Archive for January, 2022

Today, I finished reading the second part of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, ‘Youth‘. I read it in one breath.

In ‘Youth‘, Tove describes what happens after she goes to work, the different kinds of jobs she has, how her employers and colleagues are, the young men who are attracted towards her, how she can’t wait to turn eighteen and move out of her house and be independent – how she wants a room of her own as Virginia Woolf describes it, and which Tove describes eloquently thus –

“But I want so badly to have a place where I can practice writing real poems. I’d like to have a room with four walls and a closed door. A room with a bed, a table and a chair, with a typewriter, or a pad of paper and a pencil, nothing more. Well, yes – a door I could lock. All of this I can’t have until I’m eighteen and can move away from home.”

The book also describes how her parents resist Tove’s plans to become independent, how Tove becomes friends with literary-inclined older people with whom she has delightful bookish conversations, and her attempts at writing poems and getting them published. The book also touches upon the looming spectre of Nazism in Europe.

When Tove’s first poem gets published in a small literary magazine, she is thrilled. But her reaction to it was also complex and very interesting. It was one of my favourite passages from the book, and it goes like this –

“The next day two copies of Wild Wheat arrive in the mail and my poem is in both of them. I read it many times and get an apprehensive feeling in my stomach. It looks completely different in print than typewritten or in longhand. I can’t correct it anymore and it’s no longer mine alone. It’s in many hundreds or thousands of copies of the journal, and strange people will read it and may think that it’s good. It’s spread out over the whole country, and people I meet on the street may have read it. They may be walking about with a copy of the journal in their inside pocket or purse. If I ride in the streetcar, there may be a man sitting across from me reading it. It’s completely overwhelming and there’s not a person I can share this wonderful experience with.”

I loved ‘Youth‘. It is fascinating to watch how Tove navigates the complicated, messy adult world, and listening to her experiences through her own unique voice. I can’t wait to read the third part now, and find out what Tove’s upto next.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Being young is itself temporary, fragile, and ephemeral. You have to get through it – it has no other meaning.”

“Death is not a gentle falling asleep as I once believed. It’s brutal, hideous, and foul smelling. I wrap my arms around myself and rejoice in my youth and my health. Otherwise my youth is nothing more than a deficiency and a hindrance that I can’t get rid of fast enough.”

“I also like to look at people who in one way or another give expression to their feelings. I like to look at mothers caressing their children, and I willingly go a little out of my way in order to follow a young couple who are walking hand in hand and are openly in love. It gives me a wistful feeling of happiness and an indefinable hope for the future.”

“‘If you don’t stop being so strange,’ my mother says, ‘you’ll never get married.’ ‘I don’t want to anyway,’ I say, even though I’m sitting there considering that desperate alternative. I think about my childhood ghost : the stable skilled worker. I don’t have anything against a skilled worker; it’s the word ‘stable’ that blocks out all bright future dreams. It’s as gray as a rainy sky when no bright ray of sun trickles through.”

Have you read Tove Ditlevsen’sYouth‘? What do you think about it?

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I was inspired to read Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs by one of my friends, who is an artist and a writer, and who is the biggest admirer of Tove Ditlevsen that I know. My friend has been gushing about Tove Ditlevsen for a long time, much before last year, when everyone started reading Ditlevsen after the recent English translation of her memoirs were published.

I read the first part of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs, ‘Childhood‘, today. Ditlevsen was born in 1918, when the First World War had just ended, and so it was a very different world then. ‘Childhood‘ describes the first decade and a half of Ditlevsen’s life. It brings that era beautifully alive, and interestingly it doesn’t feel like Ditlevsen is talking about a period which is nearly a century back, but it feels fresh like today. One of my favourite parts of the book is the one which describes how Tove fell in love with books, especially poetry, and how she started writing poetry of her own. I loved that part. Another thing that I loved about the book was when Tove describes how she hides her real thoughts and feelings from people around her, and pretends to be dumb and stupid, because she feels like an outsider as her thoughts are very different and unconventional compared to those around her. Those of us who are or have been outsiders will be able to understand exactly how Tove must have felt and will be able to identify with her. There are interesting characters who come through the book, including Tove and her brother and her parents and her teachers, her neighbours and her friends. Tove’s mother looks like a fascinating, complex person. Some of my favourite characters in the book were the minor ones who make a brief appearance, like the librarian who helps Tove borrow books for grown-ups, and Tove’s neighbour Ketty, who is her mother’s best friend, and who has an unconventional job, and who is kind and affectionate towards Tove. Tove’s friend Ruth is also a very fascinating character and made me think of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Tove’s grandmother is also a very interesting character. The book ends with Tove graduating out of middle school and getting ready to go to work and looking at the grownups’ strange world with apprehension.

I loved ‘Childhood‘. It is slim at around a hundred pages, but there is so much packed in those pages, including a commentary on the social and political situation of the times seen through a young girl’s eyes. Tove’s narrative voice is beautiful and authentic and unique. The writing is beautiful and there were many beautiful sentences and passages in the book. I’m sharing one of my favourites below.

“In the meantime, there exist certain facts. They are stiff and immovable, like the lampposts in the street, but at least they change in the evening when the lamplighter has touched them with his magic wand. Then they light up like big soft sunflowers in the narrow borderland between night and day, when all the people move so quietly and slowly, as if they were walking on the bottom of the green ocean. Facts never light up and they can’t soften hearts like Ditte menneskebarn, which is one of the first books that I read. ‘It’s a social novel,’ says my father pedantically, and that probably is a fact, but it doesn’t tell me anything, and I have no use for it. ‘Nonsense,’ says my mother, who doesn’t care for facts, either, but can more easily ignore them than I can. Whenever my father, on rare occasions, gets really mad at her, he says she’s full of lies, but I know that’s not so. I know every person has their own truth just as every child has their own childhood. My mother’s truth is completely different from my father’s truth, but it’s just as obvious as the fact that he has brown eyes while hers are blue. Fortunately, things are set up so that you can keep quiet about the truths in your heart; but the cruel, gray facts are written in the school records and in the history of the world and in the law and in the church books. No one can change them and no one dares to try, either – not even the Lord, whose image I can’t separate from Prime Minister Stauning’s, even though my father says that I shouldn’t believe in the Lord since the capitalists have always used Him against the poor.”

Have you read ‘Childhood‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Joanne C. Hillhouse’sMusical Youth‘ sometime back and read it yesterday.

The story told in ‘Musical Youth‘ happens in Antigua, one of my favourite places in the world. I’ll tell you why later 😊 Zahara is in high school. She loves playing the guitar. Her mom is no more, she doesn’t know her dad, and her grandma brings her up. Grandma is tough and strict. Zahara becomes friends with Shaka Zulu. Shaka is also in high school and he is an aspiring musician too. Shaka’s father is no more and he has been brought up by his grandpa and his mother. Soon Zahara’s and Shaka’s friendship becomes more than friendship. As the story moves forward, we learn more about these two young people’s families and friends, Zahara’s relationship with her grandmother, Shaka’s relationship with his grandfather and how his grandfather inducted him into music. We also learn how these two young people got into music, we learn about their mentors who inducted them into it and guided them, and how music plays an important part in their lives. We learn about their inspiring teachers Father Ellie, Diva, Mr.Perry. The conversation between Zahara and Father Ellie and Shaka and Diva and Shaka and Mr.Perry are some of the most beautiful parts of the book. Mr.Perry is an amazing teacher and inspiring figure and in one scene he kicks the asses of parents without worrying about the consequences and that scene gave me goosebumps. I wish I could quote the whole scene here, but it runs into multiple pages and so you should read the book to find out what happened. As an appetizer, I’ll quote a part of it here.

““These are your children. Do you think you can just hand them over to me and don’t look back?” Mr. Perry paced as he spoke. Shaka was familiar with this version of his English teacher; it was the version he and others in his class saw when they didn’t complete an assignment or work up to expectations. It was Mr. Perry’s “if you don’t do better, you’re letting yourselves down” voice. It was funny to see parents on the receiving end of it…Shaka watched, almost in awe, as Mr. Perry paused and looked down his nose at the parents like they disgusted him. The weird thing was they took it. The parents shifted uncomfortably in their seats but didn’t make a peep. Mr. Perry’s superpower, he’d discovered, was the ability to command an entire room of people even if it was a roomful of parents, parents who probably earned lots more than he did. He wasn’t exactly sure what a teacher’s salary was but he knew the Teachers Union was always in the news complaining about too-low wages, so it couldn’t be very much. He knew that all the kids in their theatre troupe didn’t come from the same world. Some of their worlds were within reach of each other sure, like his and Zahara’s, but others like Dan’s and Nicola’s might as well be as far away as the moon with their helpers and nannies and whatnot. But Mr. Perry wasn’t checking for any of that just now. He was letting the parents have it as though their deep pockets didn’t matter.”

If the book is just about teenagers at school making music and falling in love, this book would be a regular YA novel. An interesting one, but a regular one. What elevates it to a fascinating, important book are two things. One is the family secrets which come tumbling out of the closet and the surprises that are revealed. They are heartbreaking but also lead to beautiful things. The second thing is the book’s commentary on colourism seen through the lens of music. It is fascinating and insightful and makes us think.

I loved most of the characters in the book, especially Zahara’s grandma, Shaka’s grandpa and their musical mentors, and especially their teacher Mr.Perry. Mr.Perry was totally kick-ass!

I loved the way Joanne Hillhouse brings out the beautiful natural speech of Antigua on the page – we can feel the Antiguan / West Indian / Caribbean flair and style come alive on the page, while reading the conversations between the different characters.

I loved ‘Musical Youth‘. It is a beautiful love letter to music, to being young, to family, to falling in love, to inspiring teachers. It is about love, loss, unearthing family secrets and dealing with them positively, seeing the evils of racism and colourism and learning from them and becoming a wiser and a better person as a result. It is also a beautiful education in music, especially Caribbean music. Joanna Hillhouse has written other beautiful books and I can’t wait to read them now.

So, now more on one of my favourite places Antigua, as I promised earlier 😊 I’ve always had a soft corner for Antigua, because that is where my all-time favourite cricketer and my childhood sporting hero Viv Richards is from. Viv Richards was cool and stylish, was tall, dark and handsome, and according to me, was the greatest cricketer who ever walked on a cricket field (apologies to Sir Donald Bradman). We’ll never see the likes of him again. I’ve never read a book set in Viv’s home island of Antigua written by an Antiguan writer, and I was so happy when I discovered that ‘Musical Youth’ was set in Antigua. I was even more happy when I discovered that Joanne Hillhouse has sneaked in a Viv Richards reference into the book 😊 Thank you so much, Joanne 😊 Sharing below a couple of pictures of the great Viv Richards in his prime, looking cool and stylish and incredibly handsome. Every schoolboy wanted to be like him, including yours truly.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“Only on one occasion had Granny Linda gone too far. That was the time Zahara’d broken the silver necklace, the one Granny Linda had taken from her mother’s jewellery box saying that it perfectly complemented her white Confirmation dress. When Zahara broke it, Granny Linda had snapped. It was her worst beating in living memory. Granny Linda hadn’t beaten her since, as though her grandmother had been scared by how angry she’d been. Zahara had heard her grandmother crying that night, and that had made her more afraid than the beating. She associated her grandmother with solid things, things not even a hurricane could knock down, like a mountain. You could strip it clean but it would go on standing. She knew that Granny Linda considered tears a weakness. Zahara didn’t know how to make sense of a world in which Granny Linda was weak enough to cry. She pretended that whole memory away, the Holy Communion, the lost necklace, the beating, and the tears. She looked at her grandmother, solid in that moment, turning the cornmeal and avoiding her granddaughter’s eyes.”

Have you read ‘Musical Youth‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Nina Bouraoui recently and I got this book of hers, ‘All Men Want to Know‘.

All Men Want to Know‘ is classified as fiction and autofiction, but it looked like a memoir and so I read it like a memoir. Nina’s parents are from different countries – her mom is French, her dad is Algerian. So her life is complicated. Both her parents love her and her sister, but because their grandparents are from totally different cultures, her relationship to her grandparents from the two sides is very different – it is beautiful, affectionate, but also very different. Nina lives the first fourteen years of her life in Algeria, but after that her family moves to France as the political situation in Algeria becomes unstable. With all this going on, to add to the complexity, Nina discovers that she is gay. The parts of the book in which she talks about this – how she hides her sexual orientation from her family and other people in her life, how she feels guilty about it, how she tries to accept her true natural self, how she tries to find gay friends with whom she could hang out, how she goes on a quest to find love – these are some of the most beautiful and moving parts of the book. Nina Bouraoui’s prose is beautiful, lyrical but also deceptively simple, which makes it powerful and moving.

All Men Want to Know‘ is a beautiful, moving book about being part of a multi-ethnic family and the challenges and the pleasures and joy which come out of that, about what it means to belong (or to not belong) to two countries which are at loggerheads with each other. It is also about embracing one’s true nature and celebrating it, and it is a beautiful love letter to being gay and falling in love. It is early days yet, but I think this is one of my favourite books of the year. I can’t wait to read more books by Nina Bouraoui.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“At the Kat, I experience a form of social unease, a class anxiety that fills me with shame. I’m mixing with women outside my social circle, factory workers, former prisoners, prostitutes. We are thrown together by fate, driven together by the one thing we share : our sexual orientation. I’m a victim of my own homophobia. I despise myself for sneering at the embracing couples on the benches, the girls locked in one another’s arms on the dance floor, the courageous couples in the street. I resent them for flaunting themselves in this way. I could be compromised if I were seen with them. I envy their freedom. I stay locked into my fear. When someone offers me a lift out of concern for my safety, I refuse; they might remember my address, come to my door the next day, I could be outed to my fellow students at the university who know nothing of my ‘tendencies’, my ‘invert’ nature; I use these outmoded expressions to taunt myself and because the Kat exists outside of time, cut off from the 1980s I’m living through. I’d rather walk home, be followed; it’s the price I pay for calling into existence what I call my ‘nature’. I’m not breaking any laws but I’m flirting with decadence; I must be, I spend so much time at the Kat.”

“There is such a thing as a gay childhood. My childhood. No excuses are needed. There’s no explanation. It simply is. There is a history to homosexuality, a story with roots and a territory of its own. Being gay isn’t a question of choice or preference, it simply is, just as blood has a type, skin has its colour, the body its dimensions, hair its texture. I see it as organic. The gay child is not lacking, she is different, outside of the norm, inside a normality of her own; not until later will she come to understand that her normality marks her out from others, condemns her to secrecy and shame.”

“‘We’ll never know what the ingredients of love are, how people are put together,’ my mother says when I ask her what happiness means to her. ‘The truth is that you can never really know another person, there are always surprises, both good and bad: reality sets in, stronger than the relationship itself, stronger than desire, the spell of being in love wears off. You have to be able to accept it: life isn’t a dream, we aren’t here on this earth for a life of constant pleasure; it’s the difficult times that matter, much more than the lighter moments.’”

“My grandmother loves my mother in her own way, like a child one no longer understands and keeps at arm’s length…My grandmother has never accepted my father…On the rare occasions she does come and visit she feels out of place, as a woman, a Frenchwoman…She fears for us, her two granddaughters, she’s sure our growth is affected by the heat, by our diet. I have difficulty drawing up a family tree, a ‘tree of love’ as some call it. The branches of my tree don’t flower, or if they do, the blossoms appear on the wrong branches, as if they’ve migrated, bloomed from the soil or on a branch not meant to bear flowers. This is how I feel about my French family, it doesn’t work, it never will; it makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m outside my real self, as if I’ve failed to love my whole self. I feel the same with my Algerian family. I hardly know them. They live four hundred kilometres from Algiers, you have to drive along the coast road towards Petite Kabylia, in the east. My Algerian grandmother doesn’t speak French, I don’t speak Arabic, our only link is her tenderness, her hands in mine, in my hair, on my shoulders, her kisses on my forehead, her smiles; but this gentleness is beyond me, I don’t know what it means, I don’t know if it’s an expression of love or a way of apologizing for being so unlike us, for not wanting to be like us. We are so very different.”

“Ely is of the opinion that men and women weren’t made to be together, they’re too different. She doesn’t go along with the idea of complementarity. When you’re with someone that different, you end up losing your essence, your sense of self, you waste all your energy trying to be more like the other person, but it’s futile, a battle you’ll never win. With another woman, there’s no threat of being overpowered, we’re evenly matched and it stays that way; we’re equals physically, and even if one of us is stronger mentally, there’s none of that business of one person taking control.”

“My mother says it’s impossible to say where you come from without getting something wrong. Searching for your origins is like following a winding path that branches off into more winding paths, even a family tree won’t reveal the truth: families bury their secrets, it’s the one thing they all have in common, they keep them hidden and if any of those secrets do come to light, they deny them. Families are forbidden chambers of forbidden memories, sealed units that leave a trail of destruction; when I ask my mother what kind of destruction, she answers without thinking and says, just as her mother does: ‘I can’t tell you.’ People’s lives appear to me as an unending series of unanswered questions, a web of doubts, shadows, fears and imaginings; I play out the story of our relatives the Aschpiels in my head: Central Europe, travelling, hiding, camps perhaps. Everything is hidden, kept in silence, held in check not by shame but by fear. Families are fertile territory for fear, and I’m scared. I know nothing about my past, my ancestors; I carry their sorrows, their misdeeds perhaps, within me, and because I search where others do not look, because I see in my mother what others have not seen, I will pass those sorrows and misdeeds on to others; I will write, I will piece together the story with my words, I will create scenes that are invented, reported, true, untrue, I will bring the tale to life and stop it from haunting me.”

Have you read ‘All Men Want to Know‘? What do you think about it?

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One of my favourite discoveries which happened last year was when I read Asja Bakić’sMars‘. I discovered that Bakić’s book was published by The Feminist Press. I was excited when I discovered that and went and checked their catalogue. It was amazing! I asked myself why I hadn’t heard of this beautiful publisher before. Of course, I just wanted to buy everything which was there in their catalogue. I resisted temptation and decided to get a few. ‘The Iliac Crest‘ by Cristina Rivera Garza was one of the books I got.

At the beginning of the story, the narrator is sitting in his home reading a book when he hears a knock at his door. He opens it and he sees an unknown, beautiful woman outside. She just walks into his house, without saying anything. The narrator is puzzled. After a while, there is a second knock, and the narrator’s ex-girlfriend walks in. She is wet because of the rain and she seems to be unwell. The stranger who came in before takes care of the ex-girlfriend and these two women settle down in the house, as if it is their own. The narrator is not able to say anything. He is gripped with fear. Before long, one day, the two women approach him and tell him that they know his deepest secret. The narrator wonders what that is. The strange woman says that they know that he is actually a woman! The narrator is stunned!

What happens after this – who is this strange woman, why is she here, is the secret about the narrator true, what happens after that – all these are told in the rest of the story.

Though the above is part of the story, this book is not about the plot. It raises important questions on the fluidity of gender, on the fluidity of national borders, on the fluid boundaries between madness and sanity. Who is a man and who is a woman, who is mad and who is sane – the book asks these questions and makes us think. This is not a book to be read once and enjoyed for the plot. It is a book to be read multiple times with close readings, a book to be lingered on, to be contemplated upon, to be discussed with fellow readers. I think I’ll read it again closely, one of these days.

Cristina Rivera Garza is one of Mexico’s great contemporary writers. I noticed that just three of her books are available in English translation. I hope to read the other two sometime.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Iliac Crest‘. It wasn’t a straightforward book and it was always challenging, and there was a surreal atmosphere throughout the book, but Cristina Rivera Garza’s prose was beautiful, her sentences sizzled with beautiful depth in many places which made me pause and linger on them, the dark humour in some places made me smile, and though I am not sure what happened in the end, I’m glad I read the book.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“I had imagined a dwelling more crowded with things, more populated with history, more marked by time. But I don’t believe I was disappointed to see the apartment only had the furniture necessary for an austere existence, and that within the property, bordered by walls in neutral colors and lacking any kind of ornamentation, what was truly noteworthy were the currents of light and air. There was a sensation of impasse, of something held, not within time but somewhere outside of it, far from its shore, foreign to its imperial power. There, at her side, in her home, I felt as if I were inside a parenthesis in a sentence written in an unknown language.”

“My instincts advised me to do so without any hesitation, but in those days I acted fundamentally against myself. Contradiction drove me. Paradox gave me courage.”

“As soon as I looked inside, I was forced to accept that my absence had doubtlessly been longer than I had suspected. There was, in the space whose familiarity had once rendered it transparent, a mild untidiness, a faint but notable change in the way it reflected my inhabitance. The way it felt distanced from me. The furniture was in the same place, as was the opening of the fireplace that had helped me combat the coastal cold so many times, and also the curtainless windows that allowed all of the ocean’s potential to enter. The decorations were the same. There wasn’t a single change in the number or size of the lamps, paintings, or bookcases. I mean to say there was nothing physical that could explain the transformation I was experiencing. The change wasn’t there, outside of myself, but in the relationship I was establishing with the space. In other words, I did not recognize my own home. If I were talking about its structure, the sensation I felt could be described, perhaps, as discord. It made me feel out of place.”

Have you read ‘The Iliac Crest‘? What do you think about it?

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Sometime back, one of the Russian teachers I follow online, shared a Russian song. It had beautiful lyrics, which were very Russian, and it sounded like a Pasternak poem. So I searched for the full lyrics and the song online. I discovered that it was sung by Nikolai Baskov and Taisiya Povaliy. The song was called ‘Ты далеко‘ (‘Ti Daliko’ = ‘You are far away’). I listened to the whole song and I loved it and couldn’t stop listening to it. I hadn’t listened to many Russian songs before. I can remember only three – two beautiful songs from the classic Russian movie ‘Irony of Fate‘ and the legendary song by Vitas called ‘Opera 2‘ in which he raises his voice to such a high pitch like an opera singer that we almost feel that glass is going to shatter. So after I listened to ‘Ты далеко’, I thought I’ll search for more songs by Nikolai Baskov and Taisiya Povaliy. What started as a simple search soon ended up as an unexpected immersion into a whole new exciting world of music. It was like someone opened a door inside a cupboard and on the other side was the whole universe of musical Narnia with its endless beauty. Everyday new Russian singers cropped up during my search who were more and more amazing.

I thought about whether I should write about this. I don’t  know anyone else who listened to Russian music. I don’t know whether anyone would be interested in this. I also felt that I had discovered something new and I wanted to keep it a secret. I wanted Russian music to be my thing. Why put something out in public when I can just enjoy it in private. Stephen Fry writes poems but doesn’t share them in public. He writes poems because he loves writing them. He doesn’t want strangers to see his poems and try to interpret their meaning. Sometimes when we put something which is dear to us out in public, it loses its beauty, its delicate fabric is disturbed. After all, Kahlil Gibran once said — “Travel and tell no one, live a true love story and tell no one, live happily and tell no one…” We should be able to do this, even in this era of social media. I thought about this long and hard. In the end, I decided to write about it. Because someone introduced me to Russian music. I didn’t discover it myself. So I felt that I should pass on the beauty of Russian music to others so that they can discover its pleasures. The clinching thing was this. One of my favourite singers, Vera Brezhneva, has 12.4 million followers on Instagram. She is not exactly unknown. She is a celebrity. So, here is my love letter to Russian music. Hope you like it. Hope you also treat it gently and kindly. I have given the links to every song I have mentioned so you can easily listen to them.

When people think about Russian music, atleast when non-Russians think about it, they typically think of classical music composers like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and classic singers who sing in the traditional style. I love the classics, but I discovered that today’s popular Russian music is not at all like that. It is cool, hip, young, fresh, stylish. It bursts with energy and it is a big ocean. I hope I can communicate some of that energy and style to you, through this post.

From top left : Irina Krug, Vera Brezhneva, Taisiya Povaliy, Dana Lahova, Albina Tokova, Alla Pugacheva, Nikolai Baskov, Vitas, Andrey Myagkov and Barbara Brylska in ‘Irony of Fate’

Irina Krug

I’ll start with one of my favourite singers, Irina Krug. I discovered Irina Krug pretty late on my journey into Russian music. The first song of hers that I listened to was a duet she sang with Edgar called ‘А Ты Меня Люби‘ (‘Aa Ti Menya Lubi’ = ‘And You Love Me’). It shows an old couple discovering a photograph of their younger days, making them remember how they first fell in love. When we look at the video, we realize that after all these years, after seeing off so many challenges together, the old couple are still in love, and their love is as fresh as when they first met. It is a beautiful song, and it pulls our heartstrings. The second Irina Krug song I loved was ‘Моя Королева‘ (‘Maya Koroleva’ = ‘My Queen’). It is a beautiful, moving song about love, loss and forgiveness. It moves me everytime I listen to it. ‘Моя Хорошая‘ (‘Maya Haroshaya’ = ‘My Dear / Darling’) is another beautiful song which is Irina Krug’s love letter to her mom. It is moving and poignant and it made me cry. One of my most favourite Irina Krug songs is ‘Бокал Бакарди‘ (‘Bakal Bakaardi’ = ‘A Glass of Bacardi’). It is my go-to song and I listen to it frequently and it always makes me happy listening  to it. It is odd, because the song is about love and longing, and it talks about a glass of Bacardi, but the song sounds happy when we listen to it. The live version of this song features a beautiful guitar solo by the guitarist, and everytime I listen to the song, I look forward to that guitar solo. ‘Ищи Не Ищи‘ (‘Ishi Ni Ishi’ = ‘Seek do not Seek’) is a song about a woman who is treated badly by her partner and what she does about it. The ending of the song is interesting in the video and we cheer for her. ‘Промежутки Любви‘ (‘Promezhudki Lubvi’ = ‘Intervals of Love’) is a beautiful love song. It is the kind of song that you listen to in the night, after dimming the lights, and sipping a glass of wine. ‘Две Странички‘ (‘Dvey Stranichki’ = ‘Two Pages’) is about a woman who writes her final two pages to her lover, and tells him that their time together  is over. One of the beautiful things about Irina Krug is that she sings at an even pace and pronounces every word, every syllable, every alphabet. Because of this, even if we don’t  understand  Russian, we can still enjoy the music of every word. Also, Russian, unlike English, has hard consonants. That is, there is no attempt at softening the hard consonants. So ‘r’ is pronounced properly as ‘r’. This creates music in the language, because we see the hard consonants alternating with soft consonants and vowels in a song, and it is beautiful to listen to. You can experience that beauty when Irina Krug is singing. Irina Krug’s favourite word seems to be ‘Слово’ (‘Slava’ = ‘Word’). It is there in nearly every song of hers. Her second favourite word seems to be ‘Письмо’ (‘Pisma’ = ‘Letter’). Many of her songs talk about writing a letter and it made me nostalgic about my letter writing days.

Irina Krug has been singing for a while, and so she has a huge list of hits. The above are some of my favourites. You can find more of her songs and collections on YouTube.

Vera Brezhneva

The second singer I want to write about is another of my favourites, Vera Brezhneva. I discovered Vera Brezhneva’s music very recently. Vera Brezhneva is Ukrainian, but sings a lot in Russian. The first song of hers that I listened to was a live concert recording of ‘Тихо‘ (‘Theeha’ = ‘Quiet’). In the video, we see a woman who looks like the last woman on earth, and her heart expresses a deep longing, and she seems to ruminate on what was and what might have been. The song plucked my heartstrings from the first note, and gave me a deep ache, the kind of heartache you want to wallow in, the kind of heartache you don’t want to go away. I wondered why I hadn’t heard of this amazing singer before. It was like she had sprung out of nowhere with a magical song. Of course, this is all my imagination, because Vera Brezhneva is a proper A-list celebrity. It is just that I know nothing, like Jon Snow. The second Vera Brezhneva song I listened to was ‘Хорошие Новости‘ (‘Haroshie Novosti’ = ‘Good News’). It is about a woman who tells her lover that she doesn’t need his gifts and his promises, but she just needs him to be with her. This song encapsulates everything that Vera Brezhneva is about. Vera Brezhneva is different, in one significant way, from other Russian / Ukrainian singers I’ve listened to. Most Russian / Ukrainian singers I have listened to, just sing a song. They don’t dance or sway to the music. When there is a gap between two passages of singing, when the musicians take over, they just stand on the stage and wait. Occasionally, they walk around the stage and engage with the audience, waving their hand, thanking them, asking them to join in by clapping. If there is dancing on stage, it is done by dancers who are there for that reason. Vera Brezhneva is an exception to this. She sizzles with energy, she expresses herself on stage, and she dances and sways to the music. She eggs the musicians on, she eggs the audience on. The cool style and the casual effortless elegance that Vera Brezhneva brings on stage is unmatched and her energy and enthusiasm is infectious. When you listen to Vera Brezhneva exhorting the audience while singing ‘Хорошие Новости’, you are possessed by an energy you didn’t realize you had, and you want to get up and dance to the music. The song grabs you in the first few seconds and doesn’t let go till the end. There is a studio recording of that song, in which Vera Brezhneva sings the song, while sitting on a chair, and even then she is not able to sit still, as she is bursting with energy, and she can’t stop swaying to the music. It is a joy watching her perform. ‘Хорошие Новости’ is my go-to song when I am feeling down, because just ten seconds into it, the song lifts my spirits up. It is amazing how a happy singer and a song bursting with energy, can lift our spirits up. ‘Ты Мой Человек‘ (‘Ti Moi Chelavyek’ = ‘You are My Person’) is another of my favourites. There is a studio live performance of the song, and though the space is constrained with cables running around, Vera Brezhneva is bursting with energy, and she finds a way of expressing herself on the stage. Vera Brezhneva is one of my favourite discoveries.

Taisiya Povaliy

The next singer I want to write about is Taisiya Povaliy. She is Ukrainian but sings a lot in Russian. Taisiya Povaliy and Nikolai Baskov is where my present music journey started and so I have a soft corner for them both. Taisiya Povaliy has sung a lot of duets, though she has sung many singles too. Around ten years back, she and Nikolai Baskov made a whole album of duets, which had that legendary song ‘Ты далеко‘ (‘Ti Daliko’ = ‘You are far away’). Another favourite duet of mine sung by these two is ‘Отпусти Меня‘ (‘Atpusti Menya’ = ‘Let Me Go’), which is a beautiful, soft, love song. Out of her singles one of my favourites is ‘Я Буду Твоя‘ (‘Ya Budhu Twaya’ = ‘I Will Be Yours’). The music for this was composed by the young Ukrainian composer Victoria Kokhana and it is beautiful. Another favourite single of mine is ‘Вкус Огня‘ (‘Vkus Agnya’ = ‘Taste of Fire’). When Taisiya Povaliy raises her voice while singing the lines ‘И солнца мало, и луны’ (‘And the sun is not enough and the moon’), I always get goosebumps. Taisiya Povaliy is one of the greats.

Dana Lahova

Recently I discovered one of the Russian singers from the younger generation, Dana Lahova. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and it is hard to find information on her. She seems to have Circassian roots, but I am not able to confirm that. Dana Lahova has a particular style, and because of that, all her songs sound very similar. They are calm, serene, soothing, the kind of song you will put on when you go on a long drive in the night. My favourite song of hers is ‘Вспоминаю Я Тебя‘ (‘Vspominayu Ya Tebya’ = ‘I Remember You’). I also loved her most famous song, ‘Знаю, Знаю, Знаю‘ (‘Znayu, Znayu, Znayu’ = ‘I Know, I Know, I Know’).

Albina Tokova

Albina Tokova is another new young singer that I discovered. My favourite song of hers is ‘За Горизонтом‘ (‘Za Garizontom’ = ‘Over the Horizon’). Albina Tokova has an amazing voice range, and the pyrotechnics she does with her voice are a pleasure to listen to. The song evokes the big things, the horizon, probably the Russian Steppe.

Alla Pugacheva

While exploring contemporary Russian music, I stumbled upon the great Alla Pugacheva. She was one of the greats and she sang mostly in the ’70s and the ’80s. Every Alla Pugacheva concert those days was an event. Her partnership with composer Raimonds Pauls was legendary. One of my favourite songs performed by these two is ‘Маэтро’ (‘Maestro’). The piano solo during different parts of the song by Raimonds Pauls is exquisite. It gives me goosebumps everytime I listen to it. Another song performed by these two that I loved is ‘Миллион Алых Роз‘ (‘Million Alih Roz’ = ‘Million Red / Scarlet Roses’).

Irony of Fate

I need to talk about how it all started. The first ever Russian song I heard was from the movie ‘Irony of Fate’. The lyrics of the songs in the movie were all poems by great poets like Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva and so they are very beautiful. One of my favourite songs from the movie is ‘Если У Вас Нету Тёти‘ (‘Esli Oo Vaz Nyetu Chochi’ = ‘If You Don’t Have an Aunt’). It is a deeply philosophical song and is also funny at the same time. I used to listen to it all the time. Another favourite from the movie is ‘Я Спросил У Ясеня‘ (‘Ya Spracil U Ya Sinya’ = ‘I Asked the Ash Tree’). It is a very moving song and very Russian. I used to sing it all the time.

Vitas and Opera 2

One last song I want to write about is ‘Opera 2’ by Vitas. You can find the original video here, and the live version here. The original video actually shows glasses shattering 😊 The live version is amazing, because I don’t know how he was able to raise his voice like that, concert after concert. Nikolai Baskov who is a trained opera singer and proper tenor, I don’t think even he can sing like this. There is something primal about Vitas’ scream, and it touches some deep, unknown part of our heart and gives us goosebumps. These days Vitas doesn’t sing songs like this. He sings romantic songs. It made me smile when I discovered that 😊

Songs of the heart

In my native language Tamil, in ancient classical literature, there are two poetry collections. One of them is about the inner life, the feelings of the heart. The second one is about the outer life, about the real world out there. All the Russian songs I discovered seem to be about the inner life, about the matters of the heart. I wonder whether all contemporary Russian songs are like this, or I have just ventured into the musical territory which has songs like this. This is something interesting to think about.

Listening guide

Now, if you are a native Russian speaker or you are fluent in Russian, you might have already listened to most of these songs. Listening to them is child’s play for you, because the language is not a barrier. If you are like me, and you have learnt Russian for a while, but are not fluent in it, and you are able to catch parts of a song and guess or imagine the meaning of the rest of the song, listening to this collection will be fun for you. But if you don’t know a word of Russian (except for ‘До свидания’ (‘Do Svidaniya’ = ‘Goodbye’) – everyone knows that), then you may not understand the lyrics. But you will definitely be able to sense the mood of the song, you’ll be able to tell whether it is a happy or a sad song, and which parts of it move you. It is like listening to a Spanish song or a French song or Italian opera, which some of us do, without knowing the language. If you are still not convinced, I’ll ask you a question. Have you listened to Michael Jackson’s ‘Smooth Criminal’? Do you like it? It is one of my favourite songs. Probably top two out of all of Michael Jackson’s. I have been listening to it since I was a kid. I don’t know a single word of the lyrics. Even if you try, you can’t figure it out from Jackson’s singing. One of my friends once told me that the main line of the song was “Annie, are you okay?” I laughed when I heard that, because there doesn’t seem to be “Annie, are you okay” in the song. Unless we read the lyrics, we can’t figure it out. So, if we can listen to ‘Smooth Criminal’ and enjoy it, without understanding a word of it, I think we should be able to listen to these Russian songs. I hope you enjoy listening to them.

So, that’s it. What I have written about is just a drop in the ocean. Russian popular music is a huge ocean which never stops giving. You might discover ten new singers who are amazing whom I’ve never heard of. I keep discovering new singers everyday. It is amazing that all these singers are popular in Russia and its neighbouring countries, but most of them are virtually unknown outside the region. It seems to be the region’s best kept secret. They deserve to be more well-known because they make beautiful music. I hope you listen to some of these songs and enjoy them, and I hope it inspires you to explore more Russian music and enjoy its pleasures. Happy listening!

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I discovered ‘Citrus‘ by Saburouta recently and read it today. Yuzu moves to a new place and to a new school. She is odd at the new school, because she is an outsider, as nearly everyone there has been in the school since kindergarten. The only exception is Harumin, who becomes Yuzu’s best friend and tells her how things are. The new school is an all-girls school and is strict with rules for everything including what colour one’s hair should be, and how one should dress. Yuzu is a fun person and loves expressing herself and finds these conservative rules extremely hard to follow. On the first day at school she gets into a tiff with the student council president over dress code. She comes back home frustrated and when she tries to talk to her mom about her first day at the new school, her mom tells her that she has a surprise for her. Her mom then tells Yuzu that she has a step-sister and introduces her to Yuzu. Yuzu is shocked to find that it is her biggest nemesis from school. When they are later alone, and Yuzu tries having a conversation with her new sister, her ‘sister’ kisses her. Yuzu is shocked, of course. What happens after that – lots of fascinating and beautiful things, I can promise you that 😊 You have to read the book to find out more.

Citrus‘ belongs to a genre of manga called ‘Yuri manga’ which focuses on female relationships, sometimes romantic, sometimes close friendships. I love the idea of a whole genre of manga dedicated to close female relationships. I didn’t know about this before. It is fascinating and beautiful.

I loved ‘Citrus‘. The story is beautiful and the characters are interesting.  Yuzu is charming and is filled with energy and is fearless and is a big extrovert and her passion for life and having fun is contagious and we love her from the first instant. Mei, Yuzu’s new ‘sister’, is tall, stately, dignified, mysterious and is also likeable but in a different way. Yuzu’s best friend Harumin is very likeable. I loved them all. The first volume ends in an interesting situation, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, and how the attraction between Mei and Yuzu grows and deepens.

Have you read ‘Citrus‘? What do you think about it? Do you like Yuri manga?

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I was in a distracted mood today and so I decided to read a manga comic – ‘The Garden of Words‘ by Makoto Shinkai and Midori Motohashi.

A teenager who is in high school has a challenging life. His mom is not around at home most of the time. His siblings don’t help much. So, he has to take care of the house, in addition to going to school. Everyday after he finishes the house chores in the night, he sits in his corner, puts the table lamp on, and designs shoes. That is his thing, designing women’s shoes. He hopes to pursue training in that and have a career in that, after high school. Our teenager has an interesting eccentric quirk. When it rains in the morning, he misses the first period at school, goes to a place which is kind of his sanctuary, and sits there watching the rain fall around, and takes his notebook out and gets back to designing shoes. One day, when he gets to this place, he finds a woman here – a young woman, but older than him. They spend their time in companionable silence, but these rainy days come one after another, and the companionable silence leads to conversation and magic happens. You have to read the book to find out what happens next 😊

I loved ‘The Garden of Words‘. How can we not like a book with this title? 😊 Also, there is a tanka poem in the story, and references to the the classic Japanese poetry collection Manyoshu, and Lady Sarashina’s diary. More reasons to love the book 😊 Also, the story is beautiful and the artwork is exquisite. The rainy scenes were beautiful and evocative. The first few pages were in colour and they were breathtaking. I wish the whole book was in colour. I’ve shared the first few pages below for your reading and viewing pleasure.

Have you read ‘The Garden of Words‘? What do you think about it?

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I wanted to read a Yukio Mishima book today, and I decided to read his ‘Five Modern Nō Plays‘.

In this book, Mishima has taken five classic Nō plays and put them in a contemporary setting, and adapted and reshaped them for a modern audience. ‘Sotoba Komachi‘ is inspired by the legend of Ono no Komachi, a real poet and one of Japan’s foremost women poets, who lived during the Heian era, around a thousand years back. ‘The Damask Drum‘ is about an old janitor who loves a beautiful young woman and sends her a love letter everyday. This woman is quiet for most of the play, but towards the end, she speaks and reveals unsuspected hidden depths which amazes us. As they say, still waters run deep. ‘Kantan‘ is about a young man who meets his governess after many years and the fascinating things that happen after that. The first half of the play was wonderful, then there was a dreamy surreal part which was a commentary on politics and world happenings which was okay but not really my favourite, and then the play ended the way it started in a beautiful way. ‘The Lady Aoi‘ is a beautiful love story filled with some psychological horror and fantasy. It had some of my favourite passages from the book, and it was probably my favourite play from the book. ‘Hanjo‘ is a triangle love story, in which a older woman and a young man love a young woman. It must have been unusual for the times in which Mishima wrote it, and it is beautiful.

This book has a beautiful introduction by Donald Keene, that lover and translator of Japanese literature, who has also translated this collection.

I loved this collection of Nō plays by Mishima. Very entertaining and very fascinating. Mishima seems to have written other plays too and I want to read them now.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

From ‘Sotoba Komachi

Poet (teasing her) : “Oh! And tell me, old lady, what is your reason for living?”

Old Woman : “My reason? Don’t be ridiculous! Isn’t the very fact of existing a reason in itself? I’m not a horse that runs because it wants a carrot. Horses, anyway, run because that’s the way they’re made.”

From ‘Kantan

“It’s simple enough to become a hero. Any man can become one, provided he has no desires. You can get more power and profit through indifference than through greed. Just imagine – in times like these a mere stripling can take over the country, just because he acts indifferent and claims – apparently in sincerity – not to need money, women, or fame.”

From ‘The Lady Aoi

“The night is not like the day, it’s free. All things, people and inanimate objects alike, sleep. This wall, the chest of drawers, the window panes, the door – all of them are asleep. And while they sleep they’re full of cracks and crevices – it’s no problem to pass through them. When you pass through a wall not even the wall is aware of it. What do you suppose night is? Night is when all things are in harmony. By day light and shadow war, but with nightfall the night inside the house holds hands with the night outside the house. They are the same thing. The night air is party to the conspiracy. Hate and love, pain and joy : everything and anything join hands in the night air.”

From ‘Hanjo

“I have only known Hanako since she lost her mind. That has made her supremely beautiful. The commonplace dreams she had when she was sane have now been completely purified and have become precious, strange jewels that lie beyond your comprehension.”

From ‘The Lady Aoi

Mrs. Rokujō : “What’s the matter? You’re not saying a word.”

Hikaru (gently) : “There’s no need to say anything.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “It’s medicine to me to hear you talk that way, a medicine that cures all my wounds in an instant, a marvelous medicine. But I know the kind of person you are – you give the medicine first and only afterward inflict the wound. You never do it the other way. First the medicine, after the medicine the wound, and after the wound no more medicine… I understand well enough. I’m already an old woman. Once I get wounded I won’t recover quickly like a girl. I tremble with fright whenever you say anything affectionate. I wonder what horrible wound awaits me after so efficacious a medicine. Of late, the less affectionate you talk the happier it makes me.”

Hikaru : “You seem convinced that you’re going to suffer.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “Pain comes, as night follows the day, sooner or later.”

Hikaru : “I can’t believe I have the strength to cause anybody pain.”

Mrs. Rokujō : “That’s because you’re young. One of these days you will wake up in the morning with nothing on your mind, and while you are out walking with your dog, perhaps, you will suddenly become aware that dozens of women somewhere, unseen by you, are suffering, and you will understand that the very fact you are alive is in itself a cause of suffering to many women. Even though you can’t see them, they can see you, and it is useless for you to turn your eyes away, for you are as plainly visible as a castle that rises on a height over a city.”

Have you read this collection of plays by Mishima? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Akira Yoshimura’sShipwrecks‘ for a while. I finally got to read it today.

The story is set in medieval Japan. Isaku lives in a coastal village with his family. The village is mostly cut off from the outside world. So the people in the village are mostly fishermen and get most of the things they want from the sea. For clothes, they get bark from the trees in the forest, and get the fibre from it and use it to make yarn and weave clothes. Life is hard, it involves work throughout the year, and whether life is manageable or filled with suffering, depends on nature, the vagaries of the seasons and the bounties from the sea. When things get too hard, parents sell their kids to a labour contractor in the neighbouring village as indentured labour, for many years. Sometimes, parents sell themselves, if they don’t want to inflict it on their kids. At the beginning of the story Isaku’s father sells himself and goes away for three years. What happens during this period, when nine year old Isaku has to learn the skills required to survive and take care of his family with his mother’s help, and how he has to bypass childhood and quickly become an adult at this young age, is depicted in the rest of the book.

One of the things which the book describes is the gifts bestowed by the sea. One of the gifts bestowed is a ship which is wrecked when it dashes against the reefs. This happens once in many years. When this happens, the people in the village are happy, because the supplies and provisions in the ship and the parts of the ship itself will alleviate their poverty for a few years and they don’t need to send anyone on indentured labour for a while. So the inhabitants of the village pray for a shipwreck. This, of course, leads to a moral conundrum – not for the villagers, but for us readers. A shipwreck helps the villagers, but it definitely doesn’t help the ship’s crew. So are we going to rejoice because the villagers have a windfall because of a shipwreck, or are we going to be critical of them for praying for a disaster which will afflict sailors and for doing questionable things when it happens? Or are we going to contemplate on what David Mitchell says in his introduction to the book – “That we are here at all in the twenty-first century, reading about Isaku’s life, is due to our own forefathers – and foremothers – taking whatever measures they had to take to survive”? It is a fascinating moral dilemma to ponder on.

The story is mostly about how life is a struggle, but it is not all doom and gloom though. There are some beautiful scenes, for example when Isaku’s mother takes the bark he brings and weaves fabric out of it, and when Isaku himself after multiple failed attempts, finally catches a saury fish, and we cheer for him. These and other small beautiful victories in everyday life, bring a ray of sunlight to the story.

I loved ‘Shipwrecks‘. Most of it is stark and bleak, of course, but it is realistic, it takes us across time to medieval Japan, where a small people in a tiny village, fight everyday against the odds to survive, and inspite of all the disasters that the world and nature throws at them, they are still standing at the end. It is stirring stuff.

Have you read ‘Shipwrecks‘? What do you think about it?

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