Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Han Suyin - Birdless Summer

@Jonathan Cape Books
+Putnams
@Blossoms Book Store, Bangalore

I have been looking for books by Han Suyin for quite a while now.  They are out of print mostly and not available on kindle.  My only hope is to come across her books in second hand book store; I depend on serendipity there.

I found some books by Han Suyin at Blossoms, the famous second hand book shop in Bangalore.  It was a treat for me.

The name Birdless Summer invokes a cheerless feeling.  It is a chronicle of a particularly bleak period in the life of the author.  She was pursuing her medical studies in Belgium in 1938 when she ran into an old neighbor from her childhood days, Pao. She was struck by nostalgia and marries him.  Not just that, she abandoned her studies and returns to war torn China to be by her husband's side.

Pao had just completed his military studies in London and is an officer in the Army.  He was full of idealistic zeal and ready to fight for his country alongside his beloved leader Chiang Kaishek.  Suyin too is full of patriotism for China and wanted to do something to serve her country.

They returned to find China in shambles.  The Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kaishek was losing badly to the invaders, the Japanese.  As is always the case, the poor people were the worst off.  They were living in sub-human conditions and things were getting worse and worse.  The people in power did all they could to live comfortably and avoid the ravages of war.

Suyin was appalled. China was sinking in dirt.  It was not just the state of China that was horrific.  She found Pao extremely conservative and narrow minded.  He abused and beat her routinely.  Suyin tried to justify Pao's behavior and tried to do as he wished of her.  But her spirits refused to be quelled.

She worked in a maternity clinic for a while, tried to do something useful.  Later, when Pao was sent to London as an attache, she went along and resumed her medical studies.  She was on a path to self-fulfillment. But her marriage was in shambles, just like China.

She found herself sympathizing with the Communist ideology and Mao TseTung.

The book chronicles the tumultuous decade in the history of China, 1938 to 1948 with vividness.  The horror of war is very realistically painted.  The fear, the maiming, the extreme poverty of those times, people scrounging for food, battling with diseases are well etched.

Han Suyin also writes about her bestselling first book, Destination Chungking.  She describes the circumstances in which she wrote that book.  It wasn't the correct chronicle of the time.  Birdless Summer is an honest re-write of that book, according to her.  It is hard to figure out the truth, as autobiographies are rarely brutally honest.  Anyhow, the political happenings cannot be denied.

Despite the book being a cut and dried account of war-torn China, it is not boring.  It is a gripping account of the time. 

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