Monday, 27 July 2009

The Character of Rain

The Character of Rain by Amelie Nothomb

My first clearest childhood memory is from when I was three years old. Though I know most people remember stray instances from an age much earlier than that. In Japan it is believed that children until the age of three are gods, each one an okosama, or “Lord Child” and at the age of three they fall from grace and join the common humankind. If one is born in Japan one too would probably remember the first two years of childhood with such clarity as displayed by Amelie Nothomb’s prose.

Partly autobiographical and completely philosophical Metaphysique des tubes, the original French title is more suited than The Character of Rain, evokes the secret world of a toddler filled with wondrous moments. From the time of ‘cylindrical serenity – filtering everything in the universe, retaining nothing’ to the ‘leap of faith’ to bite into white chocolate and thus develop a conscience to the age of two and half years when, ‘choosing between my parents, who treated me like the others, and my nanny, who treated me like a god, was not a real choice. I would become Japanese’ the child narrates a tale about the beginning of a life that is both fantastical and sublime till the final fall from grace that is both tragic and inevitable.

Twice a year on the eighth and ninth day of Navaratri, the nine nights devoted to the worship of the supreme goddess Shakti/Devi, young girls in India, at least in North India, put on their festive finery adorned with gold embroidery and tiny mirrors and enter the realm of the divine. Nine young (and of course virgin) girls symbolizing the nine avatar of the goddess are worshiped in a ceremony called kanya puja that celebrates the purity and the power of creation that is vested in girls. The older women perform aarti, and offer special treats like halwa-puri-chana and present new clothes and press small coins in their tiny hands all in an effort to appease the goddess.

And then with the onset of puberty these girls suffer a fall from grace and are no longer invited. Girls much younger than them take their place on the pedestal. But their pain is as real as that felt by a child being bought up in Japan even though they were divine only twice each year.

This fall from grace marks every childhood. The transition from the time when the world revolves around your every whim and fancy to the moment when you become answerable for every ‘what are you doing’ and ‘where are you going’ is a common destiny shared by every child. But more tellingly this fall marks more than just the end of the state of infancy. As Amelie Nothomb puts it, “Turning three brought absolutely nothing good with it. The Japanese are right to see it as the end of the divine state. Something is lost, something more precious than anything and yet beyond recapture: belief in the goodness of the world.”

(Afterthoughts on books: part 12)

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