Friday, January 08, 2010

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

Philip Hutton, 72, leading a solitary life in Penang, had a visitor from Japan. Michiko, an old lady arrived in search of the story ( is that really so) of her lover Endo, died during the last days of Japanese occupation of Malaysia. Philip, a son of Chinese mother and a British Aristocrat during the hay days of British Rule of the island, was a student of Aikido ( a Japanese Martial Art) with Endo-San. Michiko, wanted to know every thing about Endo, also expressed her desire to visit his final resting place. The story of his association with Endo-san is the story of Philip, the story of Penang during the turbulent years.

Philip's mother died early in his life. His early life ( the story begins when he is 16) is of isolation, of ridicule by friends, Not accepted by the whites as well as the Chinese students. He is rebel in the family of Huttons ( 2 elder brothers, one sister and his father). The crisis of identity makes him a loner within the family. The family business is doing well and his father and his siblings are on a vacation to England, which he refuses to undertake. These six months changed his life forever. Endo, who has rented the nearby  island from his father, accepted Philip as his disciple teaching him Aikido. The relationship with his sensei, has also given him a new way of life. He started appreciating all those he missed in life. New friends, a new realisation about his own family , both on his fathers side as well as his mothers. An invitation from his maternal grandfather, gets him close to his mothers community and their ways. His father and siblings were pleasantly surprised to see the changes in his. He is not only matured physically and mentally, but was also more warm and inclusive in the family.

Endo-san is not here in Penang , for teaching him. He is an emissary of the emperor of Japan. As the second in command of the Japanese Embassy, he is bound by the rule and need of his superiors. Using the knowledge of Philip, he explores and report the places within Penang for their intelligence. The good days are over,as Japan does make advances into Malaysia. His elder brother joins the British Navy and leaves for Singapore, while his close friend Kon, joins the local resistance organisation. During the grand party organised by his father, on the successful completion of the training of William, Endo-san reveals the intention of Japanese to attack Malaysia, to the shock of Philip.

The occupation begin, as the Britishers abandon the island to the safer havens of Singapore. The Huttons refuses to leave, deciding to stay along with the local population in their fortune. Soon, the massacre and torture of the natives began, with more and more of local Chinese are running away to the jungles or the villages. The streets are abandoned, and the Japanese Soldiers are on the rampage. Philip is tormented by the love for his family, the unwritten rule of obeying to your sensei and his sense of patriotism. Unable to choose the path and with none to guide him, he decides to collaborate with the Japanese, on a condition of protection for his family and their business.

He was soon criticised as a traitor and a collaborator. People started keeping away from him, which sooner changed to anger and threats. His close people including those of his family members were turned against him. How, alienated and disturbed by the atrocities of the Japanese, to which he was a participant or a witness, he wanted to make amends. Using his influence within the ruling systems, he started warning those rebel and fighting forces about the imminent strike by the Japanese, and giving list of targeted names in advance, thus facilitating their escape or reduction of damage. Though this was known to a limited set of people, he was eventually identified and was caught for treason. He managed to escape the death, through the sacrifice of his father and the intervention of Endo. But the tarnish on his name was to remain for ever as a collaborator. US had dropped atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the remaining Japanese soldiers in Penang, had surrendered to the returned British Soldiers.

Philip has to live through all these. Loss of his entire family, both the fathers side and his mothers, death of his sensei, his friend and his father. Only to prove the fears and words of the 'soothsayer' who predicted destruction of the family through him. Which, of course was known to the family as well as his Sensei.

"You should not blame yourself. You have the ability to bring all of life's disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Guilt is an invention of the Westerners and their religion".
"Guilt is a human attribute"
"We Chinese are more pragmatic. It was your aunt's and your sister's fate. Nothing more".

This book is of internal conflicts. For Philip, every thing was of dual existence and of wrong choices. He was a Chinese boy at the British circles and a  British among the locals.  His reconciliation with the realities, initiated by Endo-San and by his Grand Father was the initial changes at the young age of 16. Soon, the war put another question. The interest of nation and the interest of family. The choice of going against the Sensei or the anger of his people. Despite the warning of his people of his alleged working for Japanese invasion, (I'm quite certain that my 'Japanese friend' isn't 'one of them'. All those things you've heard are merely rumours) he had to remain close to his Sensei, to continue the association from their earlier life , which is the only reason for him arriving all the way from Japan to the small Island of Penang,  and to be with him.

The novel is in two part. The first, is prior to the world war and the occupation of Malaysia. This is where he is trying to understand himself and his people. His meeting with the grand father and the numerous stories that was told to him about China, his ancestors and his parents. This is where he is also been in contact with Endo-san, accepting as his disciple and learning the art of Aikido. Second half is the war and the destruction of Penang, his people ( where every one of his family members are killed), his attempt to redeem himself by saving many lives. Very slowly paced first half with stories and anecdotes as against a fast paced action packed gory second half.

Very well written book, short listed for Booker in 2007. Cunning characterisation and the events , clever use of oriental philosophical approach and taking refuge in the destiny. Good start of my reading in the new year.


The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan Eng

Myrmidon Books

447 Pages


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