Sunday 17 October 2021

Somewhere I belong: guest post from Sarayu Srivatsa

Sarayu Srivasta trained as an architect and city planner in Madras and Tokyo. Her first novel, The Last Pretence, was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. It was released in the UK under the title If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here. Around the time the winner of the Booker Prize is announced, the Guardian newspaper in the UK runs an annual poll of readers, Not the Booker Prize.  If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here was included on the longlist.

Sarayu’s new novel, That Was, has just been published. That Was is a coming-of-age story set in the 1990s and early 2000s amidst the ever-changing landscapes of India and Japan. One of its protagonists, Kavya, undertakes a journey of self-discovery to uncover the traumatic truth of her troubled past. That Was draws on Sarayu’s experiences of studying architecture in Japan, and of appreciating Zen philosophy, which focuses on finding joy and beauty in simplicity. It explores the idea of connections between people, places, and nature, and how Indian and Japanese cultures are intertwined.

Kavya can never truly call one place home. Here Sarayu talks about the notion of belonging, and discusses how the knowledge that both Japan and India suffer under looming memories of war and terror has influenced her writing.

So, over to Sarayu… 

Since the earliest times, we have sought to belong to groups: families, tribes, territories, countries, communities, religions, friends. According to Dr William Glasser, our genes drive us to satisfy our five basic needs: survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. The most important of these is love and belonging, as closeness and connectedness satisfy all of our needs whilst being disconnected is the source of almost all human maladies. A lack of belonging leads to a sense of loss, loneliness, and gloom. 

Dr Dan Siegel explains that we are not a singular noun but a plural verb. The me discovers meaning and happiness in life by belonging to a we. He describes a meeting he had with the leader of a tribe in a war-torn country experiencing famine and disease. When he asked why the people seemed so happy, he was told: "We’re happy because we belong. We belong to each other in our community, and we belong to Earth."

That Was is a novel about belonging and loneliness. It portrays its characters’ lives, the choices and changes they make to belong to someone, someplace, some memory or simply to themselves. The story follows the lives of two girls: Kavya and Malli. They are different from one another, both in attitude and disposition: Malli is undaunted by the world; Kavya is troubled by her loneliness, which like a shadow, lingers—a reminder of the loss of all that she could have belonged to. While Malli lives in the present, with glorious glimpses of her future, Kavya is hopelessly wedged in the past. 

Kavya lost her parents and her home in the Kashmir Valley during a militant attack. She was six then and doesn’t recall much. She cannot remember her father, and she has only a faded memory of her mother: her eyes grey like hers. Not being able to recall her childhood years exacerbates her loss and it festers like a wound, tormenting her through her growing years. Although she lives with her uncle and aunt in Bombay, she doesn’t feel she belongs to them. Every time she asks about her parents, "You are our dear daughter," is all they say. In many ways, through their own losses, they are just as lonely as her. They have her, but it is not enough. 

Malli is not perturbed by loss or loneliness and has different notions of belonging: she is, and so she belongs. She believes that she belongs to the world and everything in the world belongs to her, even if only for a brief time. Malli is the servant girl who works in Kavya’s grandparents’ home in Bangalore. Her father left home when she was little, but this doesn’t trouble her. She has a clubfoot—she wobbles when she walks. But this doesn’t bother her either. "I can’t miss something I’ve never had", she exclaims. She accepts life as it happens; she is pragmatic, sees the world in a nothing-more, nothing-less sort of way. Yet, she is unafraid of dreaming of a world she would like: mountains surrounded by flowers. She seeks happiness in the smallness of things—"Do you know flowers can talk?" she asks Kavya. "They sing. They talk. They weep. And, if you crush them in your hand, you can feel the wetness of their tears. But most of all, they make us happy." 

The dissimilarities between Kavya and Malli seal them in a tight bond—a belonging; they live each other’s differences. Years later, Malli realises her dream—she builds her home in the Himalayas, surrounded by flowers. Kavya, unsure and unsettled, bounds through life, carrying her troubled past everywhere with her. Sadness consumes her. She misses her parents, the one thread that connected her to her own existence. 

Kavya goes to Tokyo to study photography. She meets a variety of people there, all of whom, much like her, seek some sort of connectedness and belonging. Ryu—the reticent photographer who gives up his job at the bank since he doesn’t feel he belongs there. Akiko, the rebellious artist who runs away from home to be alone and free and yet yearns to be noticed, to be understood by people. The mysterious S-san, who after many failed relationships, feels happy and contented with her nanten bamboo bushes, and her dog Suki. The Japanese monk, a landscape artist, was born in a concentration camp in America and who came to a monastery in Kamakura and stayed because he felt he belonged there. He tells Kavya about the Zen way of living—to go with the flow because, in the end, there is always a new beginning. The famed potter Matsumoto-san who finds solace in his creations after his wife and children leave. His words comfort Kavya—tales, fables, our own stories tell us about ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses, our fears, and that to move forward in life, you need to do but two things: to believe and to dream. 

All these people made choices to be noticed, accepted and respected so they could tell the world who they really were. They provide Kavya with the comfort of not being alone, but it is Malli who grabs Kavya’s forlorn thoughts in the warmth of her heart and makes her truly belong. 

A sense of belonging is one of the most important needs in psychologist William Maslow’s hierarchical tier of needs to achieve self-actualisation—the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. In That Was, Malli knows her potential and fearlessly pursues self-fulfilment and growth. The lack of belonging to an identifiable group doesn’t limit her. She lives by her own rules, her dreams and hopes. She was her own self—herself

There is a danger in belonging to a group, as you tend to submit and behave in the way the group prescribes, even if you have to pretend or imitate. People decide who you are and believe they know more about you than you do yourself. You lose your distinctiveness, your dignity. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about the danger of a single story that is connected to the group. The single story emphasises how you are different from other groups rather than how you are similar. The problem with the single story is not that it is untrue but that it is incomplete. One story becomes the only story. 

In the end, I would think, your very own contribution, your creation, in art, writing, invention, discovery, and growth, belongs to you; you belong to it. And the singular stories from your past, your own mini-history of anecdotes, makes you who you are. You belong to that story, and the story belongs to you.

Details: That Was is published by Platypus Press (UK) in paperback, priced in local currencies.