13 March 2008

The Japanese Wife

Author: Kunal Basu
Price: 395
Publisher: Harper Collins


From the moment Aparna Sen announced that she would be making a literary adaptation of Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife, one saw an immense curiosity for the book. Not unexpectedly, copies of it were instantly lapped up at literary fests and now when it has finally hit book stores, business remains brisk as ever.
Now, firstly, this is a disappointment for people expecting to read a full-fledged novel on The Japanese Wife because it's a book of 13 short stories. The theme that runs here is that of unexpected, inscrutable love and situations brought on by quirks of destiny. This is of course an interesting premise to base ones stories upon, only that most of them are so isolated, so out-of-the-ordinary and so never-landish in describtion and characters that none of them emotionally engage you. Most of them have strange titles and names –The Pearlfisher, The Last Dalang, Lenin’s Café, Long Live Imelda Marcos and stranger stories, situated in different continents - there's a certain Babel like quality here but just that none of the stories seem wholesome enough.

Some of them start off showing some promise but turn unclear, unexciting and plain tedious after a couple of pages. Given that most stories here are themselves so bizarre, it’s no surprise that the attempted ironic twists fall flat on more than one occasion.

The only story to recommend here is the title one –The Japanese Wife, which is truly admirable.

It talks about a Maths teacher Snehamoy Chakrabarti, who through a series of letters befriends a Japanese girl, Miyage and even marries her without seeing her. Neither of them consider it consequential to meet and it’s a proposal that is merely kept hanging in balance. Snehmoy lives with his ageing aunt and carries on his wholly epistolary relationship for more than 20 years feeling mostly content to have a wife who he can share his feelings with, without actually having to take on the pressures that come with marriage. Now, it’s easy to read this as escapism but the bond of love he feels for his Japanese wife is real. The village is enchanted with the colourful kites and other gift packets she sends him by post.
Meanwhile, Snehamoy’s house has an unexpected guest – the same girl who he was supposed to have married, now widowed with a son. Physical proximity with her leads him to develop some feelings but he quickly restrains himself knowing he’s married.

The story has an unexpected twist but this is one that rings true inspite of it being a rather peculiar love story. That the bonds of love transcend every conceivable boundary and matters of heart follow a rhyme and rhythm of their own is an intensely poignant theme. Also, there's a certain lyrical, surrual beauty to the story here.
Wish one could say the same for all the others.


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