August 09, 2020
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Grappling With The Past

An expat writer's latest book about Japanese war crimes creates waves in the West

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Grappling With The Past

NOVELIST Meira Chand is no stranger to India. Born in 1942 to an Indian father and a Swiss mother, and educated in London—she now lives in Japan—Chand acutely felt the growing pangs of alienation, lost identity and severed roots ever since she can remember. And she puts down all her experiences and more in her books. On a comeback trail after 10 years, Chand's sixth and latest novel, A Choice of Evils, is already creating waves, making her one of the frontliners of Asians writing in English.

For A Choice of Evils—published by Wiedenfield and Nicolson of the Orion Publishing Group—Chand uses the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of China, from the 1930s to the end of World War II. It has whipped up a great deal of interest in Europe and Asia because of the recent reexamination of Japanese atrocities committed during the war. And the British press has also taken notice of it. The Times, London, called it "a marvellously researched and impressively well-written novel". Time Out magazine was equally generous: "Thorough in its research, ambitious in scope, Chand's latest novel shows the Kobe-based writer's remarkable facility for piercing the contradictions." 

The 52-year-old Chand paints on a vast and varied canvas and uses her multidimensional characters to tell their stories from different perspectives. This adds an epic flavour to her work, not unlike Doctor Zhivago, War and Peace and, more recently, Schindler's List. The plot revolves around the lives of a motley mix of characters who come together in a cruel twist of fate and are at the mercy of the Japanese. And in this, they are all victims in some way or another of the rape of Nanking.

There's the Russian researcher Nadya, who falls in love with the British photojournalist Donald; an American missionary doctor Martha who goes insane after one daughter is raped and the other dies; a Chinese professor Teng who becomes a Buddhist monk; a young Japanese soldier who defects as he cannot bear his countrymen's brutality; and there's Tilik Dayal, the complex and confused Indian nationalist who works for the Japanese intelligence and is disappointed on meeting Subhash Chandra Bose.

But the most memorable character of all must be the cultural attache at the Japanese embassy in Nanking, Kenjiro, who—with a short affair with Nadya en route—emerges as a strong and endearing person. A Japanese bureaucrat and the most humane of all the characters in the novel, he lives in the readers' mind long after the book is back on the shelf.

The thrilling story ends with a Tokyo War Crimes' Tribunal reuniting some characters, laying some ghoulies to rest and generally attempting to urge the reader to examine the potential for cruelty in a people known more for their cultural refinements.

It took Chand five years to write the book. So, what was the most difficult part? "The interviews I conducted in China with the survivors of the rape of Nanking were not as difficult as I had thought. What was maddening was the reaction in Japan—all the old men who had been a part of the war machinery suddenly dried up. Two Japanese who I tried to interview told me pointedly that it was water under the bridge and there was no need to look back. I found that very disturbing because it reflected the entire Japanese attitude of never even beginning to deal with their deeds."

Chand explores the themes of spiritual duality, corruption, displacement and evil—both within the individual and in society at large. Brutality, atrocities and man's inhumanity towards man finds poignant expression in her narrative that has a cutting edge in its simplicity.

Says Chand: "I was a child of the war years and my very first memories are of bomb shelters. And then, towards the war's end, I have vivid memories of how my parents supported an Australian-Jewish family. The husband of the woman was thrown into a German concentration camp but was lucky to escape with the help of the resistance. In the glow of the winter evening lamps, as Iheard the stories he told my father, shadows were imprisoned in my mind. Later, much later, when I went to live in Japan in 1962, and I gradually learnt about Japanese war history and about the atrocities and the entire military's conspiracy of silence, I believe I was angry. Angry at Japan's inability to look at its past." 

The themes of rootlessness and a search for identity are the leitmotifs that bind most of her novels—The Gossamer Fly, The Last Quadrant, The Bonsai Tree, The Painted Cage, and House of the Sun. 

An event occurred when she was five years old that is tattooed on her brain forever: "It was on a beach in England where my parents had taken me on holiday. I was standing near the shore, when a tall Englishman came up to me and asked what nationality I was, pushing a half-crown into my little palm. 'Indian,' I said, without any idea that my father had been watching the scene from afar and had now come to rescue his daughter from a potential pervert. My father wanted to know what the man had asked me, and on hearing my reply, he forced the coin out of my clenched palm and threw it far into the sea. Then, he was overcome with anger, repeating again and again that should I ever be asked that question again, I was to say that I was English, because that is indeed what I was. English. A curious mixture of an Indian father, a Swiss mother and I was British by nationality," says the softspoken author with a smile. 

"I realised the search for an identity even more sharply after I married, in 1962, an Indian who had gone to study in the UK, and went to live in Japan for 10 years and later when I went to India for five years, between 1971-75. India had a tremendous effect on me. It was going to India, where I found my spiritual identity, that turned the axis around in me. It was a homecoming that I had waited for...for many years. And it was as if a trigger had been unlocked in me," says the mild-mannered writer.

"A new spark, a new intensity drove me, a process was set in motion and I realised the only way to express myself was through my writing. When I went back to Japan, I wrote my first novel, The Gossamer Fly."

In her childhood, the issue of cultural duality obsessed her. "It was very painful to be treated like an outsider. I needed to belong." Now, of course, she realises the gift of the many cultures and the richness of many heritages.

Thrown into a monolithic culture that stank of intolerance and parochialism—England in the '40s was rather unsympathetic of mixed marriages, especially since they resulted in children of mixed heritage—Chand faced all the music that a class-and-race-conscious society such as England would throw her. And some of it jarred heavily enough to shape her psyche, soul and even her craft. And it is to her credit that she transformed what could have been a potential disability into a creative force.

Chand speaks eloquently about cultural pluralities and being citizens between cultures. Like most virgin ventures which glow with the first flush of excitement, The Gossamer Fly has some of her best craftsmanship. A certain mastery of rhythm, feel and intensity gives it a multidimensional effect, somewhat like a Seurat painting. Rave reviews came in from The Guardian, New Statesman and The Financial Times, and the author was already making her mark in the international literary scene as early as 1979. Chand has never had to look back since, though curiously the India reading public has never really been exposed to her oeuvre.

A grandmother three times over, Chand has a daughter who lives in England and a son, married to an Indian, who lives in Singapore. The author lives in Kobe, Japan, with her husband.

How did she successfully juggle her writing, motherhood and wifely duties? "For all women writers there's a long list of priorities. Writing is very much near the bottom when you are a mother. But once you have completed your motherly duties, life goes back into writing. Nothing is wasted in life. Everything is an enrichment, and I have no regrets," she says with the confidence of a woman who has found harmony within herself.

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