Thursday, March 6, 2008

Looking London, Going Tokyo

This appeared in the latest issue of TimeOut Mumbai


The title story in Kunal Basu’s collection, The Japanese Wife, is a quirky tale of an introverted teacher in rural West Bengal and his marriage to a Japanese woman he’s never met, only corresponded with. Not only is it poignantly rendered, it’s often portrayed in strikingly visual terms.

When it comes to the rest, however, the devices that make the title story work seem flat and forced. In ‘Long Live Imelda Marcos’, an account of an Indian couple’s relationship with their Filipina maid in Hong Kong, the story’s delicacy and insight is marred by the trick ending. The same occurs in ‘Father Tito’s Onion Rings’, dwelling on the predicament of a Yugoslavian priest in Calcutta. And the finale of ‘Lotus Dragon’, dealing with an Indian couple in Tiananmen Square in 1989, is frankly manipulative.

Many stories revolve, as above, on the plight of people out of place. In ‘Grateful Ganga’, a recently-widowed American arriving in India to immerse her husband’s ashes finds herself attracted to a strapping Punjabi in Delhi; in ‘Miss Annie’, a Russian harlot in Calcutta forges a relationship with three incendiary revolutionaries. There aren’t really any clash-of-culture insights: the tales are predicament-driven rather than character-led.

Where trick devices are dispensed with, there’s the absence of narrative charge, as in ‘The Last Dalang’ or the odd ‘Lenin’s Café’. Then, there’s ‘The Accountant’, which has a promising premise – a middle-aged accountant believing that he’s the reincarnation of one of the Taj Mahal’s architects – but ends all too neatly. It’s almost as though Basu, having come up with interesting characters, doesn’t trust them to evolve organically. In one of the stories, he states “In life, as in a work of art, it’s the accident that reveals more than the plan”. More accidents and fewer plans would have made these stories better.

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