Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Review : The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng

"Like the rain, I had brought tragedy into many people's lives but, more often than not, rain also brings relief, clarity, and renewal. It washes away our pain and prepares us for another day, and even another life. Now that I am old I find that the rains follow me and give me comfort, like the spirits of all the people I have ever known and loved."

Tan Twan Eng may not be a great prose stylist or even come close to being one. He may falter when it comes to subtlety and fail at inserting appropriate metaphors into his rather direct tone of narration. But he surely succeeds in recounting a moving tale of human triumph with great clarity. Like a wise old man with sinewy forearms sitting in the midst of a group of young, moon-eyed listeners, he narrated a story of times gone by and all I did was lend him an eager ear. 
I listened to his voice with rapt attention, I learnt, I understood, I shed tears. 

I was transported back in time where I stood somewhere along the sidelines as a helpless spectator witnessing the mute misery of a picturesque but war-ravaged land. So much so I'm still recovering from the fierce onslaught of all the images of terrible beauty that Eng drew before my mind's eye in rapid succession. 
I'm going to recall from time to time, the startling greenery of the verdant rain forests in and around Penang, the hustle and bustle of the marketplaces in Istana, the gray-white limestone cliffs of Ipoh, the rich aroma of a pot of steaming coconut rice, the calming effect of zazen and the tale of Philip Hutton's uncommon bravery in the face of madness brought forth by an all-engulfing war. And I'm going to try to make sense of the paradoxical yet deeply human bond between Philip Hutton, a representative of a vanquished and besieged Malaysia and Hayato Endo, a representative of the conqueror Japan.

When the world sinks into chaos of the most fatal kind and all finer human impulses are trampled on over and over again until nothing remains but only the irrational urge to draw blood, burn and annihilate, a handful of people refuse to stray from the path of sanity and compassion at the cost of complete personal ruin. 
Philip Hutton, our narrator, was one such person. Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, he was forever an outcast in any world he wished to belong to, all because he was guilty of having a mixed parentage. Perhaps that is why, he imbibed all the great virtues of his British and Chinese heritage and under the tutelage of a Japanese spy of dubious loyalties, familiarized himself with all the tenets of aikijutsu aikido and other Japanese ways of living, which became crucial to the survival of many later on.

During the trying times of the Japanese Occupation, at the risk of perpetual disgrace, he crossed over to the side of the enemy only to save what was most precious to him. Philip Hutton became notorious for aiding the Japanese in running the affairs of Malay and a collaborator in all the atrocities carried out against the natives, but what didn't become common knowledge was how he saved many, many innocent lives under the helpful guise of betraying the land of his birth.

Even though I am sorely tempted to label The Gift of Rain as a testimony to the greater human predicament during turbulent times, that goes beyond the petty divides of ethnicity, skin color and culture, I will not succumb to that lure. Philip Hutton maybe perceived as a cliched symbol of a stabilizing influence on all conflicting elements of life or he may even be just a reminder of that elusive voice of reason which we often proceed to stifle with brutal force at a time we need it the most. But I will not seek to trivialize his fictitious life in this cold analytical manner.

Instead, I choose to be a random listener who came across the extraordinary story of his courage and withhold judgement. I choose to dignify his existence by not questioning his deeds, his associations, his choices or his existential dilemmas. I choose to empathize with Malay and China, both of which were tormented and ripped apart by another nation nurturing a blind Imperialist zest. But then I also choose to empathize with the aggresor Japan, which didn't escape suffering inflicted by the War either. 

I choose not to vilify Philip for fraternizing with the foe and I choose not to indict Endo san for his treachery. 
And by doing neither, I choose to side with humanity.
Because as much as it will be easier to pigeonhole wartime human barbarity into convenient labels like repercussions of ruthless nationalist ambitions and pass the buck on responsibility, the lasting truth of the matter is the all-encompassing nature of our collective ordeals through time and space. 
In the end, it doesn't matter who or what caused our suffering. It matters that we suffered.

4 glorious stars of 5.

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