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Book Review

A passage to Japan

Print edition : Sep 22, 2022 T+T-

A passage to Japan

The author’s gift is to walk through the doors of other people’s homes and discover their inner lives.

For those with a yen for Zen, Sarayu Srivatsa’s stories glide across the page like a Noh dancer. She has created stepping stones between her life as a young girl in India and later in Japan. These are like the rocks meticulously arranged in a Japanese temple garden that Srivatsa or her doppelganger, the narrator Kavya, describes before stepping across them.

Trained to be an architect, Sarayu Srivatsa’s particular gift is to walk through the closed doors of other people’s homes and discover their inner lives. She lets us experience the use of verandahs surrounding the older home of her Japanese hosts in Kyoto and explains why their umbrella-like shade shelters the core during both winter and summer. Or peers through windows, these apertures are a recurring motif in the narrative, sometimes appearing unbidden in her repressed memories when she is asleep. In one memorable sequence, she records the sudden change in perspective that looking at, and looking through, a window brings to her exacting gaze. In doing so, she transits through many time zones and countries. The same need to explore the interior lives of people allows her to take up residence in the innermost sanctuaries of their minds and extract the honey, whether bitter or sweet, of their existence.

Until Then: A Novel
By Sarayu Srivatsa
Speaking Tiger
Pages: 168
Price: Rs.350

It could be anything. One woman affects a fake plaster tape on her ear. Another might be a neighbourhood auntie whose specialty is in making a particular kind of zesty mango relish from the stolen mangoes from a wealthier neighbour’s garden. Her simple act of defiance is to encourage the servant girl Malli and Kavya to clamber up the gate and pluck the mangoes. The best of these talismans of otherness abounds with the imagery of flowers and trees. They could be as simple as the everyday act of stringing the scented jasmine flowers on a string. Or the current New Age fad of forest bathing and how to go about it in the original Japanese way. One of the various Thathas, or uncles, that Kavya meets in her Bangalore neighborhood, directs her to observe how the one salient petal that stands out from the scarlet red petals of the Gulmohar is different from the others. That oddly colored petal hints at its singularity.

Or to quote his actual words about the Gulmohar tree that flowers just outside their house: “Look, such madness in these colors, all the shades of fire. The French rightly called it the fleur de paradis.”

As Kavya listens, he plucks a single bloom across the parapet wall and reaches for the odd petal with its yellow, white and red markings, as she describes it. “Botanically, this one is called (an) upright standard petal. If you ask me, these colored markings represent togetherness. When you grow with someone long enough, you end up alike. The petal grew close to the stamens, which infused their own color within it. Emerson rightly said, ‘Earth laughs in flowers’—yes, it really does.” Kavya might be said to represent the child in Srivatsa and with her she allows us to re-negotiate the world with a freshness that borders on delight.

You do wonder, though, how Kavya could possibly connect stories of how Napoleon’s famous wife, Josephine, set the trend in Europe by importing a hundred soft fleeced shawls from Kashmir to her life in Bombay. Did she read about the shawls in a copy of Vogue? We are told that she is the orphaned niece of a Kashmiri trader in shawls, hence his connection with Japan. He is not only tall and handsome with grey eyes, he is married to a South Indian woman, short and dusky, though Srivatsa uses a more judicious term. Even more unlikely is a reference that Kavya, or the author, makes to the 1970 Hollywood film Tora! Tora! Tora! that she watches with her aging Japanese host in Kyoto. It depicts the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that led to Japan’s precipitous, and ultimately disastrous, entry into the Second World War that ended with what must rank as a turning point in world history. That is to say the annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Incorporating, somewhat artificially it must be said, the horrors of Partition and the aftermath of Hiroshima—only the Gingko trees survived—Srivatsa suggests that there is a deeper agenda at work behind the minutiae of Kavya’s experiences in Japan. She employs what could be called the Joseph Heller method in Catch 22 of keeping the reader’s attention alive with the suggestion of some tragedy that has already occurred and is waiting to surface. Kavya’s subconscious is patterned with images of loss and abandonment.

We seem to have arrived at the day of the grandmother, or wise old woman as the keeper of our histories. (Yes, yes, there are those who call them her-stories). The one that has stirred the ravaged memories of Partition in its epic re-telling is of course Gitanjali Shree’s The Tomb of Sand. Less well known to Indian audiences is Pachinko, the 2017 award-winning novel by Min Jin Lee, a Harlem-based journalist. It tracks the fate of an impoverished Korean family from a fishing village near Busan and the cruelty of the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century through the eyes of Sunju whom we see as a young girl full of hope returning later as a grandmother who has lived through the horrors of wartime Japan and its subsequent Americanisation. Equally rich in its emotional ability to resurrect the past is Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2006), where the main character Bibi Chen has actually died and is speaking to us from inside her lacquered casket. No matter how different their circumstances are, what distinguishes each of these women is their rage to tell the truth.

Srivatsa is one such grandmother, though she does not let rage define her. In the Author’s Note at the end, Srivatsa describes how she had heard the stories about the bombing of Hiroshima from her father who had joined the Indian National Army in Tokyo; and the deprivations that he shared with the people of Japan. As she writes: “When I asked him why he risked his life, he replied, ‘ To free the country I love.’ By the time I was born, my country was already free; therefore, I couldn’t understand the people who fought in wars, who sacrificed their lives and the lives of their loved ones for a country. To the contrary, I grew up in many different cities across India and never lived anywhere long enough to call home.”

Nor does she write an epic. Her narrative is more of a haiku.

The cover image of a traditional Japanese Daruma doll is one of Srivatsa’s talismans. It represents a passage to Japan from India. It is meant to represent Bodhidharma, the monk from South India in popular parlance. Only one eye has its pupil painted. The other eye is blank. The title itself is obscure— Until then. Is it an existential threat? Or an open-ended invitation to keep turning the page?