Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mum Isn't The Word

This appeared in today's Mint Lounge


In Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin and Ek Din Achanak – the first and last films of his so-called Absence Trilogy – the disappearance of a member of the family is a plot device used to examine the responses of those left behind. The same stratagem is to be found in Kyung-sook Shin’s novel, Please Look after Mother, the recent winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize and a bestseller in her native South Korea. There’s a marked difference in tone and aim, however, between those films and this book.

The person who goes missing is Park So-nyo, the 69-year-old wife and mother of five grown-up children, who’s parted from her husband at a Seoul subway station on the way from their village to the city where the children have settled. The reactions and memories of the rest are brought to us in chapters that shift between the points of view of some of the others in the family. There’s one of the daughters, a peripatetic writer; the eldest son, his mother’s favourite; the wayward father; and finally, the missing person herself. So-nyo’s absence, then, is a frame within which is revealed a portrait of her role in keeping the family together.

From the start, what’s emphasized is the mother’s utter selflessness and hard work when it comes to caring for others. She doesn’t let her various ailments – including a stroke and breast cancer – come in the way of doing whatever it takes: “She would grind red peppers in the mortar to make kimchi, sift through beanstalks to find beans and shuck them, make red-pepper paste, salt cabbage for winter kimchi, or dry fermented soybean cakes”. That’s just for starters: she also cultivates vegetables, scrimps and saves on expenses, breeds silkworms and brews malt.

The food and customs of rural Korea are vividly brought to life in the telling, pointing to what’s between the lines, an elegy for earlier ways of living now lost (like the mother herself) because of increasing urbanization. In this parable of change, for example, people prefer to holiday abroad during the full moon harvest festival instead of staying home to perform rites for their ancestors.  This is also the link between some of Shin’s characters and those in the short stories of Yiyun Li, relics in a fast-changing China.

What mars the novel is the tone of extreme sanctimoniousness when it comes to So-nyo. The attitude towards her is nothing if not reverential; at one point late in the book, there’s even a comparison with Michelangelo’s Pieta. In all this overstated pathos, the mother is shown to have few needs or desires of her own apart from the upkeep of her family – and the members of an orphanage, to boot.

In Sen’s films, the reactions of the families to the absence of one of their own are designed to uncover middle-class hypocrisy and insecurity. In Shin’s Please Look after Mother, the mother’s absence turns out to be a way of valorizing her motherhood above all else. Mum isn’t the word. Treacle is. 


gallerywallah said...

LOVE the last two sentences. So, so true. This book was worse than an Ekta Kapoor serial.

Unknown said...

Hmm. It doesn't start with a 'K' though. Or is she over that?