Kunal Basu’s writing is so unrelieved in its tediousness that it is a minor miracle that he has produced in his collection of 13 short stories titled The Japanese Wife, one story worth reading – the eponymous one. The story is 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.This, despite the two protagonists never having 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. 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 unstable grammar, punctuation and syntax and its appalling (lack of) editing. The stories skitter around the world: Hong Kong, China, Switzerland, Delhi, Agra, Java, the Sunderbans. In fact, throughout the book we get an empty wistfulness about a particularly Bengali brand of communism. 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. Then there’s Gratefill 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 Diaz 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.
I write a lot, which keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. There is always something to write about, always a new story to craft. Not writing, for me, is like trying to hold back a sneeze. Learning to write was the most powerful influence in my life. I can still remember the awe I felt when I realized I could put real words onto paper and tell out a story. From that first ‘a-ha’ moment I knew I wanted to write.
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