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November 4, 2022
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Anjali Joseph’s novel Keeping in Touch is both moving and profound.
Jeet Thayil wrote of the book:
“The hesitation and wary texting, the one step forward and two steps back—this is a modern love story that also becomes a love story about Assam. I read this book in a single sitting.”
I envisage a novel as a tiny machine that rearranges the contents of a reader (and the writer’s) head and heart. Keeping in Touch came into being over a few years, in a few places. The first was while I was living in Guwahati, Assam, in a flat with a banana tree just outside the bedroom window; often, when I woke in the morning, the tree would have reached a papery frond through the window to say hello with the sun. I’d potter around, make coffee, and do some yoga to wake up. Elements of the novel began to appear here: Keteki, an Assamese art curator who travels and won’t settle; Ved, a British finance guy who won’t grow up; the Everlasting Lucifer, a very unusual lightbulb that quietly creates chaos around it. Over several years, the novel developed, and I moved from Guwahati and the banks of the Brahmaputra to a small town on the Thames in southern England, and more recently (still on the Thames) to Oxford. Some things remained constant, even as they changed: rivers, morning yoga, thinking about separation, love, ideas of the self, and joy.
Auto Rikshaw Chalao – Bhupen Hazarika, Jayanta Hazarika
Both melancholic and melodious, dry and lighthearted, this is the first song I heard by Bhupen Hazarika, a singer, songwriter and cultural icon often simply referred to in Assam as the Bard. He sings it with his younger brother, Jayanta Hazarika, also a beloved singer who died in his early thirties. In the song, two brothers, one a PhD, the other who’s just got his MA, take turns driving an auto rickshaw, the only work they can get during an unemployment crisis. The song opens with the tinny engine of a rickshaw revving, and the second part follows them plying around different areas of the city, including the one I lived in, Uzan Bazar – always occasion to cheer. Jayanta Hazarika’s songs, charming and ineffably Sixties, appear in a later chapter of the book, when Ved is in upper Assam, in a taxi that’s meandering along the historic and very potholed road Dhudor Ali.
This Life – Vampire Weekend
For about the last ten years I’ve had at least one Vampire Weekend on my morning yoga playlist. What can I say, there’s something caffeine-like about faux-ironic disappointed preppy pop that goes perfectly with moving into a few sun salutations. ‘You’ve been cheating on me, I’ve been cheating on you. You’ve been cheating on me but I’ve been cheating on this life and all its suffering,’ sings Ezra Koenig in this one. And who wouldn’t like to cheat on suffering?
Danse Caribe – Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird’s music was a lockdown discovery in 2020. I love the lazy but irresistible music in this one, and the wilfully sweet lyrics, beginning, ‘You were a shameless child’. Is the song about an actual toddler deciding to put away their close advisers and exile their dog-eared rabbits, or does it evoke the imperious toddler in every supposed adult, throwing their toys out of an imaginary pram?
Alameda – Elliott Smith
‘Nobody broke your heart. You broke your own cause you can’t finish what you start.’ Ouch.
She said, she said – The Beatles
I guess I’ve been listening to this song since I was a toddler, originally from an LP of Revolver belonging to my father. Thanks to the internet I just learned that it was spliced together after an acid-fuelled party in Los Angeles at which Peter Fonda kept trying to show Lennon and Harrison his childhood bullet wound and saying, ‘I know what it’s like to be dead.’ (Harrison: “He was very uncool.”) But to me the song is a mirror of a disjointed argument in which each person projects onto the other their own images of emotional fact and refuses to see the other’s. Does it postdate Harrison learning the sitar? I don’t know, but the song reminds me of Hindustani classical music, especially in the way the guitar seems to mimic the vocals at times like a mocking child.
Mohabbat – Arooz Aftab
This arrangement of the ghazal bleeds into something both more spare and smoky than one might expect, with a clean acoustic guitar, minimal heartbeat-like tabla for a bassline and sometimes a muted trumpet. The only unrestrained element is Arooz Aftab’s voice, soaring, twirling, and falling, but refusing to be consoled: ‘and even if I do somehow get to be one of your lovers/the sadness of my time spent in separation from you will be all that consumes me’ (from the singer’s own translation of the 1921 poem, here).
Leaving the Past – Immortal Technique
Another track graced with the backdrop of acoustic guitar, but topped this time with Mr Technique’s softly unrelenting rap: ‘You swallow propaganda like a birth control pill/sellin’ your soul to the eye on the back of the dollar bill/But that will never be me, because I am leavin’ the past/Like an abused wife with the kids, leavin’ your ass’. Right before Keteki goes to an almost incredibly pastoral pub on an island in a river in Suffolk in the book, she hears this song in a car. I wanted to quote my favourite line, ‘I’m the only motherfucker that can change my life’ but I settled for the song’s title, which pretty much sums up the central drama of the book, or almost anything you experience after the age of 25 if you think about it.
Follow the Sun – Xavier Rudd
This is a simple song with a great bassline and the first time I heard it, I’d just got picked up by two of the diving instructors from a dive shop in the Andaman Islands and was sitting in the back of their van with the windows open as the van bounced down tiny roads through open rice fields and past ancient trees. The Andamans, an archipelago of islands halfway between India and Thailand in a blue-green sea might be an ideal place to live, and the song suggests putting down all the usual preoccupations of existence: ‘Breathe, breathe in the air, set your intentions, dream with care’. Maybe it doesn’t always have to be so complicated?
Tous les garçons et les filles – Françoise Hardy
Despite the implausibility of anyone as cool as Françoise Hardy walking the streets alone, ‘l’âme en peine’, wondering when she’d get a boyfriend, there’s a lovely lightness as well as plaintiveness about this classic. Also, shoutout to my French teacher, Denise King, for playing us this and other Françoise Hardy songs when we were studying for A levels.
You Said Something – P J Harvey
‘How did we get here?/To this point of living?’ The fragments of story in this song feel so real, whether the rooftop in Manhattan or the ‘something’ Harvey’s companion said, ‘something important’.
Casimir Pulaski Day – Sufjan Stevens
There are so many strands woven into the economical lyrics of this pretty song: Bible study, a love story, the death of a loved one. Every time I hear it I find myself moving along, whistling the trumpet part, following the narrator as different flashes of memory are spliced together. It’s a great piece of songwriting.
These Days – Nico
‘Please don’t confront me with my failures. I had not forgotten them.’
Time Has Told Me – Nick Drake
The whole of the long pastoral interlude in the Rushcutters chapter of the book could be soundtracked, in my mind, with Nick Drake. At some point in 1997, I was in a newfangled coffee shop in Cambridge (in a bookshop – yes, a coffee shop in a bookshop, serving things like espresso and caffe latte, it was extremely baffling and modern) when some music the like of which I’d never heard before came on. I asked the barista what it was. He looked me in the eye and said slowly and clearly, ‘It’s Nick Drake. It’s an album called Five Leaves Left. They have it now in Our Price.’ I went to Our Price and bought a CD of the album, and proceeded to be in love with Nick Drake for the rest of time.
Aos Pes Da Cruz – Miles Davis, Gil Evans
It seems important to end a playlist that’s slow dancing around a love story with a romantic song, and I can’t think of a more romantic (or sexy) song than this from Quiet Nights. It’d be a great song to be playing on the full moon night where we leave our characters.
Anjali Joseph is an Indian novelist living in Britain. Her first novel, Saraswati Park, won the Betty Trask Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and the Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction. Her work illuminates the inner lives of characters: from a Bombay letter writer to a single mother in a Norwich factory, or the sceptical late-thirties protagonists of her latest novel, Keeping in Touch, as they navigate falling in love. Anjali’s gift is to make art that reconnects readers to their sense of magic. She is working on a novel about the Irish naval officer and archaeoastronomer Boyle Somerville.