Mera joota hai Japani…. When Raj Kapoor crooned this, the Japanese shoe was only a jaunty objectification of the foreign, almost an anti-national product, because his heart, he goes on to stress, is totally Indian. In a world where maximum footwear comes from China and exotic boots from Italy, what then is the desi traveler’s fascination with Japan? Why does he go there and stay there?
Le gayi dil gudiya Japan ki… went another popular song. This when the famous Matryoshka doll – wooden doll in wooden doll – is Russian and the largest collection of Barbies in Dusseldorf. Why choose Tokyo as a love locale and put Asha Parekh in a kimono, waving sayonara in a language she knows not?
The Japanese connection in Indian cinema and literature got more discerning and subtle over the years. Kunal Basu’s story The Japanese Wife gives us a Japan the hero never visits, the absent wife evocatively standing for longing, for the feverish ache to be united with the sublime.
When journalist Samanth Subramanian asked Pico Iyer, settled in Japan, about living in a place where he didn’t speak the language ‘as a writer who is so alive all the time to the nuances of language’, Iyer's answer spanned the spiritual.
‘I went to Japan to learn silence,’ he said during WorldLit, a Bangalore Literature Festival-Bangalore International Centre online talk series. ‘I feel that our deepest communication usually comes when no words are involved and Japan is very much predicated on that model… In prayer, in love, in terror, we lose all words… I don’t feel Japan has robbed me of words, but it has tutored me in the virtues of all that can be done without words,’ said Iyer, whose books on Japan include Autumn Light and A Beginner's Guide to Japan.
Bangalore-based educationist Preethy Rao ran a blog called Masala Sushi while living in Tokyo. ‘My time in Japan was like being in a constant Wonderland. A country so different from any other place, I had to create new schemas in my head to make sense of this place. The body language of the people was different – disciplined and controlled. Everyone was polite to each other; there were rules and degrees of politeness. There were manuals for everything. Punctuality was a religion…
‘The streets of Tokyo were like a catwalk for me always. Japanese fashion could swing from Gucci to kitschy and gaudy very quickly. Blue hair, black nails or manga fashion. Tokyo was a glass and concrete city bursting with talking machines and silent people. So here I was from another planet filtering everything through my Indian eyes, where everything was exactly the opposite!’
Anukrti Upadhyay’s latest book Kintsugi is a delicate ode to that country, criss-crossing borders to cast an artistic eye over the endless human capacity for pain and heartbreak. The book, named after the ancient Japanese art of mending broken objects with gold, moves between Jaipur and Japan, giving us honest moments in relationships that in real life must transcend rifts and rips. Brokenness need not be the end; beauty lies in showcasing the scars, wearing them as aesthetic badges. Upadhyay’s book is all about us sewing ourselves back together and letting the stitches glow in the dark.
Shinie Antony is a writer and editor based in Bangalore. Her books include The Girl Who Couldn't Love, Barefoot and Pregnant, Planet Polygamous, and the anthologies Why We Don’t Talk, An Unsuitable Woman, Boo. Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Asia Prize for her story A Dog’s Death in 2003, she is the co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and director of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival.