My Beautiful Shadow is set in the early 90s, school-going Yako meets college boy Ryu on a double date with her best friend Tomoko and they fall in love. He gets a job as soon as he graduates and asks her to marry him. Against her best friend’s advice and in the face of her mother’s disapproval, she marries him. And they begin life in a tiny house, Yako getting pregnant within the year. Soon she has a son, Akira and learns to keep house. Her life is mundane and middle class, the daily menu unchanged and she is in the throes of makkura, the Japanese word for pure blackness, or depression. Perhaps it’s post partum depression.
And then one day she bumps into Tomoko who has only grown more beautiful and chic. Tomoko introduces her to a world that is unlike anything she has ever experienced before. She gives her a makeover, takes her shopping and Yako is spending money she can’t afford to. Their days are fun but Tomoko keeps her personal life a secret and Yako realises there is a wall she just can’t get behind. She gives birth to her daughter Haruka and gets busy with her, her frequent outings with Tomoko grinding to a halt. A year goes by and Tomoko disappears. Yako learns that she has committed suicide, and her secret life is exposed. She was a rich man’s mistress.
Meanwhile Ryu is rising up the career ladder and expects Yako to be the perfect corporate wife. He wants her to take English classes, dress well, move to an upmarket neighbourhood and send the children to a better school. She swings from depression to a manic shopper and from thereon it is a slippery slope. Tomoko has taught her well and soon she is caught up in a maelstrom of sales, malls and stores. Yako spends her dowry, uses her husband’s credit card, takes a loan to pay off her debt and finally ends up indebted to a loan shark who forces her into prostitution.
Jha doesn’t judge her compulsive buying disorder or shopaholism, she just tells it as it is—‘My body filled with joy, my head grew light and suddenly I knew that my future was full of beautiful things.’
My Beautiful Shadow takes you into the glamorous world of the Tokyo housewife. Perfect hair, slim legs, Prada wearing, pushing kids in McLaren strollers—there’s a lot of pressure to keep up with the Joneses. Far from the zen world of tea ceremonies we’ve hitherto known, this is one where Issey Miyake and Gucci rub shoulders with Louis Vuitton and Burberry. And you can either keep up or keep out.
Jha’s understanding of Japanese culture is bang on and it’s fascinating to see an Indian writer get right into the skin of a Japanese girl and see life in Tokyo through her eyes. What is a little discomfiting though, is the use of Japanese terms without a glossary. Yakuza, pachinko, mamachari—if you care for nuance you need to stop mid sentence and search for the meaning of the word before you move on. A tedious if educational experience.
Inspite of that, this is a story that could be from any part of the world. A bored housewife who indulges herself by shopping manically and gets herself into deep trouble. A troubled marriage where communication has broken down. Depression followed by a shopping disorder and the crushing burden of debt. Unfortunately the characters are under developed and don’t inspire either your empathy or your concern. It’s almost as though the makkura Yako suffers from, has seeped out of her life and spread across this tale, leaving it bleak and hopeless.