Disclaimer: This is not a review of Basu’s entire anthology of short stories. Here, I will be discussing a story, which touched me most, possibly changing me in some way.
“Exactly at four, after the bell had rung announcing the end of the school day, he had mounted his cycle and made his way back through the rustling trees. Once inside, he stood facing the box propped up by his bed like a timid visitor, then started unwrapping the canvas-brown cover just as impatiently as he had opened his wife’s first letter from Japan, twenty years ago, similarly marked with two alphabets.”Kunal Basu
Snehamoy Chakrabarti teaches Mathematics to senior school students in his village, Shonai. He is good at his job and seldom makes any mathematical errors in class. He lives with his aunt, a widow, after he lost his parents to the temperamental river Matla. He is timid, introverted and unremarkable in every way, except for the fact that he has a Japanese wife, Miyagi.
Snehamoy found Miyagi’s address in a magazine and started writing to her. In the beginning, their letters were brief, but with time they started sharing and communicating like true friends. He was in college then. When his aunt pushed him to marry a shy village belle, Miyagi proposed, offering herself as his bride, which he accepted.
They got married by exchanging their vows over letters. Without having met. The prospect of meeting hadn’t occurred to either. Snehamoy did think of visiting her but stopped himself after calculating the expenses. With time they become husband and wife — sharing and discussing everything like partners, much like any other normal married couple.
The exotic and varied gifts and her photographs which she sent from Japan made him connect with her physically and he looked forward to coming home to her — hidden in her insignia.
In the beginning, the villagers laughed, rebuked and criticized him for his choice. Later, he became known as the man with the Japanese wife. A fact which made no difference to them, much like the weather.
Hence, it seems quite believable that Snemoy’s only friend is the river Matla. The river, which is nothing short of a minor character, flows by his village and he has a love-hate relationship with it.
Turning ruthless and hostile, Matla had drowned his parents. But, it had also calmed, soothed and turned into his silent confidant, when he shared his innermost thoughts about his Japanese wife, whom he had never met.
In a life as remarkable and unremarkable as his, when the girl he had rejected as his bride years ago returns to his life, with her young son, his love for his absentee wife is tested — who in distant Japan becomes critically ill.
In the beginning, he dislikes her presence in the house, even her cleaning of his room or, the hanging of Miyagi’s portrait on the wall.
“He gaped at his orderly surroundings, then grabbed the picture and wrenched it off its hook…Only the dead must hang on the walls not the living…his heart froze for his wife.”Kunal Basu
However, with time and with living under the same roof, he warms up to her. A shy and lonely widow, who has no one and is sheltered by his kind aunt. A strange bond of sisterhood develops between the two women. And his aunt who until now listened keenly to him report about his wife’s declining health becomes disinterested — her loyalties being now reserved for the other woman. The woman in the house. Not a distant Japanese shadow.
One night, in “his single-most impulsive act” Snehamoy falters and commits an indiscretion. Repentant and ashamed he confesses everything in a letter, sending it to Miyagi. While at the same time, he opens a letter from his wife in which she writes:
“When you set your eyes on this, I will be no more…”Kunal Basu
Some time later, Snehamoy falls prey to Malaria and passes away. At his aunt’s request, the headmaster of the school where he worked writes to his wife informing her about his untimely death.
And beating all the odds, Miyagi comes to his village, “her head shaven, wearing the white of a Hindu widow.”
- The surreal premise. Here love isn’t physical but ethereal, bordering on the spiritual.
- Snehamoy and his journey. Kunal Basu makes an unremarkable village school teacher remarkable through his singular decision, which changes the course of his life.
- Miyagi’s gifts. The sending of kites and his flying of it all one day is symbolic of the power of love, unbound by physical constraints.
- The river Matla and Snehamoy. The bond between those who live on the banks of a river is unbreakable. This has been captured beautifully in this short story.
- The writing, which moves in its own rhythm and pace. Kunal Basu’s writing makes an implausible tale, credible and likable.
- The premise. Once you close the book, you are left to ponder if love is this ethereal or is it just a case of fictional license. Not to forget, even in Snehamoy’s case, his loneliness gets the better of him.
- Miyagi. Was her character left underdeveloped so that her last act could be used to surprise the reader and conclude this unique story?