Editor’s note: This book review was originally published on Hooked to Books. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.
by Pallavi Sareen
Underground by Haruki Murakami is a non-fiction book written in a highly literary style. The title Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche itself suggests what the book is about. It is a compilation of incidents that led to Tokyo gas attack collected through research and interviews. This is the first time I read non-fiction by Murakami, and I was impressed by his ability to stick to the truth while weaving an interesting story.
This book is the insider story of a tragedy
When the news headline flashes on the screen talking about the number of people dead and perhaps one tantalizing video that shows a graphical representation of the disaster, it is easy to feel that momentary empathy for the people and then go on living your life being glad that you weren’t the one going through it.
The whole representation of a tragedy is always so spread out that we can only look at it from a broad spectrum. As such, it is easier to forget about the impact that seems minute when compared to the already vast population. But in reality, it has made a significant impact on that small group of people who lived it and even their family, friends, relatives who heard about and they could never return to their life of normality. Incidents like these leave a permanent mark on one’s psyche, and that is sometimes a bigger tragedy than the one they lived through.
Tokyo sarin gas incident
This book has individual interviews of the sarin gas survivors, families of non-survivors and even the cult members who were involved in it or just part of Aum (the cult) while it happened.
After reading it, I realized what kind of impact a tragedy can have on a person’s life, even if they’re not directly in contact with it. The book is written in chapters full of interviews trying to recreate the sarin gas tragedy. It takes inputs of the victims, the cult members, the railway administration, the police officers who were supposed to handle the situation and even the doctors. When the event happened, no one had expected it, and absolutely nobody was prepared for it. It was an absurd incident that happens once every decade to remind people of their mortality and the failures of even the most perfect of administration.
The chaos, the pain, the grief, the loss was all topped by the apathy of the Aum members who believed their actions were justified because this was their path to salvation.
“Aum renunciates have already accepted, inside themselves, the end of the world, because when they become a renunciate, they discard themselves totally, thereby abandoning the world. In other words, Aum is a collection of people who have accepted the end.”
And the things I read about why some of the people joined the cult resonated so much with my self. Don’t we all get tired of life, after having to follow the same path everyone else does? How easy would it be to fall under the guidance of someone and follow simple orders, knowing, and having full faith that it would lead to deliverance?
Is that why so many people believe in God?
It is such a human thing to do, this disillusionment. My only surprise was that the people who fell into this trap were educated, strong people who could think for themselves and yet, there was this sense of belongingness, the purpose, the detachment from what they called ‘secular world’ that made them do things a sane person wouldn’t.
“Sometimes in this multifaceted world of ours, inconsistency can be more eloquent than consistency.”
The pain became a path to elevation; the brutalities became tests. And yet my mind keeps going back to that one girl who didn’t think that the man they called ‘guru’ who had sex with the renunciates and even offered it to her, was not a sham. How deluded and blind does one become in matters of faith where all logic flies out of the window and the only thing left is complete surrender. What kind of Guru, who has supposedly renounced all desires can still have sexual attraction towards the other renunciates?
“Now a narrative is a story, not a logic, nor ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not.”
But most of all, what I liked about the book was the scattered point of views. With each interview, I got to know the story of one particular person and what events led him to that point on the attack, how that specific person dealt with the situation and how he lived with it afterward. Seeing things like that, it is hard to notice the full spectrum.
Characters are not just characters
The hardest part about reading the book was knowing that the characters written in it weren’t just lifeless characters on paper but actual people who had gone through the tough times surrounding the Tokyo gas attack. It is hard not to feel that individual pain of everyone and yet be able to measure the impact in a quantifiable term.
There were 12 people dead. Doesn’t seem like a massive term after the number of people who die daily in different shootings, accidents, terrorist attacks and what not? However, I suggest that everyone should read this book and then wonder if it was just 12 people who died that day.
Pallavi Sareen is an avid reader, a harsh critic, bibliophile, and a dreamer. Accustomed to telling stories, she spends her time amidst the pages of either a book or her diary.
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