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.

Meet the three Indian writers in the running for the 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize


Published in Scroll.in on 11 April, 2015

Going by the numbers, this year is India’s best chance at winning the prize.

It isn’t often that thee Indian writers feature in a shortlist for an international literary prize. This year, these three writers are competing with 19 others – from 11 different countries, including India – for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

The 2015 edition of the prize attracted a record 4,000-and-off entries. The jury is chaired by Sri Lankan born British author Romesh Gunesekera, the other members being Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela, British-Guyanese poet, novelist and playwright Fred D’ Aguiar, Canadian novelist and short story writer Marina Endicott, the New Zealand-based Maori writer Witi Ihimaera, and Pakistani writer Bina Shah.

Established in 1996, the prize goes to five regional winners, each of whom wins £2,500 and competes for the overall prize, which carries a £5,000 tag. The last Indian winner was Anushka Jasraj, who won one of the regional prizes in 2012 for her short story Radio Story, set in 1939 in Bombay. Meet the three writers who’re in the running this year.

Meenakshi Gautam ChaturvediThe Death of a Valley, Meenakshi Gautam Chaturvedi
Mumbai-based Meenakshi Gautam Chaturvedi is a copywriter by profession and a writer by passion. Her short-story, The Death of a Valley, is an allegory about the problem of terrorism engulfing Kashmir for many years now. “Religions are man-made, highly subjective and open to interpretation,” she said. “Diverse religions are practised in India and these have led to conflicts in society for over decades. But wars and acts of terrorism cannot change basic human values. That’s what I try to highlight in my story.”

Chaturvedi writes across genres. She is also the author of two children’s books – Tales from Bushland, and Tales of Phoolpur. A grudate in zoology from the Institute of Science, Nagpur, she won a UGC Junior Research Fellowship and took up research for two years, but dissecting bats wasn’t really her thing. While in college, she wrote her first piece of fiction, which was published in a local newspaper.  She relocated to Mumbai and began her copywriting career with Lintas.

Having written across varied media – from 30-second television commercials and radio spots to 80,000-word novels, Chaturvedi considers the short story a means to drive a message home directly, unaided by visuals or verbosity.

This is How the Ecosystem Works, Shahnaz HabibShahnaz Habib
“I remember composing a very long poem in my head when I was seven and forgetting it all the next day and realising that things have to be written down. So that’s probably when I began writing,” said Shahnaz Habid, who grew up in Kochi and studied English literature at the Delhi University. Her story, This How the Ecosystem Works, is about a girl who wins a writing competition and how she navigates people’s responses to her. She learns of the loneliness that writing brings and what it’s like to give your stories to the world.

This How the Ecosystem Works is part of a collection of interlinked short stories, set in a village in Kerala, that Habib is currently working on. Each story has its own protagonist and plot, but the collection is about the place – what happens as it turns into a tourist destination. “This is very much the story of many places in Kerala and the rest of India, where tourism is triggering a certain kind of transformation,” she added.

Habib writes both fiction and creative nonfiction, and has mostly been published in literary journals. But the short story holds a special meaning for her. “Short stories are perfectly suited to capture the mini-epiphanies of daily living, the small reversals and renewals here and there that might otherwise go unmarked,” she said.

Besides writing book reviews for the Briefly Noted column of The New Yorker, Habib has also begun translating the a Malayalam novel into English. At present she is a 2015 New York Foundation of Arts Fellow and lives in New York. She is also the founding editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion, and freelances for the United Nations and Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Siddhartha-GigooThe Umbrella Man, Siddhartha Gigoo
Born and raised in Downtown Srinagar, Kashmir, Siddhartha Gigoo was 15 when militancy struck the valley in 1990, forcing his family to migrate to Udhampur, a small town near Jammu. His story,The Umbrella Man, is about a man living in an asylum chancing upon an umbrella and making it his prized possession.

“All he yearns for is rain,” said Gigoo, reluctant to reveal the ending of his story. Short stories, he says, are difficult to write because, unlike a novel, one can’t go on and on. “One has to make the story do everything (and create a wondrous impact for the reader) in not more than three or four pages. But then, writing a novel has its own challenges,” he added.

As a student, Gigoo wrote numerous poems between 1991 and 1994, which were published in two books – Fall and Other Poems and Reflections – by Writers Workshop, Calcutta in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Later, he joined the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi for a masters degree in English literature, and, ironically, lost touch with writing.

“I resumed writing essays, stories, and poems in 2009 and it was then that I wrote my first novel,The Garden of Solitude ,” said Gigoo. “It was set against the backdrop of the militancy in Kashmir and the exodus and exile of the Kashmiri Pandits.” His second book, A Fistful of Earth and Other Stories, a collection of short stories, was released in March.

Between the sheets


Published on 22 March 2014 in BLink – The Hindu Business Line

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay on being an author who could not avoid writing about sex.

“I slipped on the panty. What I did not know was that I actually slipped on a woman. I actually slipped on her womanhood. I slipped on her sexuality, her love,” writes Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay in Panty. Translated into English from Bengali by Arunava Sinha, the book combines two of her previously published novellas, Panty and Hypnosis in a brand new avatar. Her stories, which have offended people in the past are now included in the canon of contemporary Bengali literature.

Bandyopadhyay speaks about her perception of sexual aesthetics and gender politics. Excerpts from the interview:

How difficult was it for you, as an author of erotica, to present fantasies strictly as fantasies?

I believe in the power of fantasy, but there is no such thing as ‘strictly fantasy’ because we are driven by our desires and desires are purely mirrored in our fantasies. Fantasies have tales to tell, which fortunately or unfortunately largely connect to mainstream life. We need the support of reality even for the strangest level of fantasy. When I write about fantasy, I focus on the pain of not experiencing it. Therefore, for a writer, fantasy resembles naive-realism. I don’t even consider myself to be an author of erotica. I am just an author who could not avoid writing about sex.

How did you deal with the criticism that Panty received?

Panty was published in Sharadiya Desh, one of the most prestigious Bengali magazines, in 2006. Even during those days the story was shocking for open-minded Bengali readers who were supposed to have had a lot of exposure to world literature. I faced huge criticism. People said to name a novel Panty was nothing but a gimmick. That graphic description of sex was a cheap way to sell books. But I paid no heed. I was only 31 and was too engrossed in writing about new ideas at the time.

Do you compare your works with contemporary Bengali fiction?

I started getting positive reviews a few years after my initial books — Sankhini and Panty — were published. People began looking at my books as one of the important postmodern novels in Bengali literature. I found out that comparative literature and women studies department of a university uses Panty as a reference of contemporary Bengali literature and young students are reading it and talking about it.

How much does your own sexuality come into play when you write a story?

My sexuality is insignificant in my writings. But I have my own philosophy on sex. I have my own understanding of sexual aesthetics, gender politics, love, and relationships. These ideas influence me when I write.

What do you make of the impact of Fifty Shades of Grey ?

The metaphysical part of Fifty Shades of Grey and Panty might be similar as both belong to the erotica genre, but I think they cannot be compared. To me, the former is more like a modern fairytale, with bits of 21st century western complexity and with BDSM. But our Indian society is far from accepting Fifty Shades of Grey as real. It has only been a few decades since our women have started experiencing freedom from patriarchal ways, so when it comes to sexual freedom, they are still not as tired as women from the western world.