Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Lady Canning lives in Japan

Last week on my way to KL again, I picked up Kunal Basu's - "The Japanese Wife" at the Mumbai Airport Crossword. Had read about the book earlier - but didn't know that Aparna Sen was making a movie out of it. The Indian edition is clearly timed for the release of the film. The jacket - well designed in matt yellow and orange with muted Japanese floral prints and tinted silhouettes of the actors (Rahul Bose and the shaven-headed Japanese woman ) has an understated western touch, which I fell for despite the old adage about not judging a book by its cover. It's a collection of short stories or short-fictions as the publishers prefers to call them.

The blurb bills it as a "surreal love story" and I felt that "surrealistic" quality in the first page itself. Starting to read it on the plane - I was at once overcome by a sense of deja-vu !! The story was set in a village - Shonai - on the periphery of the Sunderbans ,across Canning, by the bank of the Matla river - a part of Bengal to which many Calcutta bred Bongs like this one, I have no qualms in admitting, came to be introduced only recently by Amitava Ghosh's - The Hungry Tide. And, it seemed a little uncanny that, I had also bought a copy of the latter at the airport for a friend in KL, who wanted it after reading Ghosh's - Glass Palace (set partly in Malayasia ) which she liked.

It's a story of a school teacher in Shonai, who has been in a long-distance marriage for over 20 years with a pen-friend in Japan, without ever having met her in person. On first reading it appeared bizarre . The plot lacked credibility on several counts - not the least of which, even at the risk of sounding disgustingly class prejudiced like Aveek Sarkar, I would say, was the choice of the locale. 'Bhadraloks' of South Calcutta generally associate Canning with fish-sellers in Gariahat market and house-hold helps (mostly Bangladeshi migrants ) who come from that area. Even Ghosh's Hungry Tide didn't do much to redeem that image of this economically deprived and depressed part of West Bengal known as South 24 Parganas . So, it's difficult to imagine an "anker - mastermoshai" ( mathematics school teacher) from Shonai (granted, he went to college in Calcutta - that's when he developed a pen-friendship with this Japanese girl whom he discovering in a magazine, exchanged vows and consummated a 'mail-order' marriage in no time ) could maintain this strange telescopic marital relationship in full view of his villager community - both young and old - and with the explicit indulgence of his widowed aunt, who affectionately calls her "Bou-Ma". His rather urbane sounding name - Snehamoy Chakrabarti - doesn't help matters either.

And a lay reader like your lonely blogger, who has very stereotypical ideas of Japanese society and culture - from books and films not having ever visited that country - is left totally flummoxed by the character of Miyaja - the Japanese wife. We are told very little about her except that, she lives in a city on the banks of the Nakanokuchi river , writes letters in different coloured inks reflecting her changing moods and state of mind, sends him exotic gifts like kites, Hokusai prints and mountain cherries ( don't know if they arrived in refrigerated containers !!) and posts her "will" in a sealed envelope to be opened only after her death. There isn't as much of a hint about her personal situation or background - all of which are left to challenge our underdeveloped imagination.

May be it was the setting that introduced a bias in my mind. Sub-consciously, perhaps, I was expecting to see traces of The Hungry Tide, like the similarities one would have inevitably found in, say a Ray and Ritwik's treatment of comparable locational situations in rural Bengal ( I wonder how a Subodh or Santosh Ghosh would have handled such a subject). But, he is no Ghosh or a Jhumpa either. Shonai is just the name of a village in his story - it could well have been Siliguri, Sitamari or Saharanpur. I thought his style lacked polish ( considering he is an Oxford Don ), the cadence uneven, the characters sketchy and the development of the plot half-baked and disjointed.

I liked the opening tho' - including the soon-going-to be famous line : "She sent him kites", which opened up a whole world of possibilities. The description of how the box of kites was carried on various modes of transport from Canning to Shonai across the Matla made amusing reading. And, the story did come alive for once in the sequence of the 'kite - fight' in the village. But after soaring to great heights, like the giant Nagasaki kite, it too went "Bhookata" in mid-air. The parallel plot of the young widow and the child moving into the house had tremendous dramatic potential - which wasn't allowed to climax. The ending - with its deliberate twist - was the best part. And, probably there begins his story.

It is only after you put down the book - does it really begin to work on you.- almost subliminally. Gradually the pencil strokes become visible, the outlines emerge , the images get form and the pictures are filled with colour. And, you are suddenly able to read - what a reviewer called - "the sub-texts of yearnings, separations, loss and secret lives" that lie somewhere deep within all of us. That's where it begins to strike a chord. Someone once described writing as nothing but an exercise in telepathy. Is this also a telepathy of sorts ?

Is Basu going to be the next Indian writing wonder ? I'm not so sure about that. But, he definitely leaves you longing for something more. Let's see how Aparna creates magic with her Miyaja.
( PS: As those who have read Ghosh's Hungry Tide would know - the port of Canning was named after Lady Canning, as was the popular Bengali Sweet - "Lady-kini" )