This is no. 76 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
Most of us connect with music right from the womb. The resonance of certain rhythms is what we woke or fell asleep to as babies. As infants we experienced memories as image and sound before we learned language. When words elude us as adults, music can soothe or stir the mind. When sight fails, music can clarify our emotional perceptions. When movement is hampered, music can transport us through time and space. When pain or stress overwhelms, music can heal and revitalize broken beings.
I grew up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, but the music we constantly played was from my parents’ era, the 1940s to 1960s. We made mixtapes of Bollywood classics for long road trips. We belted out songs during riotous sessions of Antakshari, an ever-popular singing game in India. And we feasted, in those pre-YouTube days, on two thirty-minute evening television programs each week—Chhaya Geet and Chitrahaar—that were like old-school versions of music video playlists. Almost all of these songs were in Hindi, yet they have always translated well across India’s many subcultures and generations because of their storytelling and over-the-top performances. They were key to moving movie plots along with their poetic lyrics, (melo)dramatic performances, and evocative melodies.
When I began writing the stories in my debut collection, Each of Us Killers, music was my gateway to storytelling. Listening to Bollywood classics, Indo-Western rock, and Gujarati folk songs did more than recharge my emotional energy, it helped me connect varying themes and ideas and put them to words. Before writing a story’s first draft, I would pick out a song that had the imagery, mood, and lyrics that resonated with my early vision for the story’s themes and narrative style. I would then write annotations for that song. Sometimes these were about how the song related to the story. Sometimes they were about the song’s picturization. Sometimes I simply translated the Hindi lyrics into English. And sometimes I free-wrote about the emotions and thoughts triggered by that song. The voice, language, and sentence structure in these private annotations often mimicked the pacing, beats, and tonalities of the respective songs. At some point, I would find a repeating cadence or pattern, which signaled that I was primed to begin the story.
With “Mango Season,” for example, I listened to a playlist of songs featuring the actress Rekha. The images and sounds of her performances inspired the story’s dream sequence and the Hindi poetry the admiring sari shop employee offers to a beautiful female customer. With “Pros and Cons,” I played a particular contemporary song titled “Patakha Guddi” on loop, and it gave me the character of Ankita. With “Life Spring” I listened to a fair bit of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a fusion band that blends Indian classical music, jazz, and psychedelic rock. The music featured as a plot point and gave primal energy to several of the scenes, especially a pivotal one in which Heena, the protagonist, finds her own power.
The closest analogy I have for this process is when stroke patients with aphasia, left with little or no speech, go through Melodic Intonation Therapy. This involves putting words to simple melodies by using the preserved function of singing, which uses a different part of the brain than speech does. The singing activates the language-capable right hemisphere and helps the patient work their way back to speech. Similarly, translating music into annotations helps me find my way into a story. After all, as Nietzsche often asserted: Music always communicates in a more primal, eloquent, and significant manner than language ever can.
Jenny Bhatt is a writer, translator, and literary critic. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast and the author of the short story collection Each of Us Killers (7.13 Books, 2020). Her literary translation of Gujarati writer Dhumketu’s best short fiction is forthcoming from HarperCollins India in late 2020. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Millions, Electric Literature, the Rumpus, and Kenyon Review. Having lived and worked in India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the United States, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas.Thumbnail: Prokhor Minin