‘My memory, like an ant, stops at each hurdle and drifts down a less difficult path.’ Such is the start of this lyrical, bittersweet novel, which follows intimate moments in the life of a young Indian woman, Kavya, who, thanks to his uncle's trading business, spends long periods of her life in Japan. That Was has well-crafted language and heightened attention to detail, and Kavya’s voice is honest and compassionate when narrating the experience of the woman she once was. Each of the novel's short chapters is in itself a meditation on enlightenment, love, adventure, grief, and passion.
But perhaps the most powerful aspect of the novel is its celebration of multiculturality. In Sarayu Srivatsa’s work, ‘multiculturality’ is not a token or a cliché, but a way of existing. Her character, Kavya, spends most of the novel trying to remember and come to terms with the traumatic attack she suffered in her Indian hometown when she was a child. Travelling to Japan and getting immersed in its new culture with the help of a cast of well-rounded and diverse characters is what allows her to process those terrible memories. As any traveller will already know, having the ability to put distance between oneself and one’s familiar environment allows for deep introspection and enrichment. And this process is embodied in Kavya’s own story. She embraces Japanese culture with candour and enthusiasm, to the point where, at times, she brings in Japanese words to her narrative when they express concepts that don’t exist in English: ‘The reflection of the sunset in the pond was a shot of red-orange silk. Simple. Subtle. Indefinable. Shibui.’
Ultimately, That Was reminds us of the strong, yet often forgotten links between cultures. This is beautifully expressed by S-san, a Japanese woman who ends up becoming a mentor for Kavya. When discussing the iconic Japanese red torii gates, she says ‘Did you know that the word torii comes from the Indian torana, and its design originated from the gates of the Sanchi monastery? And did you know that Baizaiten, the Japanese goddess, was derived from the Indian deity Saraswati? Some Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines have halls dedicated to her. She is the goddess of everything: water, time, language, music, knowledge.’
Inés G. Labarta is a Madrid-born writer and artist currently based in the northwest of England. She is the author of a collection of middle-grade novels, Los Pentasónicos (Edebé, 2008-2010) and two novellas, McTavish Manor (Holland House, 2016) and Kabuki (Dairea, 2017). She lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Wolverhampton and directs The Wandering Bard magazine and podcast.
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