When I was eight, Mama taught me that in our world, there was power in words no more.
When I was nine, and he had dug his nails in my backside, I screamed and told Mama, and Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.
When I was twelve, and confused between angels and demons, praying for sinners and falling in love with sins, I stayed silent and prayed for mercy, because Mama told me that in our world, there was power in words no more.
When I was sixteen, and in love with wraiths, a hand clasped my mouth and showed me darkness, the abyss that awaited only for me, and when Mama’s words rung like church bells in an empty altar, I leaped into an endless chasm, because in our world, there was power in words no more.
And life traveled at her own pace, passing days in hours and moments in lifetimes, and the world grew darker and brighter, the demons danced with the angels, and the angels made love to the devils.
Time danced in her little cage, welcoming me into her gilded prison, as she sung sweetened songs of mercy to my ears. My pretty young heart beat to her swan-songs, to secret dreams and unfulfilled hopes. And for a minute, Mama’s words sounded truth no more.
And the world moved on, the seasons changed, yellow turned into saffron and saffron welcomed the grey mornings of winter, and somewhere in between, I was a child no more, I had a voice no more.
Until one morning, the fires burned again, and the world discovered that we could speak, and the angels began searching for their broken wings, and the demons no longer danced in secret in their souls at night.
Slit throats sewed in severed heads, only this time, a feeble swan throat no longer bore the burden of pretty broken faces, now the lionesses roared and the she-wolves howled, their broken bones, their scarred faces, their crippled paws in display for the world to behold.
They wanted to look away, oh they wanted to look away, color themselves blind and the devils gave them their masks, their masquerade almost as grand as the art we made of our shattered bones, our severed wings, our lone feathers still drifting somewhere across the sea.
And so I walked to Mama, and Mama is old now, she walks with a cane and she breathes with effort, the fumes of the past choke her still, silence her still, and when she thinks I have come for my lessons, she opens her dried mouth to say, Oh child, in our world, there was power in words no more.
And I use my softened palms, so very different from world-worn roughened ones, to cup those cheeks that carry the battle-weary lines of time, like half-scribbled sketches etched upon her skin, and I say, No, Mama, no more, no more.
She closes her eyes, the softest glimmer of a tear seeps out from the corner of those half-shut eyes, and her smile seems juxtaposed, as if stolen from the lips of a child and gifted to the mouth of an old remnant of the past.
And then she mumbles, oh, she mumbles, a cornucopia of secrets between two women across the shadows of time, and I hope she believes in words, once more, once more.
The evening falls in like the caress of a lover. The lights dim, and a heart of darkness is awakened. A faceless pianist plays a rendition of Duke Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in a jazz bar in Tokyo. Hajime, the narrator, sits there, at home and yet stranded, sipping his last drink of the night, when the doors open, and in comes a woman, a woman with a face he treasured in another life.
In 1992, Haruki Murakami penned a story that started in a quaint little town in Japan in the 1960s and sped across decades into the heart of a beguiled jazz-loving romantic Tokyo. South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition of the swansong that was Hajime’s life, one intermixed with love and melancholia in equivalent proportions, and narrates a simple, and eerily futile, tale of an ordinary man’s life, a man burdened by enormous dreams.
Growing up as a lonely single child, Hajime the child finds friendship and the first pangs of unrealized love in the company of Shimamoto, his childhood friend. Carrying her memories and the symphony of Nat King Cole’s ‘South of the Border, West of the Sun’, half-remembered in the sounds of vinyl records and the silence of afternoons, Hajime steps into adolescence. He finds love in the arms of his classmate and girlfriend, Izumi, and yet, the sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy, never truly deserts him.
Ending the relationship at the cost of being haunted by ghosts of regrets and guilt in years to come, Hajime the dreamer comes to Tokyo, where he continues his education and gets himself a job as a book editor, only to be disillusioned by the monotony of his existence.
The following years are spent as Hajime the young man who finds stability and settlement in life, as he makes a home with his wife Yukiko, and opens up two successful jazz bars with the help of his father-in-law in the popular city. Yet the memory of the wraith from an unfinished love story never truly leaves him, giving him only a half life in return.
That is where Murakami uses his sheer brilliance of language to create a trance and uses his knowledge of music to frame a sequence that forever emblazons itself into the reader’s mind, somewhere after a third of his short novel is completed, as he reintroduces Shimamoto, the phantom of Hajime’s past in the heart of his present, inevitably creating the most iconic turning point of the plot.
Spinning a tale that follows a lucid trajectory, South of the Border, West of the Sun is by no means a complicated novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It does not drive you to constantly be on your toes, or crave for further details. Instead, it flows like a stream of words that gradually woos you into its lull, offering you the aftertaste of melancholy and inadequacy behind.
But the essential soul of the novel lies in the spin of its words. Murakami masterfully injects a unique Murakami-like melody to his words, threading the spaces in between with music, especially jazz, as he sews in a heartland of ineffectual romanticism. In an act that is not often associated with the writer, he lets the grand narrative and the overarching threshold of the novel supersede the character depth, letting the sequencing of events speak bounds about it instead.
And with this conjugation of music and lyrics, Murakami lets the novel transcend to a plane hitherto achieved by a handful of contemporary books, where language creates visual frames of reference with every change of sequence. From a description of poring rain to the sunrise in the end, the words weave themselves to embody a lens, something to view Murakami’s world with.
Another added layer of penmanship is the rise and fall of the counter-development of characters. Even if Hajime is the compass of visualizing the plot, Murakami lets Shimamoto rise as a concept perceived by the narrator, as if looking through the haze of a dream, while Yukiko gradually, and steadily, rises as the pillar of reality, Shimamoto’s polar opposite. The graphs presented by either of the two women form the moral framework of the novel, as the reader is forced to dwindle in the insufficiency of the narrator, only to question the trajectory of the novel even when the last line has been said and done.
South of the Border, West of the Sun is a rendition that is borne of words, caricatured with imagery in interloping sequences, and a powerful ode to the bildungsroman genre, with the signature Murakami taste of existential crisis. And even when the book has been long since read, its words half-remembered and erased, Ellington’s notes resonate to the lull of melancholia whenever you hear ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ in the years to come.
Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.
In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.
And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.
The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.
So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”
Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).
So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.
In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.
Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).
But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.
In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.
But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.
And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.
Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.
Somewhere in Jandy Nelson’s book, Jude gives the trees, the stars, the ocean and even the sun to Noah, her twin brother, all in exchange of a face, of a portrait. And in that moment, as I read across the lines, once, twice, thrice, and over and over, I realized in some 400 pages, that for a moment, even for only the briefest speck of time, the sun was all that could be given and yet, so much more, so much warmth, so much brightness and infinite love could be gained in exchange.
Nelson spins a tale stuck in the melancholia of opposites, of dichotomies that crave to touch one another, only reticent for the underlying regret and self-loathing that lies in between. With overarching narratives of identity crisis, fragile familial bonds, the discovery of one’s sexuality and the undying passion towards one’s art, Nelson stems out a simple plot that covers the perspectives of two congruent narratives in alternating timelines, only to fluidly intermix the two in one wholesome concoction of masterful completion, something which I admit is extremely hard to achieve when the para-text of a novel is the size of a gigantic universe that spitefully looms over the characters and their unique voices.
Beginning the story with Noah’s narrative, a voice that is woefully subtle and loud about its desires at the same time, Nelson tells the story about a young adolescent boy who is passionately in love with his art (drawing portraits) and discovering his homosexuality through his bubbling puppy love towards the neighborhood boy. Mixing magnanimous quotes with the touch of innocent erotica, Nelson brings the mind of a homosexual softly, slowly and most importantly, with empathy.
The narrative then shifts to show Noah’s perspective towards his wilder twin, Jude, who is freer, feistier and the apple of their father’s eye. Jude is reticent to expose her art, yet hedonistic enough to freely surf in the California bay, drawing the lustful eyes of all the male residents in the area.
But the point of contention gradually emerges as the twins’ mother, Diana, comes into the plot. Battling to gain her attention, the twins fight in every sphere, from art to their secrets; everything is an act of winning the love of their art-loving mother.
Intermingling with this sibling rivalry, Nelson blooms an innocent, almost intangible, love affair between Noah and the new neighbor, Brian. Perhaps the most iconic sequence in this narrative is how Nelson beautifully pens a scene where the two adolescents watch the constellation Castor and Pollux through a telescope one night. The voice of Noah’s longing, intermixed lonesomely with his hesitation, brings out a splendid nostalgia, an ode to the memories of first love.
The novel then sweeps over and falls into the narrative of Jude, the wilder twin, and the timeline too speeds over to a couple of years later, leaving unanswered questions that intrigue the reader to the fullest. Unraveling mysteries from the previous narrative, while simultaneously weaving the inner dilemmas of Jude, Nelson walks a fragile line that might bias the elements of the narrative and unbalance the scales at any moment. Yet, the writer succeeds in maintaining the brittle balance between the past and the present, and even brings to life the words of the supporting characters.
Continuing the theme of conflict, Nelson then shows a more mature version of adolescent love through Jude’s narrative, as she spins a more reluctant love story between the quintessential bad boy Oscar and Jude. Shoving into it, she plays the underlying dwindling passion of Jude towards her art (making sculptures) through the interactions with her mentor, before she begins the face-off conflicts between the twins, inadvertently beginning the vulnerable climax of the plot.
I’ll Give You the Sun packs in a strong narrative, overarching themes, scaled characters and the sine curves of rising and falling character development. It makes a poignant effort at a social message with the subtlest undertones, but never lets that overtake the voices of its narrators. Jandy Nelson stays to the core of most tropes used in a coming-of-age novel, but her greatest credit is how she uses her well placed twists to build a new visage in a seemingly easy plotline.
However, the one thing she fails at is to bring out the deliverance of certain characters, especially the twins’ father, with relevance to the actual plot, therefore creating questionable loopholes at times. Although this creates holes in the layer of the voices, she does make up with her own narrative in the end, at times through dragged descriptions and sometimes through incomplete information.
Nonetheless, the novel rises above all else as a poignant read, with its textured characters and unique narrative skills, with a far more fleshier sketch than her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere. It is interesting, therefore, to see the author’s development too through the consecutive readings of both her books.
Finally, reading I’ll Give You the Sun is very much like its soulful quote, “Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.” You would know the flow of its story, and yet seek out its journey just the same, as if finding your way around the dark in a home that resides in your bittersweet memories.