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Book Review: The Japanese Wife

The book scores points not due to its content but because of the fact that Aparna Sen is making a film of the title-story.

india Updated: Mar 12, 2008 19:03 IST
Neel Mukherjee

The Japanese wife
Kunal Basu
HARPERCOLLINS * Rs 395 * PP 212

Kunal Basu's writing is so unrelieved in its tediousness that it is a minor miracle that he has produced in his collection of 13 short stories titled The Japanese Wife, one story worth reading - the eponymous one. <b1>

The story is an unusual tale of a pen-friendship between Snehamoy Chakrabarti, a mathematics teacher in a secondary school in Shonai, an island in the estuarine area of the Bay of Bengal, and Miyage, a Japanese woman, that leads to an unexpected marriage.

This, despite the two protagonists never having set eyes on each other. Snehamoy lives with his ageing aunt, who has raised him, and lives for his wholly epistolary relationship with Miyage.

Into this set-up arrives the woman who he was supposed to have married, now widowed and with a son. A subtle bond of compassion develops between the two while Miyage writes to Snehamoy with news of her terminal illness.

There is the obligatory twist in the tail. But it's done with feeling and a keen sensitivity. It is rich with emotional restraint and a kind of truth that answers to the heart.

There is a kite-flying sequence in it that is beautifully orchestrated in both its literal and metaphorical keys. The rest of the book is marked by Basu's sensational and characteristic inability to create tone, its utter and absolute lack of style, even, sometimes, its unstable grammar, punctuation and syntax and its appalling (lack of) editing.

The stories skitter around the world: Hong Kong, China, Switzerland, Delhi, Agra, Java, the Sunderbans. We've had the Tourism Board school of Indian writing; here is the World Travel Bureau version. <b2>

Tellingly, the jacket author bio picks this out as the first thing to say about its author: "Kunal Basu was born in Calcutta and has travelled widely." That's all right then, he must be a good writer. Well, not quite.

Take the story Lotus Dragon, about an academic couple, Rudra and Supriya, who go to Beijing on their honeymoon, make friends with Wang, a student interpreter, and eventually get caught up in the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Everything about this story rings wrong, wrong, wrong: the slew of exclamation marks; the risible dialogue; Wang's pseudonym, Byron (I'm not making this up); the pure cardboard figures; the pure cardboard marriage; the pure cardboard ending, straining for an emotional effect that remains arrested in its constipatory straining.

Or take Lenin's Cafe, an ill-advised nostalgia-fantasy - set in Zitrich, of course, to emphasise the globetrotting theme that shines an unintentionally cruel light on this kind of typically Bengali Marxist-Leninist posturing.

In fact, throughout the book we get an empty wistfulness about a particularly Bengali brand of communism. Basu chooses to tattoo his texts with a kind of vacuously decorative lefty referencing that is nothing more than flashing a brand name to advertise its wearer's trendy credentials.

Then there's Gratefill Ganga, in which the seduction of a young American widow, Evelyn, by Yoginder Singh, a Delhi travel agent, is powered by the engine of popular Hindi film songs.

When Junot Diaz creolises his English to mint anew the language of Dominican immigrants, or Vikram Chandra strikes a miraculous balance with the delicately judged seam of Hindi running through the English in Sacred Games, they remind us of the infinitely supple possibilities of the English language.

Basu, alas, holds forth an awfully translated Hindi English schoolbook from standard 4. It is a sign of the times that this book is being sold not on the merits (sic) of the writing in it but solely on the back of the much-publicised fact that Aparna Sen is making a film of the title-story. Which would explain that cunning elision of the usual ...and Other Stories from its title.

Neel Mukherjee is the author of Past Continuous