful long form narrative, clear and lucid, and is complete with humorous anecdotal facets that probe the lives of people influenced, inspired or affected by fish.

P.S. The book is enlightening enough to please everyone, especially those who squirm at the sight/smell/sound of fish.

If It’s Monday, It Must Be Madurai – A Conducted Tour of India, Srinath Perur
It doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been on a conducted group tour before, but after reading Perur’s book, you might be keen to sign up for one. No, it does not celebrate the idea of itinerated tours with strangers; in fact it does quite the opposite, but in doing so, it quite naturally reveals the intimate ways of people’s lives, at times surprising the reader with perceptive thought bubbles of the reticent author.

Perur’s purpose, on the face of it, may be to encourage a chuckle out of the reader at the description of a bumpy camel safari in Jaisalmer, but the fact that he, bound by the “times we live in”, spoils the moment of overnight camping in the middle of a desert by calling a friend to brag, is an utterly human act that many of us would relate to. Out of ten such introspective and generously entertaining essays, it’d be unfair to pick just one favourite.

Around India in 80 Trains, Monisha Rajesh
Train journeys can be described as exhilarating and frustrating in the same breath, and Rajesh’s book about the ever-so-stubborn functioning of Indian Railways touches flawlessly upon both. Accompanied by her photographer friend, Rajesh set out in the winter of 2009 to train-travel through India.

In between her qualms and complains – from “shitting in zigzags” (in a moving train) to getting squished in the local train from Andheri to Churchgate – you’d also sometimes find her staring through the train window, its corners covered in dust, at the rapidly changing landscape outside. Part-memoir, part-travelogue, the book reveals the tangle of prejudices shared by many Indians, quite interestingly through the eyes of an Indian-origin author.

Hot Tea Across India, Rishad Saam Mehta
Two things unite us Indians like nothing else does – gossip and tea. While the former flows freely whenever there’s some room for conversation, the latter is not too far behind an accompaniment. Mehta’s clever subject – a cup of hot tea found on every highway in India – builds the base of this light-hearted book. There are places and people we’ve faintly heard of but know nothing about, and between countless sips of different kinds of tea, lay the hurdles Mehta braves with a smile on his lips and a Bullet by his side. It’s a feel-good book with everything else in place – the good, the bad, also the ugly.

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana: Travels in Small Town India Pankaj Mishra
Mishra’s focus on twenty small towns and cities of the North, West, South, and East of India makes this book what it is – sincerely remarkable. First published in 1995, it allows a comprehensive glimpse into the minds and lives of certain characters – a businessman from Ambala who appraises the author as a prospective son-in-law, a Jain teenager from Rajkot who uninhibitedly speaks of his hatred for Muslims, a young man from Allahabad who is battling his own reservations against homosexuality. The book opened up stories that we were to confront two decades ago, that we’re confronting even today.

Arunima Mazumdar is a Delhi-based journalist.