Morais, the author of the bestselling The Hundred- Foot Journey brings us a gentle story of a young man’s journey from repressed Japanese monk to a man who breaks free from his closeted life to discover acceptance in the most unexpected place.
Oda grew up in a quaint Japanese village, only to be removed, aged eleven, to study with the monks at a nearby Buddhist temple. On the brink of his fortieth birthday he is ordered by his superior to go to Brooklyn, New York to open a new Buddhist temple.
As the Reverend Oda tentatively arrives at JFK airport, he is greeted by a woman holding a placard with the words REVEREND ODA written in black ink.
“The woman waiting for me in the crowd was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans and flip flops. She was in her late thirties with frost tipped hair that stood up spiky and ragged.’
Assessing the woman he comes to a swift conclusion.
“I had read on the plane a long Japanese article about the decadence of American society, about same-sex marriages and single parent families, so perhaps this was why, at that moment when we first locked eyes, I thought, This is militant American lesbian.”
Greeted by Jennifer Meli (the placard holding militant lesbian), Oda is agog as instead of bowing she hugs him close to her bosom. Americans seemingly have no social boundaries!
This is one of my favourite chapters in the book. Oda’s shock and disgust at American society is so entertaining. Morais describes the Buddhist robes, the shaved head and the white socks and sandals that make Oda stand out from the crowd causing blatant amusement before he has even arrived at his final destination.
Acclimatising himself to his new life Oda begins exploring his local area of Brooklyn.
“The cafe had an etched-glass window out front and a metal-topped bar in the back. When I walked by I was convinced that a rude customer was hissing his disapproval at me, but I discovered, much to my relief, it was just the steam release of the espresso machine.”
Brooklyn is worlds apart from Oda’s small Japanese village. Oda is startled by the amount of food consumed, the noise and the mix of cultures. He simply cannot fathom it.
Not only does Oda struggle with the Brooklyn community, but also with the Buddhist community. At first he is unprepared to differ from the way he has taught in Japan. He insists that Americans must kneel to pray like the Japanese and refuses to acquiesce to their requests for seats asserting himself as their leader while all the time causing offence.
“We do not modify the formal practice of the Eternal Teachings simply because Americans are fat.”
Soon the Believers begin to drift away and Oda realises that his formal teaching must be modified for American Buddhists. He must strip himself of “arrogance” in order to lead the American Buddhists.
While Oda exudes a calm serenity, the American characters are larger than life and seen through Oda’s eyes, often vulgar. Yet they add to the brilliance of this novel and the underlying message that the sense of belonging can be found far away from home, in the most unexpected of places.
As Oda begins to realise his shortcomings, he finally offers the advice the Americans have been seeking.
“It is in fact my fears that push me to practice this faith to its fullest. And when I do, my personal problems do not go away, but neither do they paralyse me. I bow to them courteously, like they are rather irritating and noisy relatives always demanding respect, before stepping past them to get on with the work at hand.”
This is a sweet book, full of insight and humour and one you will want to go back to again and again.
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