At the beginning of each month, a parcel and a letter would arrive from Tokyo for my uncle. It contained small, neatly wrapped items for my aunt and me: a scarf, a brooch, hair clips, good luck
charms, amulets, and so on. When I asked my uncle who they were from, he wouldn’t tell me. But my aunt chuckled and said, “They’re from S-san, his Japanese girlfriend.” Once, I asked my uncle for S-san’s address so I could send her a letter to thank her for the precious gifts. My uncle didn’t give it to me.
I waited for the parcel every month and wrote letters to the mysterious S-san and stored them in a box. Soon these letters became a diary of sorts. They contained details about my everyday life. I confided in her; it was as though she was my mother. Perhaps, one day, I will meet you, I wrote. It was not possible, I knew, and yet I hoped.
On one trip to Japan, my uncle returned with a bonsai plant – a desert rose with pink flowers.
He had hidden it in his suitcase. My aunt put it on the terrace beside the collection of ceramic pots and bowls she had bought from various shops and exhibitions. When it grew, she repotted it in a large terracotta urn. “It’s becoming arthritic, it has to grow,” she reasoned. It is now taller than me, but on the day my uncle had bought it, it was only a foot high, its knotted roots wrapped in mud and wires, a discarded plastic-pouch, and covered with a three-week-old Japanese newspaper that still smelled of ink.
My aunt resolved that it was a sacred plant, as sacred as the Hindu Tulsi, and every new moon she offered prayers to it. The plant grew, and its pink blossoms gave off a sweet scent that laced the night air.
Briefly, she was confined to bed; her bones also knotted with arthritis. So, on the next new moon, as she would have done, I lit a lamp next to the desert rose, looked up at the dark sky, and prayed to keep her well. Then I switched on the stereo and played The Beatles’s A Hard Day’s Night loudly, since, like my aunt, I wouldn’t sing sacred songs.
Afterwards, I tidied my desk. My bed was strewn with old letters and cards and thank you notes to S-san, sketches, photographs, paltry mementoes, and small notepads in which I had jotted important matters, recorded trivialities. But those were merely reminders, remembrances, not memories.
Where had my father gone? What had happened to my mother? Whose hand was it that held mine beneath the apple tree?
I don’t remember much, but I do recall Ojiisan and Obaasan. And of course, Yasunari. He was Shigeru Hara’s son and lived with them in Kyoto since his parents had moved to Tokyo.
On one of his trips to Japan, my uncle had taken me to visit their house. I stayed with them for several weeks – my fondest memories still.
There was a strong wind during my first night, and the next morning, the garden below was covered with nuts. I lay under the ginkgo tree and watched the sun through the leaves. The grass smelled of ginkgo nuts, the nuts smelled of flowers, though the flowers did not smell. It was as though the storm had chased their scent away. Yasunari lay next to me, gazing up at the sky.
“Look, there, a hawk,” I said, pointing to the shape of the sky seen through the leaves. “And over there, a giraffe.”
“That’s not a giraffe. It looks more like you with your long hair.” His stomach rippled with laughter, and the sunlight peeping through the leaves tickled my eyes. “I like watching the sky,” he said, “it gives me a warm, deep feeling. I don’t know exactly what – of belonging to something, or owning something, perhaps. I can carve any shape out of it. A bit of sky that is all my own.”
Ojiisan brought us discs of melon that he had cut. “The sky can take any shape,” he said, “because it is free. It has no limit. It can be anything you want it to be. If you feel a warm and deep feeling about the sky, it is because you have that warm and deep feeling within you. You can only feel this way if your mind is free.”
“Yes, my mind is free,” Yasunari replied.
“My mind is free, too,” I said. “I feel a deep warm feeling inside.”
Ojiisan pared the flesh from the rind and gave it to us. We ate the fruit, juice dripping down our faces, which amused Ojiisan.
He was slim and stood perfectly erect. He had distinctive features: a chiseled jaw with a cleft, and high cheekbones. Thick eyebrows jutted above his clear, sharp eyes, and his striking silvery hair fell over his ears. He held up the leftover ring of fruit and asked, “Yasu-chan, what is here?”
“There is nothing like nothing.”
“There was fruit there, but I ate it. Now, there is nothing except a hole.”
“Remember, nothing is the beginning of something.”
“Look, there is nothing in the middle, and I can see everything through it. I can see the sun. And when I move the ring around, the sky moves with it.”
“Don’t see with just your eyes, see with your mind. Like in a dream with your eyes shut tight.” Ojiisan then told us a story, “Once, when two monks were fighting – one had said he saw the flag moving, the other that it was the wind moving – the Zen master said: It is neither the flag nor the wind moving. It is your mind moving.”
Perhaps Yasunari understood what Ojiisan said; he was four years older than me. I tried to move my mind with my eyes closed, like in a dream.
Obaasan looked younger than her years. She was small, her skin was flawless, and her long hair was tied in a neat knot at the nape of her neck. When she smiled, her eyes wrinkled, and her eyebrows met in a delicate frown. She threw herself with absolute earnestness into all that she did around the house. She loved Yasunari, and he loved her back.
The morning sky diffused a serene and distant light, and Obaasan made us malted milk. I looked at the sky through the pockmarked glass of the malt bottle. I watched the light hop as I moved my head, or so I thought. In the evening, I watched the light again: it captured the colour of the sky, which was growing darker yet somehow clearer. It was just like the time Obaasan had pushed algae from the top of the pond, and I could see the orange-red carp in the green-blue water below.
The sky was an orange-red, dewy, glowing sheet of green-blue – my very own patch of coloured sky.
After dinner, we sat around the stone table in the back garden next to the pond. It was Ojiisan’s favourite place. He had covered it with uneven stones that were now lined with a mist of evening
dew. Here and there, neatly arranged around the cherry tree, was Ojiisan’s collection of conch shells – reminiscences of the sea.
Later, Obaasan brought us cups of green tea and toasted ginkgo nuts. She lit a mosquito-repelling coil; its luminescence shone in the shadows. A bewildered sparrow flew from the roof to the cherry tree, a sudden summer breeze ruffling its leaves.
Obaasan sat in front of a large glass urn filled with water; it resembled a gleaming pearl in the moonlight. She retrieved a bottle of dye from a wooden chest beside her and poured it into the
urn. Yasunari slowly began to pour different colour dyes one after another: white, red, blue, green, yellow, and then black. Obaasan swirled the water, and tendrils of colour seeped together, making it a muddy brown. “Shibui,” she said under her breath.
“Shi-bu-i?” I repeated.
“Beautiful things are shibui; they are simple and subtle, difficult to define.”
She stared at the urn as though meditating until the shadowy water stilled. “The colours of life,” Obaasan said, clasping her hands together.
“It’s dirty,” Yasunari laughed.
Ojiisan said quietly, “You must find joy in simple things.” He lifted a large conch shell, held it in both his hands. “Look at the shape of this shell. It has been formed by the sea passing through it. If you press it against your ear, you can still hear the water.” Mosquitoes drifted in the darkness of the garden, circling my head. The reflection of the sunset in the pond was a shot of red-orange silk. Simple. Subtle. Indefinable. Shibui.
Excerpted with permission from Until Then, Sarayu Srivatsa, Speaking Tiger.