sunday herald
sunday october 13, 2002

Shreekumar Varma

Long before Vasco da Gama and Columbus, Indians were all over the world establishing empires of trade and thought. Which is why our traditions have grown in all directions, accepting and accommodating, and enriching our culture. This spirit of nosing out notions continues, and our children know far more about the outside world (admittedly more of the West) than the world knows of us.

However, when we do get visitors they take the trouble to read up on our literature and culture, and thus be aware of what they’re getting into. For instance, I’ve lectured informally to UK students touring South India and they were well-prepared, having read my book and other Indian authors, and asked far more probing and pertinent questions about Kerala’s matriarchal system than I’ve heard at local book readings.

Similarly, when four Japanese writers interacted with four Indian writers at
Shankar’s Book Shop on Museum Road in the City in mid-September, they had details about their hosts at their fingertips. The Japanese used interpreters who patiently, often painfully, translated their thought. The Japanese were Yuko Tsushima, Tomoyuki Hoshino, Rieko Matsuuri and Sadakazu Fuji. The Indians were Kavery and Vijay Nambisan, Harish Bijoor and I.

Jacaranda Press organised the meet with Ashwati Franklin, marvelously fine-tuning every detail. The Japanese took over the proceedings easily, co-ordinating and supervising. We all read from our writings. Kavery read from her first novel, Vijay read a poem, I read from my novel and a couple of poems, and Harish came in the afternoon for the discussions.

Prof Fuji was the oldest among us. He has gone deep into classical literature. It was a revelation to find our goddesses Saraswati, Lakshmi and “Harita” ensconced in the Japanese pantheon. Obviously, Buddhism is only part of a world of thought they’ve imported from India.

Tsushima’s tragic life is reflected in her work. Her personal story is riddled with death, divorce and discrimination. She is now preoccupied with research, translating the oral literature of Ainu, one of the indigenous people of Japan who have been discriminated against.

Matsuura had a bit of an early confusion regarding her gender, and now prefers to use the neutral gender while writing. Her excerpt from a novel dealing with sexual abuse of children was stark and detailed, landscaping the mind of a bewildered youngster Mamiya. In the afternoon she presented a paper on self-love as opposed to sexual love - narcissism and the exploration of one’s own body. Sitting in the dark and discovering one’s body was a far more enjoyable pastime than sexual exploration. She then startled me by asking through the interpreter, “Would Mr Varma be interested in marrying a woman with such a philosophy?”

The youngest was the novelist Hoshino. He had been born in the US, but came to live in Japan as a child. He is fascinated by South American magic realism and is introducing it into Japanese literature. He is also studying the Japanese psyche “through the angle of gender and sexuality”.

Their concerns were interesting. The first paper after lunch was presented by Tsushima, and it was on Excrement. All of us bravely launched into a discussion on the subject. She was concerned that this most important bodily function was nowadays being glossed over in literature and normal conversation, and the thing itself was flushed away instantly whereas it was collected and used for manure in the old days. Vijay conducted a lively discussion on medieval Japanese practices while on the same subject.

The last topic was the immunity and god-like status enjoyed by the Japanese emperor. Here we Indians could easily contrast this with the status we accord to our own political emperors. They wanted to know if there were topics taboo to our writers and likely to invite fatwa-like reactions from angry sections of our readership. In Japan, for instance, writing against the emperor could be dangerous. We all agreed that religion and caste could cause such bad reactions.

It was a long and fulfilling day, and both sides of the table enjoyed themselves. In fact, the Japanese who had earlier visited Delhi and Calcutta for similar meets, voted that the Bangalore session was the best!
By Shreekumar Varma
(The writer can be contacted at

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