Haruki Murakami’s Well

wind-up_bird_chronicle_imbRecently, an old friend of mine who also is under the bondage of a commercial bank, confessed to me he has been contemplating digging a well in the backyard of his house. The gushing fool that I am, I broke into an impromptu lecture about the deteriorating quality of underground water in the cities, advising him to go for packaged water instead. But he was looking to dig a dry well, he protested. He was trying to get away from his employer on weekends, holidays and ungodly hours.

I remember how he was one of the first adopters of the social media, the erstwhile Orkut and the ilk and the current rage, Facebook and WhatsApp. In an awakening of sorts, his paymasters had barged into his social media accounts. Continuing his wail, he said he didn’t know how to put it, except that his private space had started resembling a town in the Middle East Asia ravaged by fatwas of totalitarian forces. He left me in no doubt he would give his right hand to reduce his WhatsApp account to an ionic dust. He eventually stopped to ask me how the sun shone over the patch of earth I inhabited. That was how I was reminded of the opus of Haruki Murakami, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the one in which the protagonist steps down a deep, abandoned well, time and again, to forge a passage into a surrealistic world in search of answers to the social and spiritual problems tearing him apart. Indeed, it was as if he were split into two and a vital lump of ‘something’ bonding the halves had been prised out of him. After a bout of swinging between existence and semi-existence, he would slip into an elaborate, subcutaneous hotel where he would meet many other figures some of which were faceless while others preferred to remain in the dark, with a few exceptions. The shadows and voices down there were nothing short of riddles, but some of those he would meet there were the nefarious avatars of people he loved or hated the most, including himself. These were influences and emotions that were churning his life into a cosmic lump of dirt.

 In Murakami’s book, the protagonist finds a baseball bat and bludgeons whatever it was that had been bothering him. I went on to summarize the contents of the book to my friend, which was not an easy job in itself, whereupon he blurted that it seemed to be a symbolic solution rather than real. I said, true, but that was how the protagonist managed to unravel the knots in his life, or at least that is how it looked like when I last read the story.

I kept thinking about the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle long after his phone call. It is a multilayered book, bristling with symbolisms and motifs, obliterating the boundaries between the conscious and the subconscious, the physical and the metaphysical, the present and the past, and perhaps the future too.  One moment you are treading the beaten path of everyday life and the next thing you have is a shallow water blackout. The funny (and sad) thing is you are partly aware of what is happening, realising this had been the larger truth all along and the little path you were used to was only a part of the landscape, almost a ruse.

Many other things take place in that mesmerizing book. Indeed, the protagonist was not the only one who would slip down a dry well of his own volition, nor was he the only one suffering from afflictions of existential proportions. Nor, again,  were the problems being faced by the other characters exotic or unique to them. Many of us go through the experience of being splintered into two (or more) and something vital being sucked out of us by machinations and decadence of systemic proportions. No wonder, the urge to vanish to the bottoms of a deep hole in search of answers grips some of us from time to time. We would want to do that if only to beat the tentacles intent on sucking out remnant protoplasm out of our bones.

I wonder, too, if the advent of social media is not a response to the thirst for that proverbial well? People like to slip down some wormhole in quest of the manna missing from their lives, often leaving behind empty shells on the terra firma. And like the Murakami’s book, what people meet down there are the ghosts of others, whimsical to downright feral; flashes and flakes of families, friends and foes. But do they truly stumble upon the objects they are lusting after, fight their wars and recover at a least a part of the fudge they are hankering for? Do they escape the claws and antennae of the world, including the newly developed fangs of their paymasters, that would rather have them under the lights on a slab? The jury is still out on such illusions, but the likes of Facebook and WhatsApp have started resembling surreal arenas where phantoms wrestle in make-believe encounters, fighting out insecurities, fetishes and complexes. Forgive me for painting a bleak picture of these digital wells but the brazen encroachment of this vicarious watering hole, as lamented by my friend, might just be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

No wonder my friend is clamouring to dig up a new, physical well. It has to be a dry one though.


  1. I fear the day technology will surpass human interactions. We will then have a generation of idiots, said Einstein. Well, partly true. As long as we make sure that we are not the prisoners of a digital well.
    What a lovely piece of writing. As always.

  2. Very serious and mind boggling but true. I have seen people who fight so well in the digital arena, become dumbfounded in real world.

  3. The digital well…quite an apt name…!
    I haven’t read Murukami’s book but from what you’ve mentioned about it, I think the descent into such a well can only lead him to hallucinate between the real and virtual world. Does he get out of it in the end?

    1. And that does happen to the protagonist in the book. That is a great question you have asked here but I’d rather you found it out yourself. It is an unmissable book!

          1. Oh yes! I’m running such a tightly packed schedule that reading has taken a backseat. I hope the Wind-Up Bird helps me prioritise it. ☺

  4. You know Umaji, I’ve read Norwegian Woods like twenty times cover to cover. And I still keep it by my pillow, turning to its many haunting passages without any prompt whatsoever. So you see the name of Murakami was what got me into ‘One Grain..’ this time. But well, what a well you’ve discussed here. Trust me, compelled by this essay of yours, I will dig a well myself too, very soon. I am plain tired of everything digital, except ofcourse this space which I once mentioned as my old refuge.

    I second you on most things said. You’ve literally echoed everything I have been fuming myself to say to the world. Hence such a long response. But then I know you of all people’ll understand where I’m coming from and where I long to end up

    1. Norwegian Wood! It has got to be one of the most unforgettable books I have ever read. As for that well, Murakami himself has said in an interview his ‘lifetime dream is to be sitting at the bottom of a well’. I am grateful for your reflection on my take on the well although it is not quite in the vein of the great man. And in case you are yet to read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, it’s high time you went for it.

  5. This is a very rich and thorny garden you have planted here. I have been thinking about the well. Of course it would have to be dry, or you would drown and that would be the end of it….the solution. But even the dry well is a kind of oppressive, walled-in, small space… claustrophobic, I think, and not unlike the birth canal. What do we do with the need and urge to go deeper into self that contradicts the need and urge for expansion, to go out into the large and wild blue yonder? Both of these urges live in us.
    We need to arbitrate them, modulate them, balance them. One of the exasperating things about the new social media is the speed and expansiveness, the too muchness, the “in your face”, hence the wish to counteract by escape into something like a well of one’s own being. Too many people, too much time, too fast. We are confused if we don’t know what is limited and what is unlimited about our own individual selves….what is universal and what is unique.

    I’m going too far afield, now, but I know I had to decide not to go on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp or anything other than WordPress. Even WordPress can deteriorate into a Facebook kind of garbage at times, but at least there is some attempt at keeping the sites three-legged: author, reader, subject (theme, art photographic or plastic music, hobby, literary text).
    You need three points for a plane, if I remember my geometry class, and three legs for a stool to stand. Just putting people together without their having a third thing in common to consider together, never works.

    I have resisted all pressure to join in the rest of the coleslaw that now passes for social interaction on the internet. There are a few good friends out there, mostly in spirit, as we will probably never meet in actuality. Some enemies too, which it is a blessing not to meet. The rest is silence, really, if you know what you love, what you hate, and how not to be lonely when you are alone.

    1. Before anything else, I am indebted for your priceless comment, a compelling composition in its own right.

      Your analysis of the human dilemma arising out of the urge to go deeper into oneself set against the craving for expansion is thought provoking. As time rolls on, both of these needs keep gathering force and the scales would tilt either way at different points. We all try to achieve a balance, just as you say, but it may not always be possible, or viable. The tipping point could be a thoroughly internal process or it may be triggered by external forces, led by one’s predilections, convictions, or even reactions, set against those of the others. The startling comparison with the birth canal brought to bear upon the case is thought provoking; it definitely is a complicated, hazardous passage, implying deep perils in transition between the two states.

      In the book in question, wells were employed by Murakami in case of more than character. It turned out to be both cathartic and apocalyptic in different ways in different cases. I wonder if the movement between the life as it exists and the digital wells out there is also equally dramatic, or appalling.

      The other imagery of the three points needed to form a plane is equally compelling. What you have said about WordPress is highly relevant, not that even this is not without frustrations. As for the lot of Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and the ilk, all we have is just one leg, always, a cacophony of me, me, me, tossed in general towards everything and everyone.

      I loved those words invoked from Hamlet.

  6. It was only a few years ago that I thought myself at the forefront of technology – nerd that I was – just the latest in HTML and CSS and… And then technology changed so fast. I dumped almost the lot because I wasn’t that interested in whether Nancy’s little boy in Stoke-on-Trent did wee-wees or not.

    I think once in a well it’s hard to climb out. We simply start digging in another direction. And another. And another. I feel for you being “under the bondage of a commercial bank” – but the well (somehow) is no escape. Thank you for again showing that the little path I am used to is only a part of the landscape.

    1. My obsession with cybernetics ended circa 2002 when I moved to Mumbai. I could no longer haul myself to board a local train after waking all night compiling procedures in Linux. What was worse, I was doing all that in pursuit of a hobby. So I can relate when you say you stopped giving two hoots to what Nancy’s boy in Stoke-on-Trent was up to! I am glad though you still care what this Polonius is up to behind the arras!

      Your observation about we starting digging in another direction is so true. You are one of the very few who found out where the fetters are truly hurting. Indeed, there is no getting away from this bondage any time soon. As for that path, don’t we all suffer from myopia?

  7. Have heard and read about social media playing villain in many a people’s life but thankfully I am enjoying my sojourn may be because it is limited to blogging and bloggers in my friends list . About your write up Umashankar ji its unparallel as always making everything so interesting

    Hope people do not let the social media affect their lives to such tormenting situations —the old saying holds true ” we should not let technology rule us ”

    thanks for this interesting eye opener and the references to Murakami introducing me to a new name in authors –have just come back after locating him on Google

    1. I appreciate how you are in control of the devices you employ for interacting over the Internet. Indeed, that was the original intention of its developers. It is unfortunate that it may be overturned to a tool to corner its user, somewhat like strangulating a wearer with his own neck-tie. Haruki Murakami is a great author with a universal appeal. You may try out his short stories and see how you fare.

  8. Thought-provoking, as always, Uma. I have no problems with social media, as I rarely use it. Most people who do use it seem to enjoy it. The problem seems to lie not with them, but with those who, for reasons of their own, find fault or danger with this form of interaction and activity. As for escaping into a private well (or hell) to escape from an intrusive employer, I would probably just confront him or her and tell them how I feel. If they continued to harass me, I’d quit and look for a different job. I do believe we have choices in this life. We don’t have to feel helpless or trapped and put up with that kind of crap.

    1. Marty, you have said it with the calm of a sage, nothing less. As long as people hide in their own wells in order to attain Niravana or whatever they are after, no one else should complain. However, to improvise on an old adage, hollow of your well ends where mine begins. If only the employers were prudent enough, they wouldn’t break the morale of their own footmen.

  9. I recently went to a yoga festival which asked us to let go of people and memories that held us back. The only way to do this was to bring them back from those dark places and face them, then send them on their way. It was very emotional for me, but I’ve never felt lighter or freer.
    Within the wormhole of social media, I’m just looking to hook new readers for my blog and eventually my books. The rest of it is smoke and mirrors, my friend.
    Love this post just like always!

    1. Now that reminds me of the exorcists around whom pent up folks gather and let out full throated wails about their sufferings. Mostly though, these would be women from outbacks, incarcerated and suppressed, pretending some spirit had come to possess them. Everything that they say then is acceptable assuming it to be the voice of the ghost, which would be nothing but their own bundle of pain and suffering. It is not unlike puncturing a bulbous blister letting out the accumulated puss. Of course, they feel a lot lighter after that.

      Often we keep on living in denial and the yoga tool that you mentioned is nothing but coming face to face with your scabies and blisters. Most of us are in this wormhole to stumble upon sympathetic souls. Some of us are lucky to meet them in hoards.

      Many thanks, Susie.

  10. What a wonderful juxtaposition of Murakami’s well and the digital wells. Social media does resemble an escape route for all our demons and our unbridled narcissism.

  11. I could so relate to this as I myself have often times descended the depths of my mind to live an alternate life in my dreams and sometimes even in broad daylight. Luckily social media has never fascinated me much and I can safely say it will stay that way. I would prefer a physical well any day. But am I right living my life inside a well? A very subjective question indeed, as right and wrong are sometimes very personal. Anyways… one thing I can do happily is admire your gift of writing. Brilliant piece as it made me reflect, question and wonder all at the same time. And oh yeah.. now I have another book into the must read collection as well.

    1. Raju, the parallel subconscious stream of our existence is an alternate reality with which we keep reconciling the exterior world. It can be cathartic, dysfunctional, constructive or subversive leaving pronounced impacts on our lives. Murakami’s book is a sparkling study in the process. Do read this one: you are going to love it.

  12. I could so relate to this one. Indeed social media does seem to be the dry well to escape from the clutches of the pay masters. Only you could combine a book review and a philosophical reflection in a single piece.

    1. It is more of an accidental book blurb, Karthik. I am going to bore you with a real book review of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle one of these days. Thanks for the appreciation.

  13. Technology is indeed a two-sided coin…makes me wonder what kind of life the future generations would be leading.. A hard hitting piece as always!

    1. I am afraid, it is a dystopian world we are all headed to. The children of tomorrow would never know the true joys of life, thanks to the fake world they will be surrounded with.

  14. It’s not unreal, people are indeed feeling low and frustrated in the age of social media. It won’t be long when the happiness index would go down all across!

    1. Perhaps it depends on how deep we furrow and how long we stay down there. Remember, you are never too far from the claws of your detractors.

  15. Quite an apt analogy. Social Media is like this alternate, perfect universe. What everyone would want life to be like. You would think you are a loser. Everyone else seems to be having a great time, holidaying, partying, merry-making, celebrating, congratulating, etc. etc. The problem seems to be that people are increasingly unable to distinguish the real from the made-up world, and being sucked into it. A real hole is what many of us need.

    1. Perhaps social media presents today what was wild reverizing in the past and the former is worse in that it induces delusions of worst kinds. However, my angst here is more akin to deboarding a runaway train. Many thanks for your valuable input.

  16. ❤ . This blurb of yours (as you so modestly put it) resonates with my current frame of mind. I have been away from the social media for a good 8 months and surprisingly haven't missed it a bit (had to retrive password to my own blog-shame on me!). Beautiful blogs like yours make me keep my well intentioned exile from social media aside to enrich my mind and soul. Have read Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Got to lay hands on Wind-Up Bird Chronicle soon😃 Thanks for the nudge. Have a brilliant week ahead x

  17. Now that social media well can be cavernous and bottomless. There are many stories going on in the story above though. If you have read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, you will meet Noburu Wataya (the cat) again, and you are going to love the multilayered extension of the story in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There are not many books like that you get to read often. Welcome back, my friend!

  18. I have read the Hard Boiled Wonderland, my first, and after that a few more books over the years. Will look up this one in the library.
    Social media gives an equal opportunity for all to express themselves publicly on a wide range of topics they have or don’t have a clue about. It is so exciting! Gradually, a false feeling of self-importance leads them deeper into the world of illusion. Some might get offended on the way. Some might lose a job ( How To Lose A Job In Ten Days). The best thing is to dig a hole and hide for a while, then return to reality.
    Hope all is well.

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