The death of the acclaimed actor Irrfan Khan in the summer of 2020 left many devastated. So, when recently his son, Babil Khan made his debut with the psychological drama Qala (Netflix), and, more recently, appeared in the coming-of-age comedy-drama feature film Friday Night Plan (also Netflix) alongside Juhi Chawla, we were thrilled. All hope was not lost, after all – Khan’s affirming presence on and off screen had found a legacy.

Babil has done numerous marketing promotions and given plenty of press interviews for Friday Night Plan. One of them, however, caught my eye. It is one where he is in conversation with influencer Prajakta Koli for her new Netflix chat show Mostly Chai, where she invites guests to chat with them about their new and upcoming films and shows over chai (how original). I didn’t know about this show until a promo popped up during my nighttime Instagram doom-scrolling routine where Babil Khan and Prajakta Koli got hyper-excited about Murakami!

Bollywood actors and influencers talking about Murakami? That’s not entirely impossible, considering the author’s global popularity, to the extent that now whoever mentions reading Murakami, is met with looks that convey questionable reading choices. But I was intrigued nevertheless because it was Babil Khan. Son of the great Irrfan Khan. There must be something meaningful here. But after watching the full episode, where Murakami’s mention was a five-second hit and miss, I realised the futility of all.

Prajakta asks Babil, “What book are you reading right now?” to which Babil responds, “I am reading In the Miso Soup by Murakami”, at which point Prajakta (who apparently also reads, I think) gets overexcited and screams, “You’ve read Murakami?... Let me have a moment, I love Murakami,” followed by Babil asserting “I love Murakami too”, as the conversation glides into them bonding over being huge Murakami fans, and their favourite books of his (Sputnik Sweetheart), etcetera etcetera.

It’s just that Babil was talking about In the Miso Soup, a novel by Ryū Murakami. The moment Prajakta hears “Murakami”, she jumps the gun. And Babil, too, doesn’t bother to correct her.

Why not Murakami?

But what does it really say about great author who, with an extensive body of literary work and prestigious awards to his credit, has still not struck gold in the Nobel Prize department? Why, after all these years, despite being a favourite and runner for the prize, has Haruki Murakam not been able to make the cut with The Swedish Academy?

One might want to blame the global commercialisation of not only his words – existential quotes from his books are more popular than his actual books – but also his works. Let’s try and put this in context. In the spring of 2021, Murakami collaborated with the Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo to launch his own T-shirt line. Later in the year, the author’s English language publisher, Harvill Secker, came out with a book titled Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love, which presented a compilation of his extensive and personal T-shirt collection, accompanied by essays explaining why he bought them.

Cut to less than a month ago, when, in September 2023, there was a furore around Haruki Murakami’s Twitter account (a bot, obviously, because everyone knows that Murakami is a recluse and not present on any social media platform), which quoted a portion of Murakami’s interview with Uniqlo where he apparently said, “As a writer, you can write as much as you want until forty or so, while youth is on your side. But after that, it’s common for people to lose energy, and their writing suffers as a result.”

People immediately engaged – enraged and excited – with a bot account spilling something mildly controversial. I asked editor and publishing consultant Faiza S Khan for her views. “The tweet inspired a big response on Twitter partly because we’re living in a cultural moment where everyone expects to be inspired and encouraged,” she said. “I think, more than that, the response was based on a sense of real anger and helplessness because the publishing industry does have a bias towards young, photogenic authors and big sexy debuts, which is utterly grim and should be addressed more vigorously. Of all the diversity embraced by publishing, you’ll note that both age and class are generally absent.”

Too successful for his own good?

Commercialisation aside, Haruki Murakami’s popularity in India and the world continues to grow. Perhaps it is because of the massive admiration from readers that Murakami is in fact the first choice among Japanese authors when it comes to translating his books into Indian languages.

Abhijit Mukherjee, translator of Japanese literature into Bengali, whose first work of literary translation was Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (‘Umibe-no-kofuka’), translated from the Japanese directly into Bengali (Somudratate Kafka), says it was his most enjoyable experience. “One of the characters in that novel, namely Nakata, is truly a very interesting character, one can hardly find anything similar in any other novel,” he said. “Nakata appears in the story-line every alternate chapter. I used to wait with much excitement to see what Nakata would do in the next stages of the novel while translating. The story was known to me, but the style of narration is so wonderful that it retained the same charm even when I was translating after further rounds of reading.”

So, even if Murakami’s newer work is sometimes compared unfavourably to his earlier books, translation is one route through which those older novels and short stories might find new readers and a continued fandom. But has the depth of Murakami’s works really lessened as his popularity has grown with time? Khan, whose favourite book by the author is A Wild Sheep Chase said, “I’m not sure his popularity has damaged his reputation as such, but this could be coloured by my own opinion which is that I’d certainly choose royalties over admiration. As for the Nobel, I’ve never been able to predict which way the Prize will go. As far as I can tell it requires excellent writing, but also speaks of the Nobel committee’s view of politics. Sometimes this is great, like when the great postcolonial master Abdulrazak Gurnah won, but then there are winners who are actual genocide-deniers such as Peter Handke.”

Perhaps one of the reasons is that Murakami himself believes that easy-to-translate prose faces criticism. In his recent non-fiction book, Novelist as a Vocation, he said that as he began to get established as a novelist, he often faced criticism in the initial years for making his prose easy to translate, which was considered an undesirable shift from the classic style.

Murakami is 74 years old. Earlier in 2023, he published his latest novel in Japanese, The City and Its Uncertain Walls. Like many of his earlier novels (1Q84, for example), this new work was inspired by a short story he had written almost four decades ago. As we wait for the English translation to arrive, we may wonder about the Nobel Prize, but not about commercial success, for Haruki Murakami.