Sunday, May 18, 2008

Schoolmasters and accountants in the fiction of Kunal Basu

If there is one story in Kunal Basu’s new book of short stories The Japanese Wife that is revelatory of the author’s general method, it is “The Accountant”. An accountant’s life, we know, is almost by definition ordered, repetitive, prosaic – drudgery through and through. Unsurprisingly, Basu’s story opens with a scene of the protagonist, Mr.Ray, reading a manual of architecture at home after work while his wife Beena, an official in the income-tax department, folds clothes. “She was as indifferent to his reading,” we are told, “as he was to her folding.”

“The Accountant” promises to be a story of Chekhovian domesticity and compromise, of the hollow silences and thwarted yearnings of the petty bourgeoisie. But this illusion lasts only so long. Mr.Ray wakes suddenly in the middle of the night – as he has, we are told, all of the last month. What is happening to him?

Sitting up on the bed he wondered if he should wake Beena up and tell her everything. His gaze slipped through the open window and crossed the boundary wall of their gated colony, into the deserted roads and sleepy shrines. Then on it soared over the national highway, flying straight as a crow through the dustbowl of Northern India. It skirted the Yamuna on the way down the plains and came to rest on a flat bed beaten out of the alluvial soil where the river changed course from south to east. Agra! Mr.Ray felt that he had arrived, yet again, at the very spot he knew only too well. He sensed a familiar rush of excitement as he saw a much younger man who bore him a passing resemblance stride past throngs of labourers assembled on the flattened riverfront, struck with frenzy just as an event was about to unfold. Words rang in his ears…Mimar! Mimar! that followed the young man.

Mimar…the architect. He could understand everything –greetings, complaints, even a sly request for a leave of absence – muttered in a dozen tongues, knowing instantly that he had arrived at the Taj, not one of the world’s wonders as it is called today but the wonder that it was even as it was being built more than three hundred years ago by a team of clever architects. Mr.Ray felt certain that he was the Chota Mimar – the young architect arrived from Persia at the call of Hindustan’s emperor.
Without the least effort of his will Mr.Ray finds himself pitchforked into a seventeenth-century scene: a crowd of courtiers, scholars and traders sulking in the Agra sun, the widower Shah Jahan sitting crestfallen in their midst, and the upstart Lahore architect Ahmad Lahori theatening to take over and ruin the design of the Taj Mahal. Mr.Ray’s illusion is so captivating that we rush in right after him. These repeated visions trouble Mr.Ray deeply, he worries that he has contracted some rare disease of the brain, and he knows that nobody in his circle will believe his story of a past incarnation.

But the reader trusts him completely, and longs for more details of the past life of this magnificent Bengali bhadralok who was once a Persian. Just as Mr.Ray “couldn’t bring himself to deny the thrill, the secret pleasure of dipping into his memory”, the reader cannot keep himself from turning the pages of “The Accountant” (indeed, we might think of memory as a kind of compendious and fantastic book).

Later, on a real visit to the Taj with his family, Mr.Ray sees the spellbinding monument from the vantage point of the Yamuna river, and, remembering this view from three hundred years ago, wishes only that he was “a crane nesting on the dry riverbed, or a water buffalo left to roam on the banks by its owner, feasting his eyes on the Taj all day”. Allah, he exclaims to himself in wonder at one point, and in that one word is contained all the thrill of Basu’s leaping storyline: not only is the exclamation almost involuntary, but so is the particular word by which it is expressed. Allah, is what we might be saying to ourselves, too, as we follow the dizzying time travel of the romantic protagonist.

The distinctive feature of Basu’s fiction is his appetite for grand connections, for worlds set up almost from scratch. His novel The Opium Clerk explored nineteenth-century British colonialism and the drugs trade through the eyes of the clerk Hiran; The Miniaturist is set in the world of the artists of Akbar’s court; and his most recent novel, Racists, describes a race experiment set up by two European scientists in which a black boy and a white girl are brought up on a deserted island. Even in The Japanese Wife, Basu’s adaptable protagonists are found popping up in places far from home, whether it is an American widow who finds comfort in a Delhi family or a vacationing Indian couple caught up in the furore of Tiananmen Square 1989.

Basu’s love of world-roving fictions is never more beautifully deployed than in his title story (which is being made into a film by Aparna Sen) one in which the protagonist actually goes nowhere at all.

Snehamoy Chakrabarti is a lowly teacher in a village school in Bengal, and lives with his aunt, but there is one extraordinary thing about him: he has a Japanese wife. The relationship began as a letter-writing exchange between pen-friends, and it was the girl who suddenly proposed when she found out that Snehamoy was about to get married. For twenty years now husband and wife have been steadfastly sending each other letters and presents, advice and commiseration, across the sea while trying to save money so they can actually meet. Their relationship is founded upon small gifts that bear the burden of a great love, photographs that hint at the shape of a personality, the study of each other’s handwriting in letters:

Like a married man, he had grown used to coming home to her, to her things – the gifts she sent him regularly; he waited for her letters as if he was waiting for her to return from her daily visit to the market. In his personal portrait gallery – one that lay in a weathered file by his bedside – she smiled in a series of gently ageing faces. He greyed with her, advised her on her health. She prompted him to mind his savings and the loans he was eligible for but never took out. During monsoons, she’d remind him to wear socks over his slippers to avoid the bloodsucking leech.With the assured status of a Bou, she scolded him for neglecting his aunt – not taking her to see a doctor for his recurring malaria. He wrote about the bazaar women with gaudy made-up faces, who loitered around at night and gestured lewdly at passers-by. He could hear his wife giggle, teasing him…go to them Snehamoy, I know you would like to! Don’t come back to me, I can live without the... They fought over periods of silence, blaming each other, then blaming the lot of postmen. He could swear he saw her waiting for him one evening by Matla’s shores, as he came pedalling blindly down the muddy road after a rare evening with mohua – the local brew.
Basu’s exquisite tale of conjugal corcord nourished entirely by the power of the imagination invites us to think about the extent to which we imagine even the people we know from up close. The pleasures of this collection by one of the best and brightest voices in Indian fiction are enhanced by HarperCollins’s design and production, making for a book the tactile pleasures of which would surely have delighted Snehamoy Chakrabarti’s Japanese wife.

And an old post on another story of conjugal harmony: "José Saramago's Unknown Island".

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