The first phrase that came to mind as I began reading ‘My Beautiful Shadow’ by Radhika Jha was that of ‘keeping up appearances’, albeit in Japanese society. The story is narrated in first person by the protagonist Kayo who you first know as a humble Japanese girl married to a very eligible young man holding a secure bank job. You are then drawn into Kayo’s everyday life where she is seen coping with loneliness and a desire to be accepted into modern day Tokyo. As an outlet, she finds an escape into consumerism and her experiences can best be described as exhilarating and haunting at the same time. Yes, two very different emotional experiences but its when you read Kayo’s story that you understand their coexistence.
Kayo takes retail therapy to a new level. This is aptly demonstrated in her experience of entering a shopping centre with its overarching domes and glittering displays or how she narrates to us her experience of entering a changing room. What’s so magical about these mundane shopping rites you ask. Well, when you’re addicted to shopping and fall prey to every marketing gimmick of consumerism, you may understand.
One specific paragraph that instantly caught my attention was when Kayo enters a shopping sale. The author describes Kayo’s exuberance of being part of a soul satisfying shopping experience owing to discounted rates and the motivation to get to the coveted product before anyone else does with such precision that you can almost vicariously participate in this sale. This narrative also reminded me of the street markets in Mumbai which I used to frequent as a student. I can clearly remember the haggling, the grabbing of products (lest you lose it to another equally motivated buyer) and the intrinsic feeling of pure satisfaction when lugging home a bunch of items resulting from a successful day at the market!
Coming back to the book, Radhika Jha has done well in giving the reader an insight into Japaenese society. There is one sentence in the book which states that the crime rate in Japan is low because the neighbours are the police and the jailers. This no doubt makes a direct reference to the control that society has on behaviour in Japan. The concepts of shame and guilt seem to be deployed as mechanisms of punishment. The difference between urban and rural Japan has also been brought to the fore beautifully especially in reference to the use (or lack of) technology. Finally, the descriptions of Zen Gardens is so serene that I was transported back to one such garden that I remember visiting on my trip to San Francisco. That memory along with reading this description has made my resolve stronger of visiting a Zen Garden in Japan, one day.
Apart from consumerism, the book addresses issues of debt and what one is forced to do to overcome this modern day monster. Along with Kayo other characters that add soul to the storyline are her husband, mother and best friend.
This book made for a thought provoking read and personally, I enjoyed the book as it gave me a glimpse into Japanese life and culture.