September 24, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Inventive and brimming with humanity, Jenny Bhatt's Each of Us Killers is one of the year's strongest story collections.
Kirkus wrote of the collection:
"A slim debut full of nuanced, clear-eyed tales of unvarnished humanity. [...] A formally diverse collection with exquisitely crafted stories about longing, striving, and learning what we can control."
Of all the feedback I’ve had for my story collection, Each of Us Killers, there’s one thing that jumps out the most to me. Readers and critics like the formal diversity and distinctive sounds of different voices in each of the fifteen stories. This is gratifying because I worked hard on that. Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith continue to be my role models.
Getting a cadence, rhythm, or pitch right on a page is tricky. I once took a writing workshop where we had to describe a favorite piece of music. We did this by writing about the images that came to mind and the emotions that were triggered. We also tried to mimic the pacing and rhythm in our language, borrow certain words and phrases, and riff on particular themes or ideas. All of this requires close listening with a super-clear mind which, once we allow ourselves to be in that mode, works wonderfully for writing too.
I don’t actually listen to music once I start writing but I do carefully pick out music or songs while I’m working out the scaffolding of a story in my head. It helps me get into the right frame of mind or mood for the work in question. Between editing drafts, I’ll revisit the music I’ve associated with that work to refresh connections. So this playlist includes mostly these kinds of musical works. Where a story has an explicit reference to a musical work, I’ve included that.
There’s a mix of western and Indian musical works because I’ve grown up with both. As is likely true of most people who grew up in India, Bollywood movie songs feature more than any other kind of music in my life. There’s a Bollywood song for every mood, every emotion, and every kind of story. In the last few years, particularly during the writing of this collection, I’ve been exploring Gujarati folk songs, which are often folktales sung or performed, because I was living in the state of Gujarat, India for the first time.
Return to India: 'Miserere Mei, Deus' by the Tenebrae Choir
Dhanesh, called Dan by his colleagues, is an Indian engineer working for a Midwestern firm. When he’s shot dead in a bar, a police officer interviews his colleagues, ex-wife, and the shooter. Through their different versions of Dan, we piece together the life of a man who was trying desperately to hang on to his identity while also trying to assimilate and adapt. This is about the fundamental paradox of American immigration: America demands that immigrants assimilate, but it never lets them forget they’re from elsewhere. It was inspired, in part, by the 2017 hate crime shooting of the Indian tech engineer, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, in Olathe, Kansas.
In the story, this piece of classical music is one of Dan's favorites and he listens to it often, sitting in his car during his lonely lunch breaks. When he shares it with Kristin, his boss, it is an act of connection and desperate intimacy though she doesn't realize it then (or later, for that matter.)
Disappointment: 'Lake Shore Driving' by Duran Duran
A woman runs into an ex decades after their college years in Chicago when she had worked as a part-time bartender. This story explores, within the context of race and gender dynamics, how disappointment is a layered, complex emotion; how, often and without sufficient awareness, we tend to disappoint ourselves a whole lot more than anyone else possibly can. Of course, some of us are also often skilled in externalizing or projecting such disappointment onto others around us, especially our loved ones.
An earlier draft of this story had the couple driving along Lake Shore Drive in Chicago as penniless students who couldn't afford much else. That bit got cut because it wasn't essential to the story. But this piece of music, which had inspired it, became my mood for the story.
The interesting story behind the song: "The Edge of America" and "Lake Shore Driving" are two songs from Duran Duran's 1988 album Big Thing. Together, they're a continuous, guitar-driven medley, with the "Lake Shore Driving" part being instrumental. "Lake Shore Driving" has a sudden cold end, which is when the tape accidentally ran out in the studio. That definitely played into my ending for this story.
Fragments of Future Memories: 'Don't Stand So Close to Me' by The Police
Set in the UK, this story features a professor and his student. It’s about how we tell ourselves stories about our selves and our professional and personal relationships. And how much of living and loving is not about what happens in real-time but about the stories we tell ourselves later. It also explores how a lot of what we think of as “love” is our own subjective, interior reality versus what may actually be taking place. It’s set during a time when there were no cell phones or social media but the themes are still, I think, relevant today.
Given that the story is about a professor-student relationship, this was an easy song pick. There's also a literary reference in the lyrics: "Just like the old man in // That book by Nabokov", which is perfect.
Pros and Cons: 'Patakha Guddi' from the movie, Highway (Singers: Jyoti and Sultana Nooran; Music: A R Rahman; Lyrics: Irshad Kamil; Actors: Alia Bhatt, Ranveer Hooda)
Urmi is a 40-something yoga teaching assistant. She aspires for more but her constant habit of assessing the pros and cons of everything has made her too cautious. At a yoga retreat, through her interactions with the instructor and a particular young student, Urmi sees that not all risks are worth shunning; sometimes, they can open doors within ourselves. This story is about a slow self-realization and trying to find a way back to agency, resiliency, and hope.
In the story, the male yoga instructor refers to one of the young students as "patakha guddi." It's a Punjabi term and means "firebrand kite." I first heard it in a Bollywood movie song of the same title.
The lyrics are telling women to let loose, be free and adventurous, soar like a kite, flow like rainwater, be like the peepal tree that no one can keep locked up indoors. Mainly, the song is about breaking free from convention, from constantly worrying about what people might think. That's the main character's real problem and why she can't let go of assessing the pros and cons of every situation.
The Nooran sisters are known for their powerful Sufi-style singing. Irshad Kamil is a well-respected Urdu poet. And who in the world doesn't know A R Rahman by now?
The God of Wind: 'Hawaon Pe Likh Do Hawaon Ke Naam’ from the movie, Do Dooni Char (Singer: Kishore Kumar; Lyrics: Gulzar; Music: Hemant Kumar; Actor: Kishore Kumar)
Pavan, an auto-rickshaw driver in Mumbai, is barely eking out a hand-to-mouth existence. As he deals with difficult customers in the heat, dust, and traffic, he recalls how his mother had named him after the Hindu God of Wind. What happens to Pavan next is, for him, as near a spiritual experience as he is likely to ever get.
This is an old Hindi/Bollywood movie classic and has the singer and actor asking to write greetings from unknown strangers like him on the winds as messages or missives. The lyrics also delight in the eternal play of dawn and dusk and the simple, unpretentious faces of people with innocent names.
When I first heard this song, I thought about that last bit a lot. Names may seem innocent but they carry so much history, meaning, and identity. So that brought me to this story about a man with a special name and the pressure that put on him throughout his life and his work.
Mango Season: 'Jab Deep Jale Aana' from the movie, Chitchor, by Basu Chatterjee (Singers: K.J. Yesudas, Hemlata; Lyricist: Ravindra Jain; Music: Ravindra Jain; Actors: Amol Palekar, Zarina Wahab)
The summer of 2014 is a heady time in India as a new political era is underway, where a former tea-seller is about to be elected the country’s Prime Minister. 19-year-old Rafi, who came to Mumbai as a child with his single mother, works in a sari shop and can barely afford the delicious mangoes he longs for. The ripening season of Rafi’s youth has emboldened his ideals of transcending age-old class and caste hierarchies. Allowing his poetic sense of beauty to blur those hierarchical lines, he speaks up when he isn’t allowed. The bittersweet fruit of wisdom he gains, however, is that, invariably, the only people who can break the rules are those who made them.
There's been a lot of finger-wagging about how cultural markers like mangoes, monsoons, saris, slums, and spices exoticize South Asian writing. This pandering and gratuitous performance on the page does happen. To me, if it's integral to the plot and done in complex ways, eschewing clichés and stereotypes, it works.
This story has food, singing, saris, and slums as a subversive response to those critiques. To avoid going over the top with these tropes, I wanted to evoke the restrained vibes of a Basu Chatterjee movie from the 1970s-1980s. This Bollywood director+writer depicted the average urban man from the lower rungs of the class ladder trying to improve his lot in life. This song was an earworm while writing. The dream scene was partly inspired by it.
Life Spring: 'Kabir' from the album Is That So by Shakti (John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, Shankar Mahadevan)
Heena leaves her abusive techie husband and troubled life in Silicon Valley to return to Mumbai and start again. Working from her tiny flat as a baked goods supplier, she has to come to terms with her family abandoning her and the neighbors questioning her morality. She has to take her power back from the world, making no excuses for her business aspirations. The narrative focuses on her life after the marriage because such an existence is hard to even imagine for those in abusive situations (understandably, of course.) This story was partially inspired by the stories of South Asian women dealing with domestic abuse in the US, particularly in the Bay Area.
In the story, there's mention of a fusion band called Mahavishnu Orchestra. Their heyday was in the 1970s but their impact has lasted long on those who love jazz, rock, and Indian classical fusion music in India.
But, rather than a song from the original band, this is one from a 2020 album by the band's founder. John McLaughlin frequently collaborated with Indian musicians and the band Shakti is one such collaboration. Here, he's with the Indian vocalist, Shankar Mahadevan, and the tabla maestro, Zakir Hussain. It's hard to pick only one collaboration of these guys so this is one of the latest. That said, if you're coming to this song or album expecting the hard guitar shredding McLaughlin's fame rests on, you won't find that here.
Time and Opportunity: 'Yeh Mumbai Nagariya' by Lucky Ali from the album, Sunoh (1996)
Set in present-day Mumbai, India, this is the story of how a street vendor, Nawaz Bhai, finds out that one of his employees is stealing from him and his sense of right and wrong are upended overnight. Partly, the story is about social class and caste hierarchies, which exist at every level of society. And, partly, the story is about how our sense of what constitutes right or wrong is rarely based on absolute values. Rather, it depends on the sum total of our particular circumstances and experiences.
There are so many songs about Bombay, the city where I grew up. Or Mumbai, as it is known now. This song, with its spot-on lyrics, captures much of the mood and essence of this story. It's about loving this maddening city where people chase youth and money while trying to make their living. And how you have to work twice as hard without knowing if you'll make much.
The trickiest part for me with this story was to ensure I didn't overplay the pathos. Or the overt caste and religion angle. But it's important to note that caste culture still plays a big part in profession and privilege across Indian society. If we're writing about those professions or privileges, how can we not be aware of what enabled them? It's only problematic if a writer is being casteist versus exposing casteism through their characters. And, often, even if the writer may not know, readers can tell. We're all smart that way.
Separation Notice: 'Hello Goodbye' by The Beatles (1967 Christmas Single)
Most of the gods and goddesses in Indian mythology serve some purpose, role, duty. In this flash story, Lord Vishnu is being dismissed from his job because he has not been fulfilling his godly duties.
The piece was a response to a writing prompt at a literary magazine. The version published there involved a Christian saint and there was a hard word limit. I then adapted it with a Hindu god. It's a bit of fun but I wanted a story about someone getting fired from their job in this collection and, well, this is it.
And what's a literary music playlist without a Beatles song in it, right?
Neeru’s New World: ‘Marjaani’ from Billu Barber (Singers: Sukhwinder Singh and Sunidhi Chauhan; Lyricist: Gulzar; Music: Pritam Chakraborty)
This is a contemporary retelling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland but set in contemporary Ahmedabad, Gujarat. Alice is a Rajasthani migrant worker, a housemaid called Neeru, whose temptation is “Wear Me” rather than “Eat/Drink Me” as in the original. That main event starts off a chain of events. All the other characters and their interactions with Neeru precipitate from it. Read closer, and you will also see a few archetypes and tropes from Carroll’s story: a knave, a small tea party, a cranky cook. That said, this story has its own trajectory as Neeru learns to align her grim reality with her modest dreams.
This Bollywood song shows how the average Indian is in thrall of the "movie star." And that's one of the themes of this story, where Neeru yearns for clothes and makeup like Kareena Kapoor.
While I didn't listen to the song while writing, this kind of blind adulation was in my mind as I thought through Neeru's motivations and desires.
'The Prize' -- Thai Jashe from the movie Thai Jashe (Singer and Composer: Hemang Dholakia; Lyricist: Milind Gadhvi)
Set in Ahmedabad, India, this story deals with the main conflict between moral values and material success that much of the country’s rising middle class continues to grapple with. A young architect, Nikhil, and his wife, Megha, meet with a powerful customer and his wife for a business dinner to close a big deal. As the evening progresses, in trying to gain the contract, something precious is also lost. The story explores how a deeply idealistic and intelligent up-and-comer faces that singular moment: that first time when he has to compromise his ethics and morality. And how it can not only change a person, but also his place in the world and who he is in his most personal relationships.
The song is from an award-winning, iconic Gujarati movie from 2016. A young middle-class couple is trying to make it good in Ahmedabad so they can buy their own home. It's a different story from mine but it gave me inspiration to write my own version of such a couple. There's a hopeful, optimistic note that "it'll happen" ("thai jashe"); there'll be a bright dawn after the black night. In my story, Nik is diffident and Meg is calculating. They live in the real world. They know that, to make the score, one has to play the game.
12 Short Tales of Women at Work -- 'Let the River Run' from Working Girl (Singer, Lyricist, Composer: Carly Simon)
This is a mini-collection of micro-flash fiction stories about workplace harassment for women in India or of Indian origin—whether maids or CEOs. These tweet-length stories were an attempt to capture the rapidfire way the #MeToo movement was gaining ground in the early days primarily through social media.
When the movie, Working Girl, came out, my teen sisters and I watched it several times over. We loved the story of the smart, sassy, resourceful underdog who makes it to the top of the corporate hierarchy. I dreamed of working in the US someday and doing some such thing myself.
My corporate life was nowhere near as glamorous. I learned harsh realities of how the system is skewed against women of color; how frequent microaggressions, like the ones described in some of these micro-fictions, take their toll even when they're unintentional; how there's really no meritocracy when success and failure are determined more by one's unearned privileges and power. This song still remains a favorite though it reminds me of the young, earnest, naïve immigrant I used to be.
Journey to a Stepwell: 'Haiyya' from the movie, Hellaro (Music: Mehul Surti; Lyrics: Saumya Joshi; Singers: Shruti Pathak and Aditya Gadhvi)
Using a story-within-a-story narrative, this is a feminist retelling of an old Gujarati folktale about four stuttering sisters looking for husbands. However, while the original folktale involves a harsh moral lesson for young women, my contemporary version aims to upturn such moral values while staying mostly true to the plot arc. The frame story is set in the present time and weaves in and out of the folktale rather than simply bookending it.
This is another song about women claiming their freedom from oppressive patriarchal customs. The award-winning Gujarati movie, Hellaro, came out a year after I'd completed the story but it so encompassed all the moods and emotions of this story that I had to include it in this playlist. Much like my story, the movie is also inspired by Gujarati folklore and real life instances. And the entire soundtrack has traditional Gujarati garba-like songs, beautifully composed and performed by the singers and the actors.
The Waiting: 'Mor Bani Thangat Kare' from the movie, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, (Singers: Osman Mir, Aditi Paul; Music: Sanjay Leela Bhansali; Lyrics: Jhaverchand Meghani)
In the two-week aftermath of the death of Kunwarba, her husband, Gaman, slips from grief into fantasy, from memories into dreams. Though this is not a ghost story, most of the voice and point of view are of the dead wife. There are old Gujarati folktales I heard from my mother that were told from a ghost’s point of view. And, often, the ghost would be hanging around to remind the living of some unfinished business.
This story looks at how loss and grief are tied to memory, and how memory, in turn, influences dreams. The setting is a small village in Gujarat, India, which has been trying to cope with drought-like conditions. These have made the lot of farmworkers, like the couple here, the hardest. So there is also an underlying theme of blind superstition as a way of coping with such hardships.
The song is a Gujarati translation by the famous writer, Jhaverchand Meghani, of a Bengali song by the even more famous writer, Rabindranath Tagore. It’s a happy, joyful song about the urge to sing and dance. I wanted to keep in mind that my story’s couple had seen such times in their lives before. And I borrowed some of the folksy rhythm for key scenes too.
Each of Us Killers: ‘Drums of Gujarat’ from the album, Magnificent Indian Drums (Composed and performed by S. Jaykumar)
A reporter arrives in a village to write a story about a recent low-caste community tragedy and finds it challenging to get the straight facts from anyone. Set in Gujarat, this story explores the present-day practice of Hindu cow worship — a politically-charged issue for the past couple of years due to increasing mob lynchings (specifically, the Una riots of 2016.) It is also the story of a minority community struggling to reconcile their position in society with their need for personal agency. This struggle is, of course, universal wherever there is oppression of a minority by a majority. There is also an exploration of crowd psychology here, hence the first-person plural point-of-view and voice.
I worked hard on this story, agonized about every single thing from the collective point-of-view told in a plural voice to the depiction of present-day class, caste, and gender issues to researching the real-life uprising that had inspired it.
I’m not sure the credits for this piece of music are correct but they’re all I could find. India has many drum-like instruments across various sub-cultures and regions. And they’re all played differently too. In Gujarat, the dhol and dholak are played at almost every festival. Sometimes, there are no singers, just the rousing drums and cymbals to get people on their feet and doing raas-garba, the generic term for Gujarati folk-dance. This medley of folk songs with the dhol and dholak foregrounded always energizes and uplifts. I needed that while working through this story.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her short story collection, EACH OF US KILLERS, will be out with 7.13 Books in 2020. Her literary translation, Dhumketu's Best Short Stories, will be out in late-2020 with HarperCollins India. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in various venues like NPR, BBC Culture, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Longreads, Literary Hub, The Millions, Electric Literature, The Rumpus, Scroll.in, and more. Her fiction has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and the 2018 Best American Short Stories. She was a finalist in the 2017 Best of the Net Anthology. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now splits her time between Atlanta, Georgia, USA and Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. Find her at: https://jennybhattwriter.com.