As they walked, she wiped her brow with the back of her hand. He handed her a hanky. It had the same not unpleasant floral scent as his hair. He was a thick-set man who looked as though he could do those moves the soldiers here all seemed to know, the ones used on Zee and Mr Martin. The ones probably being used on the men and women up in jail.
She put her hand to her chest, inhaled.
“The tea I would like to make you,” said the doctor, “has many health benefits.” When she looked at him, he was smiling. His teeth, slightly bared, were dazzling. His English, perfect. “It helps with circulation and is good for the skin.”
“You are welcome at my home, doctor,” she said.
He tilted his head in the way he had done last week when taking his leave. She noticed that he had a slight cut on his jaw, where he must have shaved this morning. The jaw was square and the cheek smooth and slightly grey beneath his prominent cheekbones. Again she found that his face was not unkind. It was the sort of face that, if encountered elsewhere, she would gladly have tea with.
But he was a medical officer of an occupying army. How did he have time for her? The only answer had to be that he was still at work. Either that, or she was to be his comfort. She felt faint.
They had passed the third and final checkpoint to her farm when he said, “Others who are here were forced into exile. You have chosen yours. Why?”
She steadied herself, beginning to wonder if she was going about this in completely the wrong way. What if she were to talk openly to him about herself? About the unbearable alienation of her childhood in Chittagong, with a mother who considered herself Portuguese, and a father emasculated by the Portuguese and the British? About creeping up the hillside, from Das to Vaz to Best? About hating the top of that hill, that white and splendid mansion? She had never shared her story with anyone but her daughter. He would approve, would he not? At the very least, it might divert him.
She was still considering the option, when he asked, “What do you know of Japan’s history?”
“Nothing, I’m ashamed to admit.”
He tilted his head and she came to understand the gesture as one of acceptance. He accepted that he was not invited to her home last week. He accepted that today he was. And he accepted that she was ignorant.
He started to tell her that for a time, more than two hundred years, in fact, Japan had lived under the laws of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogun, or supreme military commander, who imposed sakoku. “It means, ‘seal the country’. No foreigner could enter and no Japanese could leave. We became an island within an island, poor but peaceful.”
Before they turned into a lane that would take them to her farm, he pointed out another lane, where his villa was. The area was thickly guarded and now she knew why.
He continued. “Sakoku was enforced in part to resist the colonial powers of Spain and Portugal. There are many Catholics in southern Japan,” he added, and again she wondered what he knew of her past. “Our seclusion weakened us economically, but fortified us aesthetically. Theatre, painting, woodblock prints – I am very partial to these, ukiyo-e, they are called, pictures of the floating world – they thrived. Tell me, how do you spend your time in seclusion? Do you paint? Do you dance?”
She shook her head. “I have very little talent.”
“I doubt that is true.” He stepped aside, ushering her into her own driveway. “Here we are.”
How did he know?
As they walked up the path that had not been driven on since Thomas’s death, she asked, “How did Japan’s seclusion end?”
“The way it always does,” he said, eyes glittering, “with a foreign power.”
They entered her house. This morning, before leaving for the clinic, she had tidied up, fearing she might not return alone.
The cushions were piled into one heap. The curtain separating the sitting room from the bed was drawn. The dishes were clean. Paula and Aye now spent Saturdays in his village, for her daughter was safer there, with his family. (Paula grumbled, but eventually agreed.) Shakuntala wondered if she should have asked Aye to stay this time, but decided he would be no match for Dr Mori.
When Shakuntala offered him tea, the doctor laughed, reminding her why he was here. He asked to be shown to the brazier, then took out from his bag a tea whisk and tea scoop of bamboo. He apologised, a little wistfully, for not having all the utensils. His preferred way of heating water, he said, was in a cast-iron kettle suspended over an open flame. “That is how you taste water.”
His movements were as measured and unruffled as at the clinic. She hovered nearby, also as though still at work. “Good tea,” he said, whisking the powder in a bowl that was also his, “comes from the first leaves of spring, such as these.” He took out two cups. They were small and translucent blue, shot through with gold seams, with a smooth rise where her finger was naturally inclined to rest. She found them quite beautiful. He poured the tea and sat back, to watch her drink.
The colour was pale and the flavour too floral. When he asked what she thought and she smiled, he sensed her dissatisfaction and did not tilt his head. It struck her that the taste resembled the scent of his hair. This made her want it less. It also struck her that he was a man who had just served her tea. Surely in Japan, as in India, this rarely if ever occurred.
Once again he read her mind. “I have always enjoyed making my own tea. My mother disapproved of the habit, but grew to enjoy it, provided no one else knew.”
Shakuntala’s remaining cat, white, with a black-tipped tail, slinked out of the bedroom through the curtain. The tail brushed the doctor’s trousers.
Shakuntala’s fingers shifted on the teacup. The ceramic intrigued her, more than the tea. There was something about how it rested in her palm, something that brought her, unaccountably, peace. The next time she took a sip of the too-floral beverage, she let her lips brush the cup’s gold seam. It was rough around the edges, and this too was a kind of relief.
The doctor was smiling. “What you are experiencing is mono no aware, when something outside oneself evokes a pathos. Not everyone is capable of being moved in this way. It requires a special sensitivity.”
Shakuntala looked down at the cup. “It is broken.”
“No. It is impermanent.”
The doctor spoke of the art of repair, kintsugi, the mending of pottery with a lacquer of silver or gold. As a philosophy, he said, kintsugi honoured the full worth of an object, visibly featuring the repair, instead of concealing it. “The result is more precious than the original. Damage is illuminated as a necessary event in life, instead of a reason to reject life. It is a reminder that all life is transient.”
“That,” said Shakuntala, unable to withhold herself, “that is the most beautiful thing I have heard in too long.” She put the cup to her chest and breathed.
The doctor tipped his head.
“Chittagong,” he said, “the home you chose to leave, it is also home to the English tea trade.”
“One of its homes, yes.”
“When we win the war, do you see Indians drinking our tea, or will you stick to the English variety?”
“I see us doing both,” she said. “My father always preferred green tea to black.”
Excerpted with permission from The Miraculous True History of Nomi Ali, Uzma Aslam Khan, Context.
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