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Sunday 4 January 2009

The Japanese Wife by Kunal Basu

January 4, 2009

by Suzan Abrams
in Dublin

Book Review - Short Stories (India)

The bewitching front and back jacket covers of The Japanese Wife were shot by Saregama Films and the cover designed by Pinaki De.

India: An arresting whiff of exquisiteness herald's master storyteller and screenwriter, Kunal Basu's array of 12 distinctive short stories; all expertly shaped and narrated for the reader, with vital pomp and an air of persuasive seductive charm.

The quaint assortment, compiled into a neat orchestral sequence featuring dramatic haunting overtures, opens with the intriguing and terribly sad, The Japanese Wife, in a title of the same.

The Kolkata-born Basu and presently, a scholar at Oxford University, England, had earlier published three elegant novels, The Opium Clerk, The Miniaturist and Racists.

Each glorifies the author's fastidious penchant for decorative historical works and the permanent gloss of an impeccable polish for the celebration of the English Language as it twirls, spins and exhibits bold, flamboyant pirouettes with grandiose frolic, and never you mind, the rollercoaster frog leaps along the merrymaking slip-sliding way.

Basu says in his portfolio that his next work is "always the best."

Indeed, here in his latest unsuspecting collection, he reveals his astounding mastery in chauffeuring the flavour of a full-bodied short story into a limousine whirr of brilliance.

Each of the poignant 12 tales whipped up together into an exotic platter of names such as Lotus Dragon, Tiger! Tiger, The Pearlfisher and Father Tito's Onion Rings, celebrate an alluring Hong Kong menu in a feast fit for kings. Of course, the stories are too universal to be categorized into a boxed formula. It is obvious the author has no desire to bind his stories into the folds of any specific culture.

Had the reader delved into these stories, pacified by a a shot of liqueur, a drop of champagne or a taste of luxury toffees, it would have marked a grand cosy evening with feet up by the warm winter fire or a verandah out in the cool air, somewhere on a warm night and blanketed with stars. In reading Basu, one garners a direct suspicion that his stories were always meant for the tasteful discerning reader.

Having previously met the pleasant gentleman himself, at the Singapore Writer's Festival and where with slight annoyance, he had dismissed with a perfunctory note, the "ridiculous notion" that his writings be labelled into any definite cultural identity and this while sitting for an interested audience and in friendly conversation with David Davidar of The House of Blue Mangoes; and where the latter had reflected on his constant search for an Indian-ness all along, Basu was warrant to lament that though it be concluded that he himself be torn between the complications of heritage that trail the Indian resident in the UK, he would have liked it made known of how keen a traveller he was, that in stepping into foreign soil or strange lands, he would immediately embrace his surroundings with an air that mingled the emotions of pleasure and curiosity for an abiding belief in the universal race as a whole.

The Singapore journalist who kept on that Basu consider a writer's identity as in accordance with an Indian heritage for the world, was left disappointed.

This conclusion is evident in all the 12 stories.

In The Japanese Wife, two-pen friends, one in a small North Indian village and the other in Japan, write to each for the next 20 years. After some initial apprehension and hesitation, they declare with solemn belief, their wedded vows. They never meet. Other obstacles and conflicts rise to prevent a true enactment of the romantic fable. Villagers are amused with unorthodox parcels and letters. The couple playact and convey a pretence to the everyday motions of living. The imagination is their guiding star. Finally, fate interves rather sternly, that something gives, uncaring at any hint of a tragic installment.

In Singapore in December 2007, Basu enthused that he was intent on hurrying with the proofs for this book, to which he had admitted stuffing with hurried nervousness, the entire manuscript into his luggage and knuckling them down with furious scruntiny, during the long flight interlude.

The reason was that Basu had recently met with famed Indian film-maker Aparna Sen, who was determined "at all costs" to turn the Japanese Wife into a film. Of course, the book would have to be published in India first and so an urgent deadline had proved helpful to all parties.

Basu who admitted being excited about his stories in spite... also joked that his London literary agent sometimes worried at his effusive reputation for writing. He would wake up at odd times into the night and write regally into the dawn. Eventually, he would be ready to ferrythe precious reams of writing accompanied by a beaming enthusiasm, to his surprised agent, after having just delivered an earlier piece of work.

In The Japanese Wife, Basu employs a cluster of different voices and techniques for his stories.

Lenin's Cafe for instance, is characterized in a fashionable august style that may be easily reminiscent of a modern European classic. It opens with a line as piercing as...

"I met my father eleven years after his death, in Zurich at the Limmatquai where swans come to feed."

The old world charm continues, "Then they left in a trail of hats almost as suddenly as they had arrived. Beret in hand, Lenin had pointed to the door, and his stern eyes were smiling once again. A sheepish Martov left with Vera Ivanoa trying to clear the air..." - Kunal Basu, The Japanese Wife

The Snakecharmer which maps out a passionate heartrending story on a couple's association with their Filipino maid who falls in love with an Indian shop assistant in Hong Kong, may have been mistaken for a slice of contemporary British fiction.

All of the tales are outstanding. All please and soothe the senses as deep psychological insights hold the fort.

It is easy to pick Basu out as the veteran traveller. He manouveres his fiction on different countries with a cultured ease, yet is able to pick out the subtle identities that shape a region uniquely as such.

However, this reader felt that Miss Annie was sadly wanting for the awkward marrying of high intellectual capability with the raw fixtures of prostitution. When terrorists who are intent on the intelligence of their Russian history, meet with Annie a prostitute in India to lay out their plans, the episode itself seems ill-fitting and romanticised with no bearing placed on perceptible insights.

The difficulties lay in conjuring the very idea of picturing a prostitute intent only on fame and fortune, discussing the finer nunances of her past dictators. Also, when Annie regales as a stage actress, it seemed distinctly out of place as another fairy-tale story of rag-to-riches and did not fit in with the unruffled harmony displayed by the other stories. Had another character happened on the role of actress and Annie roped in with enthusiasm on her career as a prostitute, the story although superbly told, would have served as being more in touch with reality.

Basu is also majestic at endings. It is not often an author knows how to summon up the last lines with genius but Basu manages a range of intricate knots with aplomb. In this vein, his stories in The Japanese Wife could have easily playacted bouquets rounded up with handsome Cartier bows. And that is no exaggeration.

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