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 is almost by definition ordered, repetitive, prosaic—drudgery through and through—and Basu’s story opens with a scene of the protagonist, Mr Ray, reading a manual of architecture at home after work while his wife, an official at the income-tax department, folds clothes. The Accountant promises to be a story of Chekhovian domesticity and compromise, of the 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—and once again succumbs to the feeling that has taken hold of his being, which is that in some previous incarnation he was the Chota Mimar, the Persian architect who helped design the Taj Mahal. Without the least effort of will, he finds himself pitchforked into a 17th century scene—a crowd of courtiers, scholars and traders sulking in the Agra sun and the upstart Lahore architect Ahmad Lahori threatening 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. Later, on a real visit to the Taj with his family, Mr Ray sees the monument from the vantage point of the Yamuna river. Allah, he exclaims to himself, and in that one word is contained all the thrill of Basu’s leaping storyline.
The distinctive feature of Basu’s fiction is his appetite for grand connections, for worlds set up almost from scratch. 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.
The Japanese Wife: HarperCollins India, 204 pages, Rs395.
Even in The Japanese Wife, Basu’s adaptable protagonists are found popping up in places far from home. Basu’s love of world-roving fiction 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, but there is one extraordinary thing about him: he has a Japanese wife. The relationship began as a letter-writing exchange between penfriends, and it was the girl who suddenly proposed when she found out that Snehamoy was about to get married.
For 20 years, 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 meet. Basu’s exquisite tale of conjugal concord rooted in the power of the imagination invites us to think about the extent to which we imagine even the people we know up close. The pleasures of this new collection by one of the best voices in Indian fiction are enhanced by HarperCollins’ design and production, making for a book the tactile pleasures of which would surely have delighted Snehamoy Chakrabarti’s Japanese wife.
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