August 27, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Amitava Kumar's Nobody Does the Right Thing is a skillfully told novel that immerses the reader in today's India while also exploring the power of narrative through the media.
Kumar has also just published a nonfiction book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, which gathers accounts of the global consequences of the Unites States' post-9/11 war on terror.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote of the book:
"If you're willing to have Indian villages and metropolises and pop culture and politics become a small part of who you are, pick up a copy of "Nobody Does the Right Thing." You'll be the richer for it."
Have you watched the film My Son the Fanatic (1995)? The well-known Indian actor Om Puri plays a taxi-driver, Pervez, in a northern English town. His son is changing his ways, he has given up rock music, and broken off his engagement with his white girlfriend. Pervez confides his worries to Bettina, a prostitute played by Rachel Griffiths. There is a warm relationship between Pervez and Rachel: it tells you about the improbable things that become possible in a world made up of border-crossings. (1.) I liked to listen to "Making Music," by Zakir Hussain, even before I watched this film. But the use of that track in this film made the song all the more powerful. The film's writer, Hanif Kureishi, is a friend and a powerful influence on me. I'd listen to this music and think I could write fluidly about family and politics and sex.
The actor I have mentioned above, Om Puri, once said that in India there was poverty even of ambition. Puri knew about poverty, he had been a rag-picker when he was a boy. But he was also intimate with ambition, and had learned through his own example about art's ability to transform life. My novel, which was first published in India under the title Home Products, and is now out in the US under a new title, tells the story of the search for order and artistic brilliance in a society steeped in crime.
A man sitting in his prison cell tells himself that when he gets out he is going to own a cellphone agency. Cellphones are big in India. But first he imagines producing a commercial for his product, using as the male actor his childhood friend who is now a Bollywood star. He wants the actor to be sitting alone in a cell, putting a phone to his ear and calling a woman who would be played by a popular Bollywood heartthrob. The woman's lips would part to say something but the viewer wouldn't hear what she was saying because of the sound of the music beating like waves on a beach. (2.) The song on the soundtrack, filled with yearning and promise, would be AR Rahman's hit from Bombay (1995): "Tu hee re, Tu hee re…tere bina main kaise jeeoon."
I had wanted to write a book that was a "home product." The novel is in dialogue with Bollywood films which, after all, have been the most potent form of cultural conversation in India. Each of these films feed their audiences a staple diet of seven-eight songs. The narrator's mother likes old Hindi films like Bandini (1963); the narrator makes unkind remarks about the acting and the sets. (3.) But, like the narrator, I would listen repeatedly to songs like "Mere saajan hain us paar."
What is it about Bollywood songs? Do they allow me to bridge the gap between the place where I live and the far-off place where I was born? I don't know. I listen to them also because I find them anodyne; they shut off all other sounds and because of having listened to those songs since childhood I don't have to pay them too much attention. (4.) "Lag jaa gale" by Lata Mangeshkar, from a film made in 1964, somehow combines for me all those qualities, evoking nostalgia and heartbreak but also boredom and indifference.
While working on this novel, I was of the belief that I was writing about the ambitions and anxieties of middle-class individuals in a middle-class nation. I was thinking of India and never of the United States. I listened to the Pakistani Sufi singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and others like him whom I had first discovered after coming to this country. (5.) But I was relentlessly drawn back to Bollywood, to songs from films made in recent years; my iTunes "25 Most Played" list from the years I was writing my novel would include songs from the Hindi film Raincoat. The film portrayed the lives of indigent Indians from my home-state who had come to the big metropolis. However, this metropolis was inside India and not in a far-away Western country. This suited my purpose because it matched the setting of my novel.
In 2000, Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her first collection of stories. I cannot now remember where I read her remark that she listened to Bill Evans while she wrote. (6.) I confess I have on occasion followed Lahiri's example. I mention it here only to say that I think that in the future my fiction will concern itself with life in the country where I have now been living for twenty-five years. I'm hoping this doesn't mean that I will now only play music familiar to Western listeners, something like AR Rahman's "Jai Ho." I'm letting go, but only a little. In my current search, a new addition on my iTunes is Vijay Iyer's "Historicity."
Amitava Kumar and Nobody Does the Right Thing links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists