War stories are inherently captivating. It offers great insight into the characters and their tribulations through war time. It is not an easy period to live in, more so when you are constantly threatened by the prospect of losing your life and that of your loved ones to a brutality that only man could have invented. The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng is a war story. But it is more than that as well. The Malaysian author’s debut work is a beautifully crafted sculpture of prose and an emotional roller coaster to boot. This one will definitely tug at the heartstrings of anyone who lays his/her hands on and reads the 500 odd pages of the book.
The story is mainly set in Penang, Malaysia (then Malaya) during the period 1939-1945 and then a time period 50 years after the war ended. It traces the trials of Philip Hutton, the son of a wealthy businessman in Penang, and his relationship with a man seemingly innocuous but, as Philip comes to realize later on in life, keeping a secret so powerful and unimaginable that it uproots his very own conscience. The man was Hayato Endo, a Japanese diplomat who befriends Philip after acquiring a plot of land that belonged to Philip’s family. Their relationship evolves into a strong bond of friendship and Endo teaches Philip the art of aikido which only strengthens the bond they already shared.
The Second World War changes everything. Japan invades Malaya and soon the lives of Philip and his family are turned upside down. A realization shocks Philip to the core questioning the allegiance he had towards Endo. He chooses to remain steadfast, much to the chagrin of his entire family. In a bid to save his family, Philip works for the Japanese. Japan gradually begins to lose its superior position and the Allied forces are able to force the Japanese out of Malaya. But heartbreakingly, Philip loses his entire family in the process.
The author has used the character of Michiko Murakami, through whom the story winds down memory lane, to great effect. Her story is as endearing as Philip’s and equally tragic. She is a strong lady, and even her weakened physique cannot wither her resolve to meet and understand Philip as well as learn the account of his relationship with Endo. Philip is initially taciturn towards Michiko but gradually warms up to her and eventually realizes why she wanted to meet him. The depiction is brilliant, to say the least.
I cannot stop thinking about Istana; the house where Philip and his family once lived together and which later became Philip’s own home after all had ended. The below passage is one of my favorites – “Its graceful lines and history touched me strongly and I loved exploring every part of it, sometimes even, despite my fear of heights, climbing up to the roof through a door in the attic. I would sit and look out over the landscape of the roof, like a tickbird on the back of a water buffalo, and feel the house beneath me”. The vivid portrayal of the fountain on the courtyard will forever be etched in my memory. So is the case with his family – Noel Hutton, the father, William and Edward, the older brothers and Isabel, the elder sister. Interestingly, Philip becomes closer to them only after meeting Endo!
Philip’s befriending of Kon, his meeting with his maternal grandfather after a very long time, his relationship with Aunt Yu Mei, his chauffeur Uncle Lim who is a part of a tragic sub plot that involves the death of his daughter and her husband during the Japanese occupation are all masterly recounted by Eng, in what I consider his masterpiece.
There are quite a few incidents that leave you misty eyed such as this one that occurred towards the end of the Japanese occupation in Malaya, as the British fighter planes flew in across the sea. Philip had used six tins to paint ‘a rather rudimentary Union Jack, with its red, blue and white lines’, on the sloping roof of Istana. He was indefatigably British but at the same time could not disown Endo who was peacefully sleeping in that very home at the same time!
And of course, who can overlook the Nagamitsu sword? It plays a very central part in the novel and one can comprehend the tensions that it evokes whenever it appears during the course of the story. A sword is a powerful instrument. It can be as much an instrument of love and belonging as it can be of hatred.
Do we ever mull over why we meet people? Why do we take a path which is diverse from the ones others follow? We come across many people in our lives. Some of them stay on for the rest of our lives while others have the briefest of contacts with us. No matter what, there is a strong purpose and destiny behind our interaction with people, though we may not be conscious of this at the time, but is probable to be revealed to us later in the course of our journey called life. This is the one important lesson that I’m taking away from the novel. To quote Philip towards the end of the novel – “While I now accept that the course of our lives has been set down long before our births, I feel that the inscriptions that dictate the directions of our lives merely write out what is already in our hearts; they can do nothing more”. This sums up my feeling exactly after reading this treasure of a book; this has to rank among the top of the best narratives I have had the opportunity to read until this moment in my life.