Read To Win

Short stories: why you can love Murakami even without reading his novels

Haruki Murakami’s stories are like soft shadows – the fainter of the footprints he has left behind.

In his introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, an anthology of 26 of his short stories, Haruki Murakami writes, “If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” He doesn’t compare the two forms. In fact, he goes on to say that he enjoys writing both every now and then, and as readers, the least we can do for an author whom we like as much as we do him, is to gracefully accept the strange stories, both long and short, he loves to bewilder us with.

It’s no secret that his books are insanely popular worldwide. They sell more than a million copies at home and are translated into over 40 foreign languages from Japanese. They’re reviewed and mentioned in the most renowned publications of our time, and it’s not for nothing that he is expected to win the Nobel Prize in Literature every year.

But what about short stories?

So, if one truly reveres Murakami’s works, one must find it next to impossible to ignore the other works of fiction he experiments with. For the best example of these, turn to his three short story collections: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, The Elephant Vanishes, and After the Quake.

The New Yorker, which has been carrying Murakami’s essays, excerpts, and short stories for years now, as it does of several other acclaimed authors, published his latest story, Kino, recently. It is the story of a man named Kino who, after encountering his wife in bed with his friend, chooses to lead a solitary life by running a humble bar in a quiet neighbourhood. A strange man named Kamita becomes a regular customer, and both Kino and he begin to feel comfortable in each other’s silent company. Things develop and Kamita, amazingly aware that the place is no longer safe for Kino and that something fatal is going to happen, suggests that he go away:

“Here’s what you do. Go far away, and don’t stay in one place for long. And every Monday and Thursday make sure to send a postcard. Then I’ll know you’re O.K.”



Kino is uncertain, but he takes Kamita’s advice and agrees to his terms. He doesn’t challenge the impending catastrophe and is somehow certain of Kamita’s concern (even though he doesn’t know him well) and that he must obey it, lest something bad befalls him. We never get to know the practical details like why the bar wasn’t safe, or who Kamita was after all, but the very nature of intuition is dark and mysterious, and as humans, we’d do anything to escape the fear of the unknown.

First draft novels?

A significant aspect of Murakami’s short stories that any of his fans must be familiar with is that many of them are amplified into his novels. That is to say, there are apparent allusions to the short stories and their characters in his books. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, for example, the protagonist’s trip to a hospital with his cousin is starkly similar to a section in one of Murakami’s earlier novels, Norwegian Wood, where Toru Watanabe recalls a similar trip he took with his friend some years ago.

It isn’t just these references that make Murakami’s short stories worth remembering. Each of them works around a single concept to achieve a level of profundity. The Year of Spaghetti is an utterly frank, to the point of being banal, story of a man obsessed with cooking spaghetti to counter loneliness. The Second Bakery Attack is about redemption and in a way, a tale of coming to terms with prickly guilt.

Samsa in Love is a stunning interpretation in reverse of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; here the ‘monstrous verminous bug’ wakes up to find himself in the human form of Gregor Samsa, and not the other way round. He is attracted to a hunchbacked woman locksmith who visits his house, the reference to the woman being a hunchback being a deliberate contrast to the animal instinct taking root in Samsa, the bug’s heart. It feels like an imaginary prequel to Kafka’s novella. Scheherazade is a modern rendition of the legendary Arabic queen’s story by the same name; besides being a storyteller, she’s a sensuous caretaker in Murakami’s version.

His short stories are as extraordinary as his novels. Of course, it’d be incorrect to say that all his stories are equally incredible, but there are several that stay with you for a long time. Almost involuntarily, on a dull summer afternoon, you may find yourself drawn to a story you had read a long time ago. And at times, while re-reading a story, you’d discover connotations that you overlooked in the first read. But if you need a definitive conclusion or specific closure, sadly, you’ll be waiting forever. As so many of Murakami’s people also seem to do.

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.