No dog ears
After its launch in India last week, we give Audible, the world's largest library for audiobooks a spin
For long, the idea of listening to a book seemed absurd to us — especially when you're gifted with vision. But a few years back we gave audiobooks a go on YouTube, hoping that it would make difficult books more comprehensible. Safe to say, it didn't turn into an addiction, and we couldn't tell if it was the medium to blame, or the narrator, or that the book was simply too tedious. That being said, our experience wasn't enough to brush off the idea of trying it out again. Opportunity came knocking on our door last week when Amazon launched Audible in India with over 2 lakh full-length audiobooks on offer that include 400 exclusive Indian titles.
A smooth ride
The process is simple. You sign in to the Amazon store on your web browser and head over to the Books & Audible tab. Then, you sign up for a free trial — prime members get 90 days, while non-members get 30. It's easy to get lost in the sea of options spanning genres. We pick Em and the Big Hoom written by Mumbai-based writer and Sahitya Akademi award-winner Jerry Pinto — because we don't remember the last time we read a book that felt like it had been written in blood. And we wanted to check if this medium would do any justice.
We add the audiobook narrated by noted UK-based voice artist Sam Dastor to our shopping cart. The checkout is quick. You enter your credit or debit card information, and the website charges you R2 for verification, as is standard with iTunes, for instance. And you're allowed to cancel your membership at any time. Give it a few seconds, and the book is now available for downloading.
We download the Audible app on our phone, and the title appears in our digital library. The 90mb audiobook is a six-hour read, divided into 13 chapters like the print version. The story chronicles a Roman Catholic Goan family living in Mahim grappling with the illness of Imelda, the mother afflicted with bipolar disorder. Although you hear one person's voice, Dastor effectively moulds himself into each of the characters in the book — Imelda, her husband Augustine, and their children Susan and the unnamed narrator — in a way that you can clearly distinguish dialogues in the book, when you're working in isolation or even while walking through crowded pavements. His accent fluctuates between a Goan catholic's delivery and diction when he takes on older age groups i.e. Imelda or her mother, but transforms into a generic colonial Bombay accent when in the first person.
The interface of the app is clear with options for rewind, forward, speed, chapter overview, and there's a sleep timer as well. The only problem we faced was related to the medium per se — visualisation, maybe because when you read on print with your eyes solely focused on aligned paragraphs, that kind of monotony invites imagination that sound doesn't manage to offer.
Say it again, Sam
Actor and voice artist Sam Dastor has been in the business for a good 40 years, and it all began with his association with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in the 1970s. Since then, the 77-year-old has lent his voice for the works of Salman Rushdie, EM Forster and VS Naipaul. "Audible India contacted me two years ago, and I had a very short deadline of two months to record 80 titles," he tells us over a phone call from the UK. Dastor was born in Bombay on Queens Road, moved to England when he was eight.
We question him about his Bombay accent for Em and the Big Hoom then, and he digs through the fragments of his memory to recollect. "It's purely drawn from the memory I had of my friends living in the Dadar-Mahim-Bandra area. I even filmed for Such A Long Journey written by Rohinton Mistry  in Mumbai, and Jinnah [by Jamil Dehlavi] where I worked with Shashi Kapoor. I still remember the atmosphere of the city."
Authors often talk about their books as a single format; does the fact that one manuscript is split into many different formats prove bothersome in any way? How do you view audiobooks as a medium?
I don't think about this much except that every book begins in a sound that I make inside my head to myself. And so perhaps the music of words begins in a synapse somewhere inside my mind and then is translated from thought to language, from language to script, from script to text, from text to thought again (when it is read) and perhaps to sound (when someone reads a bit aloud perhaps to sound the words, perhaps to understand a sentence). This is the inherent fluidity of the story, any story and I relish it though I am often confounded by its anarchy. Perhaps that is the role of the writer: the sieve through which anarchy passes so that a communicable story may be formed. (And as soon as I wrote this I thought, oh yes, communicable, like a virus, like a meme, like something that passes into your blood and changes it forever, training you for the next story, just as a virus teaches you immunity.) So to me an audiobook is only a version of the multiverse generated by each story.
Have you listened to the audiobook versions of your own work?
It was too expensive to buy in dollars and so I listened to a sample. I was in no way involved in its making so I don't know. Did I read it out? No. Would I have if asked? I think not because I do not like the sound of my voice when it is mechanically or electronically reproduced.
Given an opportunity, do you think you would narrate any future novels you put out?
Given an opportunity to communicate, I generally take it. And if one day, someone says: you should, you must, I would I think be tempted.
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