Review: Until Then by Sarayu Srivatsa

Updated on Sep 03, 2022 07:18 AM IST

An old Japanese proverb: a garden is not complete until nothing can be removed

Workers take a break under the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Nakano, Tokyo. (Yusuke Harada/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Workers take a break under the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Nakano, Tokyo. (Yusuke Harada/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
BySaudamini Jain

An old Japanese proverb: a garden is not complete until nothing can be removed. The idea is to let go of everything unnecessary. “It is the Zen way — to move, to go with the flow, because in the end, there will be nothing but a void, after which there will be a new beginning,” a monk tells Kavya, a young adrift, depressed Indian woman, at the oldest Zen monastery — the Kenchō-ji temple, built in the 13th century in Kamakura.

176pp, ₹350; Speaking Tiger
176pp, ₹350; Speaking Tiger

Sarayu Srivatsa’s Until Then is a meditation on the recovery of repressed memories to release trauma. Kavya doesn’t remember much of her childhood — there are flashes of her parents, the outline of an older brother she can’t quite place, and the tragedy in which they lost their lives when she was six. “My memory like an ant, stops at each hurdle and drifts down a less difficult path,” the novel begins. And within this slim novel, set over a decade-and-a-half, she is able to piece it together — largely due to a kind of spiritual awakening in Japan.

This may sound like a bit of a trope and it is. Every character in the novel is wise — even children. Kavya’s friend, a young girl in Bangalore, who sneaks in to plucks roses from somebody’s garden, tells her, “Nobody owns anything… We belong to the world, and the world belongs to us. Everything in it belongs to us. Even if it is for a short while.”

Kavya lives with an aunt and uncle — friends of her parents’ — in Bombay. At first, the novel moves between Bombay, trips to Bangalore (where her aunt’s mother lives), Kyoto (where her uncle’s friends do), seeming to go nowhere really. Every now and then she has flashes about a traumatic event. She loses all her hair, wakes up with night sweats. A psychologist diagnoses her with “huge gaps in her memory” and advises her to find a hobby. Dance heals her — it’s only a few pages in the novel but worth mentioning here because it reminded me of The Body Keeps the Score, a 2014 non-fiction book by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who studies traumatic experiences. He recommends movement and role play as ways to recover from trauma.

The heart of the novel though is set in Japan — part philosophical enquiry, part self-discovery. She is introduced to Japanese concepts through Yasunari, an architect, his grandparents Obaasan and Ojiisan and a cast of assorted characters she befriends. There’s some shared trauma. Obaasan’s mother died in Hiroshima; the monk in Kamakura was born in an internment camp — his grandparents had moved to California but after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese Americans were placed in these concentration camps. There’s love, loss, death, and with every interaction, Kavya seems to be able to retrieve something from within.

The monk, for instance, teaches her how to meditate — “count your breaths. Empty your mind of thoughts and feelings. Don’t be attached or involved with anything” — and it pulls some of her memory out. She goes to temples, monasteries, cafes, gardens and learns of Japanese concepts and words. None of this is new.

Srivatsa’s father had studied at Tokyo University and joined the Indian National Army. She too studied architecture there in the 1970s — “In the years I spent in Tokyo, a new world opened out before me — of refined aesthetics and subtle sensibilities and of Zen,” she writes. Her first novel, The Last Pretence (2010), was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. She also co-authored two acclaimed books written with her partner, the late poet, Dom Moraes.

Until Then is a poetic novel, its aesthetic, for the large part, subtle and refined.

There is little new here — but I found it meditative and calming. I’ve read much of this before — some, admittedly, on Instagram. There’s wabi-sabi of course — “Wabi from wabu means to feel disappointed, distressed, abandoned and lonely. Sabi or sabu means to degrade, decay or rust. Imperfection and a sense of joy is wabi-sabi.” There are cherry blossoms, ikebana, bonsai, a smattering of the history of Japanese aesthetic. The title — Until Then — is a translation of the Japanese term Sore Made.

Kavya enrolls in a photography course in Tokyo, makes more friends — and through her experiences and interactions, she is able to slowly draw out memory and her sadness. Srivatsa writes about “mono no aware,” another untranslatable Japanese term/concept about impermanence — it is the “beautiful sadness of the passing of our lives, moments, or things like the autumn leaves that fall or the moon that wanes, the passing seasons, or when a lover leaves. Flowers are beautiful only because they die. Think of it: the cherry blossoms are no more beautiful than any other flower. Their beauty lies in this sadness; they don’t last very long.”

Author Sarayu Srivatsa (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Sarayu Srivatsa (Courtesy the publisher)

It’s all quite beautiful but not particularly lasting. Later, back in India, Kavya goes to Sarmoli. In the hills, where “mujo mono-no-aware, wabi-sabi, were all unfitting… they trapped beauty as a menagerie of sorts, and their denotations confused me. The loveliness here was free.”

And suddenly, too abruptly, the pace of the novel changes. Kavya is “drenched by old images as they force their way out of the bulwarks of my mind. There was an uncanny melodrama to these unfolding images as though I were in a cinema watching a film unroll.” It all comes together haphazardly — the Kashmiri exodus, details of her life before, the memory of that night — and then a quick outline of Kavya’s adult life back in Bangalore and Bombay — and then in Japan. It’s slapdash and anticlimactic. This novel did not need a grand revelation in the form of a flood of memory. It marred the elegance of this inexplicable novel, which was until then (sora made), shibui — “Beautiful things are Shibui; they are simple and subtle, difficult to define.”

Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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