It was late Thursday afternoon, and I was in dire need of some shut-eye. I drew the curtains and turned off my reading lamp and, as I often do, I switched on the TV with CNN on very low volume with the sleep timer set to 30 minutes.
As my eyelids grew heavy and I was drifting off to slumberland, the pictures on the screen showed news of world financial markets and the inevitable presence of “Orange” with sleazy stories of sexual misconduct, sickening by now, that my tired eyes noticed the words “Nobel” and “Bob” and maybe, “Dylan.”
Bob Dylan and Nobel? Initially I thought my sleep deprived-brain was playing tricks and some person named Bob has won the Nobel, and my mind probably erased the surname after it with that of Dylan, a sort of a wish fulfillment; always loved Bob Dylan’s songs.
I sat up, still, to check and realised that it indeed was him who has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Pretty soon I started seeing a few posts on Facebook about grumblings at the choice, and now, as I write this, late at night, many have voiced their discontents about the decision of the Nobel committee. I wonder why. He is not a writer of novels? He is just a folk-rock singer? Well, I have a few lines for the naysayers from the man himself. Dylan admonishes conformism, directed at regressive thinking:
Come mothers and fathers Throughout the land And don’t criticise What you can’t understand Your sons and your daughters Are beyond your command Your old road is Rapidly agin’ Please get out of the new one If you can’t lend your hand For the times they are a-changin
The permanent secretary of Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said that it had “not been a difficult decision” but she feared that some would not like the choice. Still she hoped that the news would be received with great joy and compared Dylan’s work with those of Homer and Sappho.
Dylan and Nobel? Initially I thought my sleep deprived-brain was playing tricks and some person named Bob has won the Nobel, and my mind probably erased the surname after it with that of Dylan, a sort of a wish fulfillment
Dylan is a singer-songwriter, a poet, a man who spoke of change. Wasn’t Rabindranth Tagore a singer-songwriter too, besides his contribution to other branches of literature? I am not comparing their respective greatness, but greats they are, and will remain.
Change was in the air
Bob Dylan hit the scene during the early sixties when he came to New York with his acoustic guitar and harmonica and words that proved quite divisive from the very beginning.
During the time of rising tension of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, the Vietnam War not far from becoming America’s first defeat in an armed conflict, with huge loss of life, with young people being drafted into armed service and landing in a totally alien land from the soda pop and ice-cream shops of small town USA.
The time was ripe for Dylan to sing of existence and against the chains of conformism. It was time to sing for change from the age-old institutions run by “old fogeys” and death in a battle was glorified with “the anthem and the flag.” He could feel the change in the air especially for the disgruntled and disillusioned young people and he wrote songs and sang for them to goad them to clamour for change.
Dylan did not stay restricted to the acoustic, but embraced the electric sound of the guitar from the mid-sixties onwards. Something that made him popular with the blooming counter-culture of the times. But his lyrics remained scathing always and his songs were on the lips of many iconic figures of the “drug-addled” yet still change-seeking young minds.
Dylan was not immune from the drug culture, and some of his albums, most notably, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” was eventually deemed by Dylan himself as a deviation from his regular. Still, that album contained songs likes “Chimes of Freedom,” “My Back Pages,” and “MotorpsychoNitemare.”
Dylan went into a hiatus from touring and performing after 1966. Two events triggered it mainly: His marriage to Sara Lownds in November 1965, and a motorcycle accident in July1966 after the tour.
He was also being criticised for going electric. He cancelled tours and engagements and sort of withdrew within himself and his young family.
However, he started performing one-offs from 1969 but it took George Harrison to bring him out in The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. It took a lot of coaxing from Harrison for Dylan to perform -- Harrison needed Dylan on the bill to draw crowds.
I regularly listen to his rendition that night of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which revives my memories as a young boy of almost seven of that harrowing year for all Bengalis. He sang with tremendous passion and empathy for people “under the foot of olive drab.”
Dylan always wrote and sang for the downtrodden, the homeless, the oppressed, and the people who needed to be brought to the limelight where a select few were stealing it all.
Manash “Firaq” Bhattacharjee wrote in The Wire after Dylan’s winning of the Nobel: “The exciting aspect of granting the Nobel to Dylan is not only the way it elevates the literary merit of popular culture, but also the political significance it holds for our times. National economies are grappling with a deep crisis.
Wars are being threatened and fought in the name of national interest and paranoia, trying to sinisterly drive away attention from the limits of neo-liberal promises.
If a nation’s unfulfilled greed can be replaced by the language of war, it calls for introspection regarding where the world is heading with its ecological and human disasters.”
Salman Rushdie expressed his feelings: “The frontiers of literature keep widening, and it’s exciting that the Nobel Prize recognises that.
I intend to spend the day playing Mr Tambourine Man, Love Minus Zero/No Limit, Like a Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind, Jokerman, Tangled Up in Blue and It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.”
Maybe, I’ll do the same, not for a day but for the rest of my life.
SM Shahrukh is a freelance contributor.