Review: Kintsugi by Anukrti Upadhyay
There is something poetic and philosophical about the Japanese concept of kintsugi that goes beyond art and functionality. The sentiment that being broken or vulnerable need not be seen as a flaw; that if the fragments of a bowl can be fused with lacquer mixed with powdered precious metals, broken people too can be healed. A newness emerges through that restoration. It is the kindness of strangers, or love in unforeseen places that helps to heal. Anukrti Upadhyay’s newest book, Kintsugi seems to delineate this thought as it beautifully binds six lives through serendipitous encounters. People connect deeply, disengage, break away, and at times, find each other again or re-form in unexpected places. The lives in the novel are set in places far removed from each other in geography, culture and thought and the narrative straddles Jaipur, Tokyo, Kyoto, Singapore and Borneo. These are places that the author has known well, and her love for them shines through.
Kintsugi takes us into the dim interiors of the extraordinary world of the jewellery makers of Jaipur. Deep within the havelis and the gaddis of Johri Bazaar, Haruko, a young American girl of Japanese-Korean origin, finds herself eagerly learning the intricacies and nuances of meenakari enamel work, and jewellery-crafting. She is granted entry into this all-male domain as an apprentice to Madanji, one of the prominent sunars of the market, only due to her foreignness. The same milieu, rife with patriarchal notions, is unwelcoming of Leela, the young daughter of Munnaji, a fine kundansaaz and one of Haruko’s mentors. Her part and place in the sun, comes later in the narrative. Meanwhile, Haruko’s section is rich with descriptions of the art; her project piece is a hansuli, “a hollow lac-filled collar necklace decorated with enamel-and-stone work”, and on the fly she starts work on a sheeshphool, a hair ornament. She forms a bond with Leela, whom she teaches to sketch jewellery, and becomes friends with Prakash, the doctor who treats her when she breaks a leg. Her story and Leela’s is also a glimpse into a society where gender, class and caste divides are glaringly present.
Meena’s first person account, that of a young student on a research scholarship in Japan, begins where Haruko’s initial story seems to end. Upadhyay effortlessly switches from the heat and dust of Rajasthan to the pristine hilly landscape of Hakone, awash with sensorial experience; “exquisite mountain breeze laden with green fragrances”, sake bars amid ancient pines along the lake with the blue and white of Mount Fuji in the background, and onsens that offer cold night dips in mineral-rich hot water where shared confidences lead to frisson-laden intimacies among friends. It is the kind of love that is seen as a disgrace by families steeped in tradition in faraway Jaipur. But then Meenachan has always been rebellious, following her heart and conviction, incomprehensible to the people back home, but unconditionally loved by her Japanese lovers, first Yuri, and then Hajime. Upadhyay is at ease painting atmospheric sketches of Japan -- the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto, the various orange and red shrines, the cultural nuances, culinary detailing, the cherry blossom time of the year: “The Zen gardens and tree-lined walks of Tenryuji were filled with golden April light”.
Each section in Kintsugi tells the story of its titular character. Upadhyay infuses the women with spiritedness, inordinate amounts of passion, and discipline. Their lives seem harsh, but they emerge stronger. Even as Haruko evolves as the wilful prisoner of her own rigour and exactitudes, Meena must go through a trial by fire for her life choices. The story’s feistiest character is perhaps Leela, displaying a rare mettle in one so young and ‘powerless’. Standing up against an entire community of sunars by choosing the path not trodden, soldiering on for herself and her family’s survival, hers is a gritty tale, and one that I would have liked to see more of. Of far less stature is Prakash, the conventional doctor, who feels almost unidimensional in comparison. The writer is gentler in her treatment of Hajime, the sensitive one, who seeks answers among the fauna and vivid hues of Selingan Island of Borneo in a curious denouement.
Upadhyay’s writing has restraint, poise and an understated charm, with no room for superfluity. A successful author in both Hindi and English, she treats her themes with equanimity and grace and love, loss, heartbreak, death and renewal play out in her nuanced writing. There is also the differentness of cultures that gently collide and at times coalesce to build bridges, and the question of identity or belonging. Like when Hajime vents to Meena during their lunch at Tenryuji: “I grew up being told I was Japanese, Meena. Whenever I tried to be like others, I was reminded I was different. Eventually I accepted it. I studied Japanese and Chinese with modern literature and applied for teaching assignments in Asia. It was an absolute relief when I first came here. Everyone looked like me… I tried too hard I think. I threw myself into what I thought was Japan -- Buddhist temples, Shinto, Kabuki. But I remained a tourist, the odd person who always sat in the wrong place at formal dinners.” So Hajime and Haruko remain outsiders due to their Americanness while Meena embraces a whole new culture rejecting her own, for the sake of love. Prakash cannot fathom why someone would give up the familiarity of convention for something foreign, even as Haruko tells him, “And maybe it is the foreignness that is attractive to her. It can be quite powerful, foreignness.”
Kintsugi is a little gem. Haruko sums up the soul of the tale beautifully when she explains the concept of kintsugi to Leela: “Not all pieces are meant to hold water, some are for allowing water to seep away. Broken things are precious too.” Just like the making and unmaking of jewellery or relationships.
Sonali Mujumdar is an independent journalist. She lives in Mumbai.