Tryst with South East Asian stories

As I grow older, I venture deeper into my roots. I have lived away from my hometown and family for more than 15 years now. My fleeting connection to the family stories has come back to bother me in recent times. My maternal grandmother passed away when I was 10 and grandfather when I was 15. Hence, knowing them as an adult was never an option. Whatever I know of them is through stories that my mother has passed on which were as scattered as one can imagine. I realised it is probably a very cultural problem in Asian families where parents shoulder the responsibility of children until they are adults and protect them from the difficulties they have dealt with as parents or adults. In most cases, like mine, we as children of our parents don’t even know what makes our parents the individuals they are. What was their childhood like, or their fears and worries as parents, or if they ever wonder what their lives would have been had they taken the road less travelled? We will never know it because Asian parents think it is either not worth sharing their stories or they wouldn’t want to burden their children with the tough pasts they had. Such was the story in a book that I read recently.

It is ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ by Amy Tan. I had never heard of this author but I was willing to give it a shot. On a rainy afternoon, I started reading this book and couldn’t put it down. It felt too close to home. An Asian mother working hard to bring up the perfect child without the taboos that she left behind in China yet making sure that she passes on the cultural values from the homeland. Battling her own traumatic past and searching for her identity as her memory fails, and simultaneously trying to protect her daughter from any of the past influences.  She tries to make sure her daughter doesn’t grow so deeply into the American life that she forgets her roots in China. It sounds like a typical immigrant family with their share of problems but the endearing way of storytelling was what drives home the emotional intensity. I can’t say I feel differently about my mother and grandmother but our family stories are being lost in the modern day races to make ends meet. I am glad Amy Tan decided to finish the book on a high note. Else I would have been plunging deep into the troubled waters of our westernised society and the lost traditional values. 

I read ‘Norwegian Woods’ almost a decade ago. Followed by ‘Kafka on the shore’ and ‘The Windup Bird Chronicle’. All the three held my attention through every page. Haruki Murakami is an excellent narrator and being a South East Asian, one relates to the stories very well. But at the same time, I stopped reading Murakami because it drained me out emotionally. I love reading fiction but the price I was paying for Murakami’s books was a lot to handle. It was as if the moment the book begins, the narrator has plunged his hand into your rib cage and grabbed hold of your heart tight enough for it to crush into pieces. And that stopped me from venturing into Murakami and other SE Asian authored books.

A decade later a visit to a friend’s place led me to borrow two books by Ishiguro and ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’. A week later I went to the same friend’s house to return the book and she gave me another Japanese author’s book ‘Asleep’ by Banana Yoshimoto. The emotional aspect deeply intertwined with the superstitions and typical Asian values was more like hearing one of your aunts tell you this story on a fine evening over a glass of wine. My re-introduction to Asian writers almost a decade later felt like coming home. I hope I see Ishiguro through to the end along with many more that are waiting to be discovered. 

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