I read a book with the intensity of a school girl after a long time and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience so much so that I slept with the book and carried it around 24X7.
I remembered those’book-wormish’ days of the past…It was fun to be absorbed totally into an alien world and let go of yourself. Like the father in Tagore’s famous short story, ‘Kabuliwallah’, I can call myself a happy armchair traveler, entering into the secret, mysterious world of the giesha, who beneath their alluring and much romanticized make up of white and garish red live to preserve the culture and traditions of a nation famous for its technological advancement.
I then watched a BBC video of a young girl who chose out of herself will to be a geisha, today a preserver of Japanese tradition and culture,its arts and dances and of course the grand tea making ceremony. She looked happy enough and seemed to be more in control of her life than her many predecessors.
In memoirs of a Geisha we are taken to a time when a Geisha was a much accomplished woman, trained to entertain men and readied to offer sexual favors for those who chose so and was entirely owned by retired geisha-matrons who ran the geisha homes.
Young girls like Chiyo Chan, the protagonist of this book, were then sold to geisha houses where they had to undergo a rigorous drill to become the perfect entertainer who will be the most popular one in the whole of Kyoto,the then capital of Japan.
The little girl’s initial disenchantment with her new surroundings,so different from what she expected it to be, her separation from her only sister, Satsu and the many cruelties inflicted upon her by the senior Geisha,Hatsumomo and her breaking down many times in loneliness and helplessness touches the heart of the reader.
The same Chiyo though later gets so enticed by the world of a Geisha that she secretly aspires to become the most famous and the most elegant geisha in the town. She accomplishes her dream under the tutelage of the graceful yet practical training and supervision of Mameha, Hatsumomo’s key rival.
Chiyo transforms into the much desired and famous Geisha, Nitta Sayuri under the careful eyes of Mameha whose tireless efforts in getting Chiyo the necessary attention among the rich and famous men gets Chiyo to her dream.
Did Chiyo anticipate that her virginity would be sold off to the highest bidder, that she would be attracted to the ‘Chairman’ the elder man who had once stopped to speak kindly to her when she was a lonely broken and unhappy child?
Did she enjoy her journey of having to please all every time? Did she have any secret desires apart from meeting the Chairman and eventually being able to marry and live with him? The story does not give us much insight.
The language used by the writer is beautiful, richly layered with many similes and metaphors, beautiful descriptions and even elaborate efforts to veil sexual encounters to the fantasy of ‘an eel finding a cave’. That is the first time I ever read such a description!
One thinks of the many novels by Pearl.S.Buck like the ‘Letter from Peking’, ‘Peony’, ‘Good Earth’ which sell the idea of an exotic east to the reader. ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ does the same by weaving a fantasy of a young girl reaching the heights of stardom on the strength of her pale startlingly beautiful grey eyes and her training and ability to please men.
While one may object to the obvious objectification of women, the writing is a treat,so smooth that reader saunters into the rich tapestry of Japanese way of living, the pictures of gliding geisha, fluttering eyes, the dance and the many bows remain for a long time like the lingering effect of an expensive perfume.
Chiyo is indeed a very unlucky girl who happened to believe in the kindness of the first sophisticated man she ever met one Mr. Tanaka who befriended her and later sold her off to Okaya a house of Giesha in Kyoto.
In the face of the hunger and poverty at her home as the daughter of a fisherman and his ailing wife, Chiyo set all her hopes for a better life in a vague dream of being adopted by Mr. Tanaka The writer takes us through the many trials and tribulations Chiyo faces in her life till she finally ensconced herself as the best among the geisha far and wide.
Worth a read and a re-read to appreciate the poetic language.