Shibayama Sensei was an enigma. Capable of breaking pine boards with the tips of his fingers, he was also equally adept at composing the most beautiful ‘haiku’ ever written. Once, I almost dropped dead when I saw him – in a near-trance state – practicing ‘ikebana’, the Japanese art of flower arranging. What was a man like him – someone who, as rumour had it, had once single-handedly taken on eight armed Yakuza men in mortal combat to save the virtue of a girl he hardly even knew – doing playing with flowers? When I asked him about the flowers, he replied in his usual cryptic manner, “Do you not yet understand that softness comes from strength and strength form softness?” That was way too much for my, then, very tender 20-year old brain to handle.
Ken Watanabe-like, my sensei wasn’t. There were times when I even thought plastic surgery would be lost on him. But he wasn’t exactly ugly either. There was something indefinable about him that drew people to him, to like him, despite the fact that he looked like an old, abandoned Russian tank. I guess that was why he was the sensei and I was the apprentice. Perhaps there was something to this ‘haiku’ and ‘ikebana’ stuff, after all.
One day, I decided to ask him of his alleged altercation with the eight Yakuza men.
He took a sip of his green tea and said, “What is there to say, Bangkai-san? They wanted to rape her. I put an end to their plans.” He looked out the window for a while. Then, with a dismissive wave of his hands he added, “That was a long time ago. Now, Bangkai-san, drink your tea.”
It was as if saving damsels in distress was somehow nothing more to him than buying newspapers from the corner shop. I wasn’t quite satisfied and decided to press the matter further.
“After you whacked all the baddies, what did you do, sensei?”
“After that, I took her to her family home. She was due to marry the very next day. And that was that.” he replied as a matter-of-factly.
We sipped our tea quietly for a few moments. Being in particularly inquisitive mood, I pressed on. “Sensei, was there ever a girl you really liked?”
I had wanted to ask him that question for a very long time.
“Of course there was. I am, after all, a man. Am I not?”
“Then what happened, sensei?”
“Bangkai-san, why do you ask questions, the answers to which you are not ready for?” He was doing it to me again; that Zen master thing that drove me insane.
“Pease tell me, sensei. What happened?”
“Very well” he conceded. He took another sip of tea and explained, “Then I fell in love with her.”
“Huh? Where is she now?”
“She is living somewhere in Tokyo with her very successful and powerful husband” For a moment, I could have sworn that his eyes went wet when he spoke those words. My sensei was human, after all.
After allowing for a decent time to pass, I commented, “I guess it’s not easy to compete with such a man when we are but mere mortals, right, Sensei?
“I never competed, Bangkai-san. Make no mistake.” He paused again and continued, “I just never told her I loved her”
“You what?! Are you out of your mind?” was my knee-jerk reaction.
“I knew you weren’t ready for the answers.”
“Explain it to me then, sensei!” I demanded.
“Alright, I still think you will not understand – but I will try. When you truly love someone, never make the mistake of telling her so.” I was convinced I was talking to a raving lunatic. “By telling her so, you only dilute the love that you feel for her. Don’t you see? By telling her you love her, you are putting expectations upon your beloved. How can there be true love when there are expectations?” he continued.
I was lost. He was right: He was right in thinking I would not understand. But I was also determined to fight all that conventional wisdom had taught me and all the knee-jerk reactions that came with it.
“So, she doesn’t know you love her?
“Bangkai-san, when two hearts are one, words will only get in the way. Though I have never told her, she knows, Bangkai-san. She knows.”
I was on the verge of losing my mind. But I wanted to take it one step further.
“But don’t you ever miss her, or anything like that, sensei? After all, she is in Tokyo – with her husband and all – and you here?”
“Bangkai-san, when another heart lives within yours, space, time, and even circumstances, loses all meaning. Someday you will understand this.” He just smiled. I believe it was the first time I had ever seen him smile.
It was all too much for me to handle. I thanked him and asked to be excused. As I was about to close the door, my sensei spoke again. “Bangkai-san, remember the girl I rescued? The girl whom I sent to her family home so that she could be married the next day?”
“Yes, sensei, I do.”
“If you must know, Bangkai-san, she is my beloved…”
I didn’t understand it then. But now, some twenty six year later, I am beginning to.