Saturday, 21 March 2015

My new love - Haruki Murakami (and art films)

Being a late laggard has its advantages.  I discover Haruki Murakami thanks to Scheherazade in the New Yorker and am instantly hooked.  The advantage is that there is a great, and big body of work to now savour given how prolific this author has been (writing since the 1980s).

However, Haruki is not everyone’s cup of tea and can be challenging – and perhaps that challenge is the very thing that makes his short stories and novels interesting.

Haruki’s stories can have various effects – right from melancholy, to surprise, regret, an epiphany, nostalgia, interest – the whole panoply of emotions can come through at any point. As you go through them. But the one which is inevitable is a strong desire to discuss this immediately.

Its one of those insights you don’t realize and perhaps because I watch Indian movies, I never realized it. In one of our meetings in the Middle East, one of the seniors a Lebanese was surprised at the data on why a significant number of people went to a movie alone, when the point of going to a movie for her was to discuss it with someone after the movie.  And this was something you didn’t realize as most popular Indian films were simply to be experienced and not intellectualized (‘leave your brain at home’) and discussed heatedly.
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But that’s what makes those stories stand out.  The majority of the hard work has to be done by the reader. There’s just a touch of tantalizing (actually not) tid bits sprinkled around the story, a few dots as you can see – and one needs to connect them and make a picture, sometimes a conjecture as to what really is going on in the story.

Did I add that this is not everyone’s cup of tea?

Years ago Meryl Streep was being interviewed by Oprah after her performance in the movie DOUBT – where Meryl plays the role of the senior nun and takes on Philip Seymour Hoffman on allegations of misconduct.  This was based on a popular play, and both the play and movie are inconclusive nor do they tell us what happened after.

Oprah had a bet with her friend Gayle as to what really happened, and they had differing views. So naturally Oprah, then asks Meryl – what really happened in the story.  And perhaps only Meryl can do this to Oprah (on her show) – that what really happened in the story would have to be what the viewer wants to have or believes has happened in the story. Its all up to the viewer and all up to the reader. Shabana Azmi had a similar conflict when she did broken images, and the playwright Girish Karnad refuses to help her in deciding which character should Shabana empathise more with and let her decide for herself.
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Haruki does not bother even that much.  Most stories there’s sometimes not enough dots – perhaps just a couple scattered, and its hard to draw an image from that.  Sometimes there might be no point.

And boy its hard!!  One of the strong points about his stories are how shorn of judgment, negativity, sarcasm and evil they have in it.  Even when there are shortcomings, someone is being dishonest or wants to lie – it rarely comes out in a bad way, and the author almost apologises for it. 

There is humour – mainly in the irony – and if you know the Japanese, its not what you’d have expected. My brother had years ago fallen in love with Haiku (he has this thing – but he’s an early trialist of everything). He was hooked and penned quite a few – and they were mirthful and ridiculously funny. Even the nonsense poems from Lewis carrol couldn’t hold a candle to them. The thing that he was fascinated was that the Haikus that he’d read would be a couple of simple lines, with a lot of profound deep meanings and layers in it.  Though I couldn’t figure it out. Besides I only read his work, and not the book he’d fallen in love with.  My brother’s attempts were many but one which I can remember was something like”:

The ant walked up the rose petal
..and the ant wept

Yes that’s it.  Upto anyone to dismiss it or consider what it meant and what could it relate to, metaphorically, allegorically etc etc.

But then poetry is a challenge anyway.  But at least to some extent it is clearly established the context and what the poet meant or was interested in.  I was lucky to have some great teachers explaining poetry to me, but not enough for me to become a fan nor start writing them. They only succeeded in helping me appreciate the ones I had to study in school. Alfred Tennyson’s  poem on the brigade and the Elegy are good ones, but the ones I really fell in love were poems by  Gurudev Tagore. The teacher had gone so crazy about the English collection in Gitanjali, he’d taken the trouble to learn Bengali and had even visited Vishwa Bharati univ to discuss this with them.  So when he taught a poem from the collection (which won Tagore the Nobel prize at the beginning of the 20th century) – the teacher would literally transport us into a different world altogether, the mind of Tagore.  I came to believe that somewhere Tagore was lucky enough to experience and see the divine truth. (remarkably none of his poems or works ever talk about the names of the God – and I think that was very very very powerful, and how it is meant to be).

Haruki’s work comes closer to the Haiku but can be even more frustratingly loose and scattered.

What is a guarantee is the fact that there is nothing lost in translation.  And that is the beauty of his work.  He writes in the simplest, most basic descriptive, and clear, direct way that is non-judgemental and shorn of pretence or trying to impress the reader. (I gave up reading Arundhati Roy’s works, I felt it was trying hard – too hard to impress). 

Haruki’s style is deceptively plain and simple, and like one of the literary critics said in his column “do you want to write like Haruki, in as simple a style as his?  Well, dream on…”. Yes, simplicity is the hardest to achieve.

Nothing is lost in translation it is true. But there are a lot of references I cannot place, and one of this is because Haruki has lead a rich life, both in terms of experience and exposure.  I hope to someday get to patiently listen to Jazz as well as the works he keeps quoting – from literature to classical works.  He’s traveled a lot to from remote Greek islands to within Japan, and the entire tapestry comes alive.

But then Haruki is not original, and never claims to be.  Different reviewers claim how his works are modeled on or influenced works by other famous authors – none of whose works I have read. I could only identify two – one was JD Salinger – who is a challenging author to read anyway. And the other is Franz Kafka. My brother (again the pioneer) was very excited as a kid when he first read and completed Kafka’s metamorphosis and was explaining this story to us.  I tried reading it but gave up, and it didn’t interest me anymore, also because I know how the story went.  I remember buying for my brother the entire works of kafka, because I knew he’d like it but certain that I wouldn’t.

Haruki doffs his hat to both of them and makes no bones about them. Theré’s a story where he takes Kafka and continues the metamorphosis – and what a fine piece of writing it is.   I haven’t read the original but fallen in love with the sequel. How rare is that?

Now coming to art films, like poetry its easier when you KNOW what is trying to happen in the movie. In India it is relatively easier as the art film movement would be based on some real issues, and except for some pretenders, most stories would be lucidly explained, and you also knew the source and would be able to understand what's going on.

Not so with films like those by Luc Goddard, where watching them you (or rather me) really couldn’t get what was going on.  You almost want to scream – what was the point of this film? Why did you even bother making this film?  And what the … is going on in this film?

Not so with Haruki’s works, you almost want to savour it. And like someone remarked in the discussion forums – you almost don’t want the story to end, but keep going on forever.  The good thing is his stories are un-predictable.  (read Tony Takitani to understand a WTF moment, but you also might see the irony and actually have a loud laugh – I found it kinda comical).

But then when it came to art films, I was lucky to have a tutor.  When I was a kid there was but one tv station which was a local channel which would run for a few hours every evening, and show a movie every weekend.  Needless to say, practically everyone watched it, and sometimes discussed it. On one of the weeks, we had this lady Mrs K , who was my mom’s friend walk in and discuss the previous weekend’s movie. She had worked in Calcuttat (the intellectual capital as well as the birth centre of art cinema in India). She also was a North Kanara Konkani – who are usually more progressive minded and exposed to and open to arts. (every famous Konkani = from Shobha de, and Guru Dutt, deepika Padukone etc. are from this community). 

Anyway, my mother felt the movie was terrible and she didn’t get what was going on.  This was ‘Griha Pravesh’a movie with just three actors - Sanjeev Kumar,  Sharmila Tagore and Sarika.  Sarika is the colleague who Sanjeev kumar is having an affair with, and decides to get married to her. My mom said she couldn’t figure out how the movie ends nor what was the point of the entire film.
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This was enough trigger for Mrs. K to then start exclaiming how wonderful this movie was for her, and what an outstanding piece of narration Basu Bhattacharya had done.  She started explaining (SPOILER ALERT – don’t read on if you haven’t seen the movie yet) – how there were signs of how kanjoos the family had been trying to save to build a home. Sharmila  keeps licking her plate clean. They are not fixing stuff in their own home and using spoiled stuff – all to save money for their upcoming apartment. But when Sanjeev Kumar tells her he wants to leave the marriage and get married to Sarika – it’s a big turning point for Sharmila Tagore. She accepts his decision and asks him to invite Sarika to his home for a cup of tea.  And then gets herself glammed up at a beauty salon, drapes herself in a silk saree. She gets her house done all up asking the painters and others to double-duty and get it done by 5 pm. So when Sanjeev Kumar comes in the evening, Sarika actually asks him why he’s behaving strangely.

Eventually as the evening comes to an end, Sanjeev has already made up his mind – and Sharmila insists on him dropping her off. As he’s dropping her off there is a wedding procession (baaraat) crossing the road and Sarika has already crossed the road but Sanjeev stays back, and that’s the end of the movie – when she waves him goodbye.

So…?   For us that was the revelation in terms of how to read clues and then ‘read’ and appreciate a movie better.

Its something that has helped – though Haruki’s stories are really challenging, as sometimes the clues simply don’t exist – and sometimes the story is so simply straightforward, its embarrassing.


All the same its fun. I have only begun my journey, and there’s a lot more of Haruki that promises to keep coming…. Join the ride!

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