Monday, 4 May 2015

Published Elsewhere: The Glow of the Rising Sun

[It's been quite a while since I wrote anything on the blog, but that doesn't mean I have stopped writing. I have written many pieces in the intervening years. I did wish to write a few long-form articles exclusively for this blog but I was unable to invest the time needed for such an article because of my involvement with my studies. However, I thought I should put up all my writings on my blog. This is the first in a series of articles that have appeared somewhere else.]

(Former readers of my blog will probably remember my Japan posts. I had written this seven years back after returning from Japan. This was published on July 27 2008 in Voices, a supplement to The Statesman, a reputed Indian newspaper. To my utter surprise and delight, the 2000-word article was published untrimmed and was featured on the back page!)

The Glow of the Rising Sun

Tall skyscrapers… manufacturer of the hi-tech cameras we use… cutting-edge robotic technology… four earthquakes a day… These are the first images to invade our minds whenever we hear the word, Japan. But what I saw in Japan, what I experienced in Japan was very different and much broader than the stereotypical concepts we have about the Land of the Rising Sun.

But my journey from the Incredible India to the Beautiful Japan as a part of the Japan - East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths (JENESYS) programme (a joint collaboration between the Government of India and the Government of Japan) did not start off the way I dreamt. For a variety of reasons, I was completely engulfed by anxiety and tension. I didn’t have an international phone card to talk to my family just the day before we left and neither was my baggage within the weight limit set by the airline. Thus, the pre-departure session wasn’t exactly I’d call pleasant. Just when some the difficulties were overcome a couple of hours before the departure, a greater misery awaited me. I was still not realising the absence of my family there since my mother accompanied me to New Delhi. But on May 12, 2008, at afternoon, as I entered Indira Gandhi International Airport and boarded the Japan Airlines flight no. JL 472, a very powerful sensation struck me. I was leaving my motherland for the first time and that too, without my family! I had a feeling, which was completely incomparable to anything else. I was feeling away from home and a new kind of despair enveloped me. Even the flight wasn’t a very cheerful one. But as time progressed I was so anxious and depressed that my mind went fully blank and no other bitter thought could assault me.

But all my grief vanished at once when the aircraft landed at Narita International Airport, Tokyo. I was filled with the excitement of visiting the country Rabindranath had visited decades ago. We landed in the Land of the Rising Sun just after the sunrise. But the sun remained covered by grey clouds and a new snag came up as I came out of the airport. A typhoon had hit Tokyo the day we arrived there. So, it was impossible to defend against the cold that came seeping in through the two sweaters and non-stop rainfall was even more painful.

Just as our bus advanced towards the main city all the visuals I had imagined about Japan came into full view. Tall skyscrapers, smooth roads, speeding vehicles, innumerable flyovers – Tokyo has it all. Just as I entered the main city and got excited once again, I also became immune to the terribly hostile climate. The Imperial Palace was the first place we visited in Tokyo. It was an immensely beautiful place one can never have enough of.

One of my main concerns about visiting Japan was the food. As a person not accustomed to Japanese food habits, I thought it would not be easy for me adjust with their cuisines. But, to my very pleasant surprise, this wonderful programme booked some Indian restaurants for us to have our meal.

From the very beginning I felt something was missing there in Tokyo. I did not realise what it was for a while. But then, it suddenly struck me. Despite watching thousands or maybe, millions of cars in Japan I could never hear the honk of a car. Nor did I see black smoke coming out from car. I even felt the absence of traffic police at every road crossing. No one spoke in a loud voice. There were provisions for blind people to walk safely on the streets. In Tokyo, I did what I could never dream of doing in Kolkata (or anywhere in India). I felt perfectly safe to take frequent strolls on the Tokyo streets even at night without the fear of getting lost.

But when I say that it feels very secure in Japan, I’m speaking too little about them. People there are very courteous, polite, friendly, helpful and really sensitive to others’ needs. One situation will explain better that how much Japanese can do to help others. On the first day of our trip, a group of ten students went to roam about the streets of Tokyo at midnight and they got lost in the labyrinthine roads. When they tried to communicate with a Japanese gentleman (who knew no English) about their problem, he guided them to the hotel we were staying in.

Rabindranath kept coming back to me throughout this ten-day trip. In Japan Yatri, he wrote that he didn’t watch a child in Japan who cried. It was a fascinating thing to experience what he did. In the same travelogue, he described the sense of beauty of Japanese people and also translated some equally mesmerising Japanese rhymes which tell how wondrously Japanese appreciate beauty. Like him, I also felt that Japanese’s sense of beauty resides not so much on gorgeous and extravagant things as on the inner beauty of apparently ordinary objects. It was quite thrilling to attend the Japanese Tea Ceremony a number of times because it’s the same that Tagore himself described. As the only Bengali-speaking person in the group, it also gave me enormous contentment that most of the people I met in Japan recognise India by the name of Tagore.

The first two-and-a-half days in Tokyo were spent visiting various museums and a Waste Incineration Plant in the city of Shinagawa in Tokyo. While looking at the extraordinary efforts by the people there to reduce the amount of pollution and waste, I suddenly visualised my Kolkata as a city having one flyover over another, smooth roads, pollution free air, no horns installed in cars and yet, at the same time, retaining the traditional values just as Japan does. Is it a dream too far-fetched? I don’t know. I just want my city to be as developed as their city.

But for all these achievements in the biggest Metropolis of the world, I felt something was missing there. While watching millions of people walking fanatically (a large number of people in Tokyo ride on bicycles) on a busy day, I felt that they’ve inherited some of the qualities from the finest robots they’ve made. Courteous and polite as they are, I didn’t feel that they have the time to look at the setting sun or the droplets of rain, for this urban life has taught them microsecond-accurate punctuality and therefore, supremely  mechanical lifestyle. I had this particular notion about Japan as a whole until I arrived in Saga Prefecture (we flew from Tokyo to Fukuoka), located in Kyūshū, the southernmost island of Japan.

Saga is not a city like Tokyo. This is best described as countryside. Most of the parts of Saga are basically village. After going there, the vacuum in my mind created by the speeding vehicles of Tokyo was filled by the warm and friendly atmosphere of Saga. It was like home. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, I started missing my family and my country more than ever.

My mind started dancing about the lush greenery, forest and paddy and wheat fields, just like the ones we have in India.  People there are so welcoming and warm that even top UNESCO officials made tea for us. The personnel of the educational office there greeted us in such a great way. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the Japanese school students welcomed us with an orchestra during the educational exchange programme.

I got the real taste of Japanese culture there in Saga. People there are proud of their rich heritage and are not ashamed (or afraid, like we are) in showing so. That, in my opinion, is the biggest virtue of Japan. From language to cuisine, they have retained their every single culture and yet, they have developed so much. In their schools, traditional Japanese martial art forms like Judo, Kendo are taught religiously. I was really fortunate to have played such games with Japanese students (But I refused to play with a Sumo when he invited me because, as I told him as well, I didn’t like flying). People there are not humiliated to admit that they know very little or no English. But it’s not hard to communicate with them at all because we could interpret each other’s body language. From the pottery work of Saga to Sakura Sakura (The Cherry Blossom song) to the Coal-Miners’ dance – the stamp of Japanese culture is present everywhere. And they are receptive of others’ cultures as well. My Tagore song (Kothao Amar Hariye...) was met with applause. Writing various Japanese expressions and also my name in Japanese during the calligraphy session was something I won’t forget. I even wrote my fellow Japanese student’s name in Bengali. And we perfectly cemented the friendly relation Satyajit Ray and Akira Kurosawa formed years ago.

But the best part of the five-and-a-half day programme in Saga (and the whole tour as well) was, undeniably, the one-day home stay program with a host family. I got to experience the real Japanese culture. They made me feel as if I were a king and presented me gifts I couldn’t even count. The family I was staying with was a very interesting one. It was a Japanese-American family (the Kawaharadas). It gave me great joy to see people forgetting age-long animosity and uniting to form a new generation, which doesn’t believe in the enmity and wants to move along the path of friendship and peace. They really made me feel like I was home. Like Tagore said, I found another home in Japan. It was very sad to bid good-bye to their three sons, especially the six-year old Tao who grew very fond of me.

The most impressive part of this journey was the visit to Nagasaki. A shiver went down my spine as I sat on the Atomic Bomb Hypocenter of Nagasaki, the exact place where the atomic bomb was dropped on August 9, 1945. The visit to Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Peace Park and Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum was even more heartbreaking. The bomb that was dropped there wasn’t supposed to be dropped at first. The cloudy sky of the selected spot and the momentary clearing of the clouds in Nagasaki resulted in the death of thousands of people. Even today, deformed children are born as a result of radiation. I saw a wall clock that was shattered by the blast and its hands stopped at 11:02 – the moment of the explosion. I saw testimonies of people who couldn’t find their children muddled up with the bricks when they came home or who didn’t get a trace his mother. Similar artefacts and the testimonies of the people who suffered presented a horrible sight to me. I didn’t realise when a tear rolled down my cheek. It shattered my heart into pieces and I saluted the resilient people of Nagasaki in my mind for their efforts to spread the message of peace. Just like a Phoenix does, Nagasaki has, literally, risen from the ashes. The visit had a profound effect on me.

The only thing that cheered me in Nagasaki was its tramcars, just like the ones we have in our very own Kolkata.

Finally we went back to Tokyo for two more days. We toured several places. When we arrived at Narita airport to take the flight back to New Delhi something unexpected happened. Our Japanese co-ordinators (Yamaguchi-san and Hirooka-san) started sobbing. They told that they were sad to send us back home for, as they said, the warmth they got from us was like nothing else. I was also feeling uneasy to leave behind the ten unforgettable days. While being ecstatic for going back home I was also filled with sadness to leave my home – my new home in Japan.

No comments: