During my primary school years, all I really cared about, academically, was the library period. That was probably the only class in which the teacher remained as quiet as the students (rather, as quiet as the students are supposed to be), so when she did speak, she had my undivided attention. I suppose twinkling-eyed, large-hearted Ms Dolasha did tell us to “never judge a book by its cover”, but oh well.
My Beautiful Shadow – Radhika Jha
Undoubtedly, it was the cover of this book that caught my eye. My fingers brushed across the spines of books, shelf after shelf, hesitating occasionally while I peered at the titles. I had picked seven out of the eight allowed books and was on the lookout for something different, something that would stand out in my bundle of ‘Robin Cook’s and ‘Agatha Christie’s. And so, yes, I judged this book by its cover and the Asian woman gazing into the distance called out to me, my hand pulling it out, seemingly of its own accord and adding it on top of my neat stack of books.
It started off as a rather engaging read, light and simple, the chapters not too long, (am I the only person who prefers books having chapters that don’t exceed 10-12 pages? I feel like it’s the same as when you have two small pizzas as against one medium pizza and somehow you can eat six slices of the entire medium pizza, yet eight slices of two small pizzas seem too much even though they probably amount to the same thing. I digress.) and characters not too many. (Again, am I the only person who forgets character names within a day? I finished reading this book yesterday and the names are already fading out of my mind like a drop of ink dissolving in an ocean. I digress yet again.)
The book follows the story of Kayo, her obsession with shopping, her eventual stumbling into the pitfalls of debt and the extent to which she goes to recover the money. Only to fall deeper in. One would think that knowing that her father had died precisely for the same reasons, owing money and being unable to repay the loan sharks, she’d know better than to spend without second thoughts, but as the author so aptly puts it:
The problem with beautiful things is that when you have one, you want two and when you have two, you want three. For the eye’s hunger has no limit. Unlike the mouth which has a bag, the stomach attached to it, the eye is simply an opening. Behind it is the bottomless cupboard of the mind.
The story is simple. So simple, in fact, that I wondered quite a bit as to what I would write in this book review. I’ve pretty much summarised the book two paragraphs above. But it’s not so much the story, as it is the words, the underlying meanings, the hidden implications that are left between the lines, that make this book so intriguing. I can quote a dozen sentences that made me stop midway and ponder, but I’m writing a book review, and not a book so…
For, peace and happiness, I realised, were two different things. Happiness was like the bubbles on the surface of dirty dishwater. Peace was the water itself. Water washed away all dirt, it made things pure and whole again. If I let the water run out of my life, there would be no bubbles. And then what would be left?
A year ago, I’d have scorned at this. Among the other “deep” stuff that I came across while reading. I didn’t get some grand enlightenment or anything, I’m still grumble-y, lazy, self-centred me. But the subtlety with which these things are interspersed among the story, just scattered among the words, leaving you to pick them up at your own leisure, left me hunting for these so-called pearls of wisdom.
The book has a very Asian tinge to it, some of their values echoing those of mine. A strong family bond, for instance. The desire to keep your loved ones happy, at any cost. Kayo refers to her family as her garden, the place she turns to for peace. One questions her decisions, especially the one of selling herself for money, and wonders why she wouldn’t simply confess to her husband and ask him to clear her debts, but I suppose nobody’s perfect and maybe we think we would do the “right thing” were we in her situation, but who are we to say, really.
The end is predictable, yet abstract. No, she does not clear all her debts and live happily ever after. After all, this novel is about consumerism in Japan, portraying the people as constantly desiring more – more clothes, more shoes, more successful children scoring better grades, and yet everyone around the protagonist, including herself, fits perfectly into this mould of elegantly dressed, high-heeled women projecting wealth or power. She mentions how everybody is so similar that they cook the same meals on the same days, buy the same vegetables, carry the same bags and lead almost identical lives. In stark contrast, there is a chapter or two in which she stays in the countryside, where everyone is happy with what they have; a garden, a bird, nature itself fulfilling the hunger that she always felt.
You hope that maybe she’ll go back to her house after that and everything will be okay, but the book strives to be realistic, and remains slightly open to interpretation. There is no spoiler, for maybe what I took away from the last few pages may be poles apart from what the next person would. But the slight disappointment that struck me at the lack of clarity towards the end dissipated, eventually leaving me with the essence of the book.
In conclusion, if you’re apprehensive about reading Robin Sharma but want something to question or muse over, give this book a read. Or you could just go over and read: https://karmaspeak.wordpress.com/2016/07/16/kolkata/
It’s shorter than a book, but just as satisfying.
*hehehehehe Suchit, I can shamelessly plug too*