By Shubha Bhatt
While subscribing to the Audible membership, I recalled how nervous I’d be while appearing for “listening tests” up until middle school, anxious about getting the details wrong. Venturing my way into the world of listening has, indeed, not been a smooth ride. Picking your first audiobook can be daunting. My concern was, “what if the narration of one of my favourites isn’t like anything I expected.” But, isn’t that the point?
Amitav Ghosh, in a recent interview, highlighted how writing and reading can be very individualistic processes. We write in our personal spaces, in spaces “where we are our truest, barest selves” (says Janice Pariat) and we read in the silence of our heads. However, there’s something more in listening, we involve ourselves in multiplicity. There is the author, the characters as read by the narrator, the setting backed up by the sounds of everyday things, and you, the reader. This drew me to audiobooks. Soon after, a friend recommended listening to ‘Jungle Nama: A Story of the Sunderban’ by Amitav Ghosh. Being an admirer of how Ghosh builds upon complex plots and presents them so effortlessly, I was immediately drawn in to listen to his first book in verse.
Jungle Nama presents an episode of a folklore, popular in the marshy lands of the Sundarbans, that revolves around the supreme protector of the forests, Bon Bibi and her brother, Shah Jongoli. The tale unfolds when Dhona, a merchant, gathers a fleet to raid for forest goods into the southern part of the forests which is ruled by Dokkhin Rai, a mystic spirit who preys down humans in the form of a tiger. The repercussions of the ultimate settlement drawn between the two falls upon Dukhey, a poor chap who accompanied Dhona, and his mother. Ghosh’s adaptation entails the legend in a meter similar to the original verse composed in Bengali. Reading the book and listening to it accounted for two distinct experiences for me.
While the verse in the book is accompanied and “illuminated” by striking illustrations from Pakistani-American artist Salman Toor, the audiobook is rather musical with Ali Sethi drawing “melodic and percussive strategies” that are all the more native and non-English. A verse that rhymes lifts me up in ways like no other form has been able to. Sethi’s eloquent storytelling gives the rhyming scheme a lyrical elevation. At first, the recitation seemed a little fabricated but as we moved deep into the plot, the voice-overs created the Sundarbans up front. I could feel myself accompanying Dhona and responding to his instructions. A good narration can help you capture details you might miss while reading, but a great narration stays with you, you find yourself humming to the dialogues. That is what Sethi’s narration did to me. I could see beyond what was said; often finding a glimpse of myself in Dukhey’s yearnings.
As a child, I remember listening to certain stories more often than the rest from my elder cousin. Why? Because he narrated them with so much passion or maybe he just put his best foot forward so that my sister and I slept already. Good audiobooks do the same. Alongside the diction and modulation, the narrator not only reads but reads with emotions, taking the listeners closest to what’s being penned down. Audiobooks, being a newer version of storytelling, holds a potential to provide for an experimental reading experience. Ghosh’s Jungle Nama, in its audio format, goes beyond narration and feels much like a performance. While this was an intentional attempt to boost multimedia reading practices, I have been lucky to find audiobooks that bring out the best from the best.
One such audiobook is Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2021 novel ‘Whereabouts’, read by Susan Vinciotti Bonito. Aptly titled and originally written in Italian, it captures the movements of a nameless narrator in a nameless place. My fascination for its audio listening was rooted in its format wherein the setting switches with each chapter, majorly taking place “By the Sea”, “In My Head”, “At the Coffee Bar” and more simple, everyday places. Ever since I moved to Delhi, I have developed a thing for places, any and every. I handle them with care, with poise. With a glance over the contents of Whereabouts, I knew I wanted to listen to it mainly because these everyday places have their own aroma, best captured through their sounds.
The Guardian, in its review for the novel, calls each of its chapters as “a postcard from an everyday landmark.” The phrase sums up the novel entirely. The landmarks, as penned down by Lahiri, are universal and can be applied to any city around the world. Although some of the references of the trattoria and the piazza indicate an Italian setting, the details captured by the narrator’s movements and ways of life exceed boundaries of confinement. To observe how Jhumpa Lahiri goes about familiarising the readers with the setting, is a delight. She releases minute details with tenderness. In Whereabouts, her ability to reconstruct the backdrop with each passing chapter speaks loads about her skills and techniques, not to forget that many a times, the places were mere ideas.
The novel captures what personal reflections feel like on a regular basis. Most of the chapters in the audiobook last for around five minutes; each entailing a new sphere of the narrator’s life and her encounters with people who walk beside her, just for a little while, in her journey of solitude.
Whereabouts is also Lahiri’s way of putting forth small acts of defiance. The manner in which Bonito reads the opening lines of the chapters elevates the text. Something very similar to what Sethi does while reading Jungle Nama. Lahiri’s opening sentences act as gateways, all set to share a new tale with an intruder. They range from “Never married, but like all women, I’ve had my share of married men” to “In spring, I suffer.” One can always trust Lahiri for bringing out tales of longing, loss and lovelessness in the most poignant ways.
I feel silence is perhaps more virtual, how does one define it? It cannot be a complete absence of sound, maybe what we aim to imply is rather, an absence of voice. And yet, the closest an audiobook can get in capturing a moment in time is through this silence which can be only brought upon by the narrator who knows when to pause and rest, thus allowing the listeners to reflect. Susan does exactly the same while reading Whereabouts. She knows her way through Lahiri’s novel and her writing style. Likewise, the prose finds home in her voice.
The novel is translated from Italian to English by Jhumpa Lahiri herself. While listening to the audiobook, I bumped into an episode of The Writer’s Voice, a podcast series produced by The New Yorker and WNYC, wherein Jhumpa Lahiri read one of her stories. To my amazement, she was narrating a set of chapters from Whereabouts. I approached the plot differently when narrated by the two. Lahiri’s narration was raw and at ease and also, very distinct from Susan’s.
Listening works as a source of discovery for those who truly listen. Much like Ali Sethi’s recent Coke Studio release Pasoori, Ghosh’s Jungle Nama taps into multiculturalism without presenting an indigenous legend from an English perspective. Similarly, in view of Whereabouts, Tangil Rashid points out that perhaps in Italian, Lahiri saw the possibility of writing the everywoman English denied her. Reading is reading as long as you read. Listening makes for some brilliant reading experience. And if given a chance, I would want to listen to some chapters from Whereabouts, particularly “At the Museum” and “In Spring”, while being rowed into the Sundarbans, blindfolded.