Not a single strand of hair loosened from the perfect coiffure, a fulsome smile tripping from the corners of her mouth putting a Noh mask to shame, confident in her posture, her heart being swept by violent sea of excruciating conflicts; there she sat gazing into the naivety of a girl-child untouched by the menstrual years. The woman in her fluttering between agony and envy, empathetic towards the fate of an adolescent girl whereas the wife in her scrupulously astute in the ongoing task, a “distinction acquired through suffering”. At that very moment, I sensed the societal asphyxiation of Tomo. At that very instance, I had compassion for Suga and consideration for Yumi.
To call the girl concubine would be making too much of it”, he said to Tomo. “She’ll be a maid for you, too……. That’s why I don’t want to lower the tone of the household by bringing in a geisha or some other woman of that type. I trust you, …… to find a young and inexperienced girl…..
No more will the husband lovingly savour the naked flesh of his wife. No more will his body comfort the isolation of his wife’s heart. No more will his quilts be spread besides hers. The already small world had shrunk even smaller, the warmth erased by the frostiness of love that had now embraced the freshness of a trembling young supple body unaware of the pleasures and cruelty of the world. Love and sex maybe two entirely separate entities, but to a married woman, the institution of love and sex amalgamates into one solitary entity – her husband. The latter may forgo its trepidations, but it is the shaky foundation of the former that bring unpleasant repercussions in a familial world tighter and narrow than the ribbons in the shiny hair. Was the idea of sending Tomo to select a concubine, some kind of a bizarre trust bond conferred by Yukitomo to his wife, without recognizing the immense misery his callousness was causing and tormenting Tomo? Or was it that Yukitomo’s chauvinist upbringing in a feudal society overlooked the atrocity of such an act? Along with the dutiful obligation to the conformist cultural dogma, was it the fright of being cast off as “worn-out” slippers made Tomo take up such a dastard assignment?
“Objectively speaking, there were any number of prominent and distinguished men in society today who had cast off their wives of many years like worn-out slippers and sent them back to their homes in the country, taking as their recognized spouses attractive women risen from the ranks of apprentice geishas or geishas.”
It took Fumiko Enchi , eight years to pen this book. For eight long years, Enchi lived with Yukitomo , his women and the intricate functioning of the Shirakawa family thriving in a dominant patriarchal society ; scripting every sentiment, every desperation that oozed from the festering wounds of humiliation, loneliness, agony, betrayal, the survival of powerless among the powerful, wretchedness of poverty , slavery, fallen desires, hopeful dreams , love , repulsion, adultery and the immense longing of freedom inescapable from the shackles of an authoritarian egotistical patriarchy. At times, out of the blue, from these poignant pages an emotion would escape, resting on my ink-stained fingers, quivering, as it relayed heart-wrenching episodes of cultural repression of women. Spanning over four decades, from the late 19th to the early 20th century, Enchi’s captivating words, spell a tumultuous journey of Tomo’s individuality searching for the legitimacy of her voice in a society where champions of civil rights and liberties were equated to the rank of criminals juxtaposing their acts with those of arsonist and robbers.
Born in the ending years of the feudal era in a low-ranking samurai family, barely able to read and write, Tomo was raised to obey the familial patriarchs: – father, brother and husband. Long before the winds of feminism came into the staunch patriarchal Japanese society, the destiny of the woman was to obey the hierarchical creed of serving her husband through her body and mind and to rebel against it would be outrageous with the possibility of being ostracized. To be raised with an embedded notion of being a “good” wife to the husband is commonplace in such societal mores. From the time I was made to drink turmeric laced milk to a mandatory ritual of using fairness cream, I was enlighten with similar wisdom of being a worthy and good wife to my husband. With all my elaborate education and liberalised lifestyle, the ultimate expectation was of being a dutiful wife. Are then the rights of suffrage, education, equal pay, enough for equality of women, at least in the patriarchal society? What would it take for men to finally not perceive women as a weaker sex? For a woman to achieve genuine equality in a man’s world, she should be foremost treated as a human being behind the closed doors of her martial abode. What fulfilment did the title of a “dutiful and respectable wife” bring Tomo, when her husband never understood or shared her innermost desires and heartfelt emotions? Even today, a womb is the measurement of social decree. A fertile womb makes a woman worthy whereas a barren womb brings social worthlessness. Shameful isn’t it? How would Konno feel if his worthiness was measured by the virility of his sperm? Does possessing pair of breast and a uterus make a woman feeble or a reproductive machine? It doesn’t! The threshold of pain and resilience is far stronger in women than in men. Tomo in her lifetime, played varied roles with sheer grace and dignity. Not only was she a dutiful wife, but a wise mother, astute mistress of the household and a loving grandmother ,yet, in all these roles she misplaced her inner-self somewhere ; the woman in Tomo was lost amongst her societal obligations. ‘Self-sacrifice’ and ‘compromise’ were the two most muddled and feared words hovering my adolescent years. Why is it that only women are supposedly to be the sole owners of this terminology safeguarding the fortress called ‘family’? Was it only Tomo’s responsibility to carry the burden of compromising and sacrificing for her familial happiness and her husband’s dignity? Were the children birthed by her womb were Tomo’s fated bind to the atrocities of Yukitomo? Do then children become an inescapable route from the burden of a tumultuous martial life? Or is the abundant love of mothering an escape from the societal degradation? In order to maintain the integrity of the family, why is it compulsory for the wife to abide complete obeisance to safeguard her husband’s lecherous and egoistical demeanour with venerable discretion? Keeping a concubine or being a benevolent patron of a geisha was the norm of a conventional man , then I wonder . What if, it was Tomo who was adulterous and humiliated Yukitomo? What if, it was Tomo who had betrayed the sanctity of marriage? Isn’t it obvious, Yukitomo would have had one of his shining swords piercing the circumference of Tomo’s neck? What if, it was Tomo who had the liberty to discard Yukitomo like worn-out slippers? Or even the docile Suga or the coquettish Miya had comparable liberties?
Most numerous among the trees were damsons whose fruits was not allowed to turn ripe and yellow but was shaken down and pickled in tubs while they were green The pickled damsons were carefully put in the jars and labelled each years. But, still there were old jars left whose contents grew more mature every year , the damsons softer with a special tart sweetness.
The omnipresent pickled damson on Yukitomo’s breakfast table becomes a cruel joke. The demanding urge of a conceited and lecherous middle-aged man for juvenile “maids” bordered on sexual slavery. The unripe damsons plucked resembled the young mistresses that had entered the Shirakawa household with an illusionary legitimacy in the family registry. The loneliness and the quest for legitimacy of the “other” women became a tangled mesh of struggle between the powerful and powerless. One woman’s burdensome marriage became another woman’s desirable source of emancipation. It is during this steady string of thoughts, that I realized the underlying lonesomeness and a longing for an empathetic companionship in Miya’s mischievous demeanour. Would she have been better off without Michimasa, then? Barren laps, fertile wombs and abandoned hearts all yearned for love and being loved. The titular legitimacy became a pokerfaced facade and the ranks of illegitimacy crumbled into an inevitable despondency. In a patriarchal society where divorce was non-existent, rebellion a blasphemous act and women the eternal submissive species, the happiness of a woman truly lay in the legitimacy of a voice that struggled to climb the rocky hill of individuality. If only the voices of women are heard, their heartache listened by a comforting patriarchy, the lives of the Shirakawa women and the words of Fumiko Enchi would not ring true even today with alarming realism, decades after the novel was written concerning the woes and the vulnerability of women in a patriarchal culture.
Happiness – a small scale, endearing, harmonious……. A small scale happiness and a modest harmony :- let a man cry, let him rage, let him howl with grief with all the power of which he was capable, what more than these could he ever hope to gain in his life?”
Here, I am , a woman having the ability and the sovereignty of not only selecting my men through their sexual capacities but to rebel against the inflexible cultural doctrines ; my voice is fortunate for never having to experience the trauma of its repression and resonates at its loudest decibel when my existence if demeaned on a societal scale. Yet, when it comes to my role of a reviewer, I shiver in apprehensions. How can I judge the Shirakawa women? Who am I to pass an opinion on their lives, when there are members of my species still enduring the oppression of a patriarchal society? Who am I to critic the arduous lives of my ancestral womenfolk? After all, I am their privileged progeny. So, all I did was accompanied Tomo, Suga, Yumi, Miya and the others as they resiliently endured a 40 year long journey ; conscientious to each of their afflictions amid varying images of my own ancestral women fleeting through my vision and with a fountain pen brimming with ink in my hand I lingered with a burning hope to see a light at the end of a colourless tunnel , wondering if ever Tomo might finally discover her rightful voice and I patiently observed the endless melancholic trail of the waiting years on which Tomo robustly walked. Because, at the end of it all a brighter world surely lay waiting, like the light when one finally emerges from a tunnel. If it were not there waiting, then nothing made sense.