The Japanese Wife by Kunal Basu

09/03/08, Hindustan Times

Kunal Basu’s writing is so unrelieved in its tedious unreadability that it is a minor miracle he has produced, in his latest book, a collection of short stories titled The Japanese Wife, one story worth reading, the eponymous one, all of 13 pages in a 200-page volume. It’s an unusual tale of a pen-friendship between Snehamoy Chakrabarti, a mathematics teacher in a secondary school in Shonai, an island in the estuarine area of the Bay of Bengal, and Miyage, a Japanese woman, that leads to an unexpected marriage although the two protagonists never set eyes on each other. Snehamoy lives with his ageing aunt, who has raised him, and lives for his wholly epistolary relationship with Miyage. Into this set-up arrives the woman who he was supposed to have married, now widowed and with a son. A subtle bond of compassion develops between the two while Miyage writes to Snehamoy with news of her terminal illness. There is the obligatory twist in the tail, but it’s done with feeling and a keen sensitivity. The overwrought media reception so far would have you think that the story was the most precious gem from Alice Munro or Raymond Carver; it’s no such thing, by a long chalk, but it is rich with emotional restraint and a kind of truth that answers to the heart. There is a kite-flying sequence in it that is beautifully orchestrated in both its literal and metaphorical  keys.

The rest of the book is marked by Basu’s sensational and characteristic inability to create tone, its utter and absolute lack of style, even, sometimes, its semi-literacy, its unstable grammar, punctuation and syntax, its appalling (lack of) editing. The stories skitter around the world: Hong Kong, China, Switzerland, Delhi, Agra, Java, the Sunderbans. We’ve had the Tourism Board school of Indian writing, here is the World Travel Bureau version. Tellingly, the jacket author bio picks this out as the first thing to say about its author: ‘Kunal Basu was born in Calcutta and has travelled widely.’ That’s all right then, he must be a good writer.  Well, not on the basis of his three execrable novels and now this accident of a book. Mass delusions are very common throughout history – think of gods, saints, religious miracles – and the mind-boggling fact that Basu can be considered a writer is surely a minor example of that delusional strain in human thinking.
Take for example ‘Lotus-Dragon’, about an academic couple, Rudra and Supriya, who go to Beijing on their honeymoon, make friends with Wang, a student interpreter, and eventually get caught up in the Tiananmen Square uprising. Everything about this story rings wrong, wrong, wrong: the slew of exclamation marks; the risible dialogue; Wang’s pseudonym, Byron (I’m not making this up); the pure cardboard figures; the pure cardboard marriage; the pure cardboard ending, straining for an emotional effect that remains arrested in its constipatory straining. Or take ‘Lenin’s Café’, an ill-advised nostalgia-fantasy – set in Zürich, of course, to emphasise the globetrotting theme – that shines an unintentionally cruel light on this kind of typically Bengali Marxist-Leninist posturing. In fact, throughout the book we get an empty wistfulness about a particularly Bengali brand of communism. It is devoid of content and instead of exposing its idealisms and its wrongnesses, its problematics and its fissures, its cultural hold that is both politics and hypocrisy, Basu chooses to tattoo his texts with a kind of vacuously decorative lefty referencing that is nothing more than flashing a brand name to advertise its wearer’s trendy credentials. Clearly, Basu is so enamoured of the trappings of this kind of socialist thinking that he felt impelled to become a professor of management, a fact that is eloquently not mentioned in the sleeve.

Then there’s the bilge that’s ‘Grateful Ganga’, in which the seduction of a young American widow, Evelyn, by Yoginder Singh, a Delhi travel agent, is powered by the engine of popular Hindi film songs. When Junot Díaz creolises his English to mint anew the language of Dominican immigrants, or Vikram Chandra strikes a miraculous balance with the delicately judged seam of Hindi running through the English in Sacred Games, they remind us of the infinitely supple possibilities of the English language. Basu, alas, holds forth an awfully translated Hindi-English schoolbook from standard 4.  Stick to management, would be my advice.       

It is a blazing sign of the wrong turning that publishing has taken that this crap is being sold not on the (non-existent) merits of its writing but solely on the back of the much-publicised fact that Aparna Sen is making a film of the title-story. It seems the publishers are aware of the fact themselves, which would explain that cunning elision of the usual ‘and other stories’ from its title, amounting to a damaging admission that the book is staked on only one story and that too on its connection with film, celebrity, glamour. Think very carefully before being fooled into spending Rs. 395 on this con.