Undated portrait of Chinese writer Han Suyin. She was born Rosalie Elisabeth Kuanghu Chow in Xinyang of Belgian and Chinese parents on Sept. 12, 1917. After a tour of Europe, she returned to China in 1938 and during the war with Japan wrote her first book “Destination Chungking”. After World War II, and after her husband, a Nationalist General, had been killed fighting Communists, she finished medical studies at London University and went back to China. She currently resides in Lausanne, Switzerland. (AP Photo).
In 1976 on our way to North Korea, where my father was posted, we stopped in Beijing for a few days. Bicycles and pictures of Mao were ubiquitous during that period. A huge picture of the Great Leader, as he was referred to, dominated a busy section of Beijing. I was struck by the general unhappiness of the Chinese people. Everyone wore drab uniforms and had sullen expressions. The sales clerks didn’t display any enthusiasm when we browsed in the stores. At that time I had no idea that the Cultural Revolution, which was just over, had caused the Chinese people great hardships. While we were eating breakfast in the hotel, I noticed a dark man seated with a woman staring at our family. He looked Indian, but I wasn’t sure. When I told my parents about him, they turned around to look at the man and remarked it was a small world. Clearly, they knew him and the woman with him. I wondered who they could be as my parents ushered my sister and me to their table. The woman was beguiling to my fifteen-year-old self. Was she Chinese or was she the product of an interracial marriage like some of my friends in the international school in Japan?
When we returned to our table, my mother told my sister and me in Malayalam that the woman was a novelist called Han Suyin. The stranger who had studied us turned out to be her third husband, Vincent Ruthnaswamy, and was indeed Indian. My mother said they had met the couple at a party in Singapore (a place the writer frequently visited) before I was born. While Han Suyin and her husband ate breakfast, a few hotel guests approached her.
She was at ease with her fame, giving autographs and chatting with her admirers.
My mother explained that Han Suyin was the daughter of a European mother and a Chinese father. She recalled how chic the writer used to look when they socialized with her in Singapore. Han Suyin’s real name, I learned, was Elizabeth Comber. Born and brought up in China, she became a physician. Her novel, A Many-Splendored Thing, was inspired by her affair with a journalist in Hong Kong and it had been made into a movie, which my mother loved. Decades later, as a married woman in America, I would watch Love is A Many-Splendored Thing several times, riveted by the romance and Jennifer Jones’s glamorous clothes. (The movie won an Academy Award for its musical score and its costumes.)
Back in our hotel room, my parents expressed their delight at encountering Han Suyin and her husband. It was clear they held her in high regard, not just because she was a famous novelist, but because she was someone they genuinely liked. Before we left Beijing, my father got her autograph for my sister and me. It turned out to be his last non-material gift for us as he died a few months later, but at the time we had no inkling of the future that awaited us. I kept it with my burgeoning collection of autographs that included Indira Gandhi and the classical singer and Nightingale of India, M.S. Subbulakshmi.
After my father’s sudden tragic death in India, I recollected the time we had visited a Chinese store and he’d asked me, repeatedly, what he could get me, but I had resisted the opportunity to acquire anything. In any case, if I had got the bead bracelets I had fingered, they would not have meant as much to me as the autograph. Now, sadly, three things are gone: my father, the autograph, and Han Suyin. Perhaps the autograph will emerge from its hiding place in my mother’s duplex one day. Unfortunately I don’t recall whether the author’s handwriting was legible or illegible, flowery or sprawled, small or big. Gone, too, undoubtedly, are certain memories about my father though I hold fast onto what remains.
In my late twenties, I married and immigrated to America. Part of settling down in another country entailed building a new library. My brother-in-law generously gifted books by Indian writers that filled two bookshelves. At a library sale, I bought a copy of The Enchantress by Han Suyin. After two false starts, I shelved the novel, knowing I could return to it whenever I liked. Most of my collection shares the same fate. Books borrowed from the library clamor for my attention as they are not permanent guests. I spend much time devouring them in solitary moods that allow me to appreciate, among other writers, Chinese-American authors Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Gish Jen, Lisa See, Ha Jin, and Yiyun Li. I read Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and discovered the truth about the Cultural Revolution, understanding, at long last, why the Chinese had been so unhappy when I had visited Beijing.
According to Chang, Mao’s Red Guards had wreaked suffering wherever they had gone, desecrating books and denouncing aristocrats, teachers, and landowners. City dwellers were forced to work in rural areas. Party leaders routinely abused power. A climate of fear existed because anyone could be falsely accused and publicly humiliated. What I recall most vividly after reading the memoir was Mao’s desire (during the years of the Great Leap Forward) to get rid of sparrows since they depleted the supply of grain. It lead to an absurd directive that children and adults had to bang pots and pans any time the birds rested until the winged creatures died from exhaustion. Mao succeeded in his mission, creating an environmental disaster that resulted in famine, since it turned out that the sparrows also ate the insects that fed on the crops. After the near extinction of the sparrows, the insects had a field day as they wreaked havoc on the crops.
The obituaries of Han Suyin mention her defense of Mao and other Communist leaders and the fact that she called the Cultural Revolution a “creative historical undertaking.” However, she didn’t remain unchanged after the Tiananmen Square massacre. I believe writers have a duty to be truthful, but because I haven’t read Han Suyin’s biographies about Mao and Zhou Enlai, I don’t regard her as someone who glossed over history. For me, she is a romantic figure, a physician-turned author and, finally, a literary blast from my past.
I called my mother, who lives in India, to tell her about the writer’s death, but she knew about it already. She reminisced about the time my father told Han Suyin my mother was expecting. It was at a party in Singapore. Han Suyin reacted by promptly kissing my mother’s cheek. “No wonder, you grew up to be a writer,” my mother told me over the phone.
As the well-known aphorism goes, there is a time for everything. I have found it to be true of books, whether my reading is haphazard or planned. The best of books fail to entice me if the time is not right. Recently I felt compelled to pick up the The Enchantress, which occupies an easy-to-see space in my study. Within a few pages her clean prose and storytelling prowess made it clear that this was the kind of novel I would relish. I know I don’t want to rush the reading experience. In the days to come, I look forward to finding my favorite nook, book in hand, and engaging with Han Suyin. It may or may not be a memorable novel for me, but the magic of meeting her in Hong Kong will not diminish.
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her fiction, poetry, and book reviews have been published in many magazines.