Anukrti Upadhyay’s first two works in English released simultaneously in 2019: Bhauri and Daura were short novellas that told fully formed stories imbued with a certain lyrical mysticism. On the surface, they are simple narratives, but the careful reader can peel back layers of meaning and allusion in the short works; they are stories of love and obsession, with the grey spaces in between taking on a life of their own.
In her first full-length novel, Kintsugi, Upadhyay fills in the in-between spaces with gold. Named after the Japanese art of mending broken objects with molten gold so that they become more precious than before, the novel’s themes and visual metaphors often collide: The story, in a sense, begins with gold, as Haruko, a young Japanese-American designer, starts an apprenticeship in jewellery-making under a kundansaaz or master artisan in Jaipur. Haruko, whose second name we never learn, fits into the intensely male world of jewellers with ease—possibly because of her exotic otherness—even though the artisans would never let their own daughters learn the craft.
When Haruko suffers a fracture due to an accident, she is invited to stay at the home of one of the jewellers, where she strikes a friendship with his teenage daughter, Leela, who calmly leads her tightly circumscribed life but is creative and stubborn, and is told to study not because getting an education is important but passing her matriculation exams will better her chances of making a good match. Haruko also meets a young doctor, Prakash, who is initially drawn to her because of her Japanese connection—his fiance, Meena, is studying for a PhD at Tokyo University.
The intersecting stories of all these characters, and the people who come into their lives, are like pieces of fine pottery melded together by gold. The schisms are obvious, yet lovely, and this finds a resonance in the structure of the novel; each of its six parts are told from the point of view of one of the characters whose interlocking lives create ripple effects through the book. And yet, each part is complete and whole in itself and can probably be read as a short story.
Upadhyay, who has said that she admires the Japanese writers Ryūnosuke Akutagawa and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, writes beautifully and honestly about Japan, where a large part of her narrative is set, but her writing really comes alive in the jewellers’ lanes in Jaipur. Her descriptions of jewellery-making are painstaking, detailed and slow, and the passages that deal with the intricate art are soothing and calming to read, leading to a deep appreciation of the effort needed to make a single piece of jewellery.
At the same time, Upadhyay does not glorify the kind of oppression tight-knit societies and families in India impose on its members. There is a lot of quiet rebellion in many of the characters’ story arcs, and tragedy and frustration in not being able to break out of the safety of a future that one’s place in the world has dictated. The characters who leave home may not end up happy, but Upadhyay’s narrative makes it clear that without getting out or letting the outside air in, they would be dead.
This is, in many ways, an old-fashioned novel of the kind 20th-century Hindi and Bengali writers wrote: with a rich, character-driven story that flows more or less linearly, and with a quiet beauty of language that seeks to work in aid of telling the story without drawing attention to itself. Read it for a little healing in these anxious times.