What would you do if you had the opportunity to go back in time? To unravel the mystery and know answers to hidden puzzles. And if you are provided with such a chance to retrace your steps and set your footprints on the exact path you have travelled on, would you grab such an offer? Isn't this deal too alluring to pass up?
Set in Tokyo, in an unassuming café dated more than a century of history with nondescript but eccentric décor that saw hardly any upgradation in all these years, is a story of bunch of characters. The windowless underground café is awash with sepia glow from the overhead lights that hang above the tables. These characters have nothing in common but what ties them is one ardent yearning to engage with the past. The secret tremors in each of their hearts become so unbearable that they shake them and throw them in a whirlpool. Every suck and pull makes them more distant from their own selves. When they are at the end of their tethers, this café pulls them from the swirling current and breathes life into them. The yearning to revisit the past is fulfilled by the café but the conditions are too many. Even readers will feel overwhelmed hearing about the rules that has reigned in the café since time immemorial. Which makes us believe that there is nothing called free lunch. You should be open to stick to these rules and unless you do that, you won’t succeed in your journey of past discovery and resolution. But these characters relent in their promises and thus, a new portal gets opened in front of them. That’s not it. The café’s most abominable rule is you cannot change the present. Yeah the baffling twist.
The book gives us a glimpse of each of their lives, their past and the point in which they all stand now. The characters are flawed but they make a steady progress to set their flaws right. Bridging the gap between past and present is what you can draw out from this book. Meaning we all live or have lived in a space between ‘what could have been’ and ‘ what actually is’. A simmering tension exists in this space where we are attacked with unknown demons. Similarly, the characters, straddling between both the worlds, are confronted with unknown demons and try to seek resolution. The café offers them (in each story) an opportunity to cement that gap and helps them to accept the ‘what actually is’. You cannot change the outcome but at least make peace with the knowledge by knowing the reason why it happened. For some, letting go is an only option, for some knowing the truth behind the indifference, and for some, a chance to reunite with their families. Towards the end, the tightness in the chests of the characters are reduced to bare minimum.
Though the story has umpteen number of rules, I mean, very difficult to catch up; all the sub-stories have different plots, which is a clean win for this book. I personally loved the story of sisters and the one with husband and wife.
While I was reading this novel, I chanced into one article that came in The Newyorker online Magazine. The piece was very much inching towards these lines. The uncanny allure of our unled lives is so attractive and flashy at times that we stop find meaning in the present. We find peace in dwelling in the regrets that present pleasantness pales in comparison. We have unlived lives for all sorts of reasons: because we make choices; because society constrains us; because events force our hand; most of all, because we are singular individuals, becoming more so with time. Even as we regret who we haven’t become, we value who we are. We seem to find meaning in what’s never happened. Our self-portraits use a lot of negative space.
Even though this ‘what could have been’ has its own allure and charm to it and as the article puts it ‘we clamber up into our future thinking back on the ladders unclimbed, it is just a fantasy or a fiction that we plot in our heads. It might be beautiful in our heads but we should be thankful enough that we are spared by the ignorance. What if that ‘could have been’ area was a trap and our present life has saved us from that trap.
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