By Estian Smit
The door chimes echoed through the house, hesitant, unfamiliar in a place they seldom entered, like a cat placing a tentative paw on a path it does not habitually walk.
– Tan Twan Eng, The Gift of Rain, p.13
Tan Twan Eng’s The Gift of Rain (2007) is a beautiful, sad and sensitive portrayal of love, betrayal and guilt in a complex master-disciple relationship set against the backdrop of the build-up to, reality and aftermath of the Japanese occupation of the island Penang (then a British colony) during World War II.
A lonely boy of Penang – the child of a Chinese mother and English father (both from wealthy, influential families) – feels an acute sense of cultural nonbelonging and keeps himself aloof from both his Chinese and English acquaintances, a situation worsened by his mother’s early death. A Japanese aikijutsu teacher arrives and befriends the boy, quickly turning him into his student – with all the strong emotional bonds and mutual obligations such a relationship entails. However, unbeknownst to the boy, his sensei (who also happens to be a Japanese diplomat) has ulterior motives in initiating the friendship and puts the boy’s intimate knowledge of his island to strategic military use, facilitating an easy Japanese takeover of the island and a reign of brutality by Japanese officers. Wishing to save his own family from torture and death, but also out of continued love for and trust in his sensei (now second in command on the island), the boy becomes an interpreter for the Japanese military.
The sensei – despite his seeming self-command and manipulative use of the boy for his own ends – himself suffers from internal conflicts and divided loyalties. This, combined with his tenderness towards and deep emotional need for his student, renders his character and their relationship complex. Having been cast adrift after the imprisonment of his pacifist father by the Japanese government and subsequently ordered to work for them in return for medical care for his father, the sensei was caught in much the same situation of powerless despair he was now re-creating for his young student. Striking in the novel is how both teacher and student try to rationalise their collaboration in the war atrocities through an almost desperate clinging to idealistic teachings of universal harmony, balance and duty, as well a belief in the inescapability of fate brought about by their actions in previous incarnations.
Forced to witness countless torture situations and massacres (including of his own family and friends, whom he fails to save despite his collaboration with the Japanese forces), the student frequently retreats into the meditative state taught to him by his teacher. But instead of bringing him peace and the ability to balance opposing forces, it serves only to increasingly disconnect him from all he holds dear. Eventually compelled to admit that his teacher’s belief system is not working for him, he attempts to redeem himself by aiding the resistance. His sensei, in contrast, more or less retains his outward self-composure throughout the occupation, but once war draws to a close with the bombing of Japan – causing the destruction of his own home and deaths of his entire family – he is no longer able to keep his emotions at bay in the name of duty, opting for death shortly after the arrival of the Allied troops. In the end neither of them could save their families or friends through their choice to aid the occupation, and in the light of Japan’s eventual defeat the sensei’s sense of national duty also proved futile. One is left with a strong sense of the futility of their actions, of how, in letting a belief system (or a particular interpretation thereof) rigidly guide their courses of action, they had betrayed their own humanity. Also striking is how the student sometimes makes decisions in what appears to be moments of absolute, almost visionary clarity (perhaps brought about by excessive meditation), only to be consumed later with self-doubt in the light of ethical considerations and heartfelt emotions.
The negative impact the sensei has on his student’s life is initially balanced by the positive, in that he provides the solitary boy with a loving relationship and also helps him to reconcile with both sides of his family and to connect with the richness of his diverse cultural heritages. Unfortunately many of these gains are reversed again with the boy’s continued involvement in the war under his sensei’s direction.
The story is told from the perspective of the aging, somewhat reclusive student (himself now an ex-aikijutsu teacher in his seventies, running his father’s company and dedicating himself to the restoration of pre-war colonial buildings), who for the first time finds relief by sharing his tormented memories with a stranger arriving at his doorstep: a former lover of his sensei when young, she is now dying from radiation exposure received during Japan’s bombing fifty years before. The continuous shifting in perspective between their present (approaching the end of life) and their youthful past, with its contrasts between the hopes and dreams of the young and the memories and regrets of the old, makes for a rich novel filled with pathos and understanding. Although a tragic story about choice and fate, it is lightened by the author’s penchant for unexpected turns of phrase, painting delicate scenes of tenderness and natural beauty in the midst of cruelty and sorrow, and by the possibility of growth and redemption even as life draws to a close.
Finally, although the novel does not aim to be a completely faithful reflection of historical events in Penang, it does create an interesting and imaginative impression of various groups, tensions, oppressions, mutual influences and shifting alliances during colonial rule in a culturally diverse milieu, providing a stimulating and insightful read.