Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Tokyo Cancelled

by Rana Dasgupta

“[This] brilliantly conceived and jauntily delivered first novel . . . harks back to Boccaccio and Chaucer. . . . There is something marvelously primitive about the function of story here, the way it staves of individual distress and panic and creates a communal skein of life and dream that connects the tellers, the listeners and, by extension, any of us who happen to be reading about what they’re telling each other. There is also something dramatically modern about Dasgupta’s world.” –Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 400
  • Publication Date May 23, 2005
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7009-5
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Someone spoke: I have a story to tell.

Simple, just like that. Thirteen passengers are stranded at an airport. Tokyo, their destination, is covered in snow and all flights are cancelled. To pass the night they form a huddle by the silent baggage carousels and tell one another stories.

In what The Wall Street Journal Asia has hailed as a “global citizen narrative,” Rana Dasgupta has crafted a Canterbury Tales for our times. In the spirit of Borges and Calvino, Dasgupta’s writing combines an energetically modern landscape with a timeless, beguiling fairy-tale ethos, invoking timeless tales such as Rapunzel, Bluebeard, and the Prodigal Son, while bringing to life a cast of ex-traordinary individuals–some lost, some confused, some happy–in a world that remains ineffable, inexplicable, and wonderful.

A Ukrainian merchant is led by a wingless bird back to a lost lover; Robert De Niro’s son masters the transubstantiation of matter and turns it against his enemies; a man who manipulates other people’s memories has to confront his own past; a Japanese entrepreneur risks losing everything in his obsession with a doll; a mute Turkish girl is left alone in the house of a German man who is mapping the world . . .

Told by people on a journey, these are stories about lives in transit, stories from the great cities–New York, Istanbul, Delhi, Lagos, Paris, Buenos Aires–that grow into an epic cycle about the hopes and dreams and disappointments that connect people everywhere.

Tags Literary


“[This] brilliantly conceived and jauntily delivered first novel . . . harks back to Boccaccio and Chaucer. . . . There is something marvelously primitive about the function of story here, the way it staves of individual distress and panic and creates a communal skein of life and dream that connects the tellers, the listeners and, by extension, any of us who happen to be reading about what they’re telling each other. There is also something dramatically modern about Dasgupta’s world.” –Alan Cheuse, San Francisco Chronicle

“Dasgupta spins a self-consciously modern tapestry of freewheeling fantasies and subverted fairy tales with his ambitious first book. . . . The stranded passengers . . . trade the sort of stories that strangers don’t typically swap, unless one’s fellow travelers are Beckett and Borges. . . . His sprawling, experimental project achieves an exotic luster.” –Publishers Weekly

“The format allows for a witty interweaving of classic fairy tale and fable conventions. Stories unfold with arresting juxtapositions of cultures and characters. . . . Dasgupta has sufficient imagination to capture the myriad cultural discordances of modern life, and his offerings of dreamlike absurdities and postmodern irony evoke Borges and other modern myth makers.” –Library Journal

“Dasgupta’s themes run the gamut from loss and betrayal to uprootedness and alienation in a magical realist manner that echoes the best of García Marquez and makes for irresistibly absorbing entertainment.” –Booklist

“Only the most gifted writers, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jonathan Safran Foer, can hold the surreal and the real in satisfying equilibrium. This elite now welcomes Rana Dasgupta to its ranks. He makes magic realism his own, and his debut novel is superb. . . . Spellbinding tales composed in a crisp but poetic prose which already has the hallmarks of a signature style. Dasgupta’s gift for inventing stories is quite remarkable: you feel he could go on forever and never get boring. Tokyo Cancelled is profound, but in the humblest and most sensitive way. A treat.” –Andrew Staffell, Time Out London

“The stories . . . ah, they outdo the Arabian Nights for inventiveness.” –The Guardian

“Thirteen stories mark the passage of time, marvels of fabulation, visions and voices, rich in startling insights.” –Times Literary Supplement

“As entrancing to read as the tales become for the poor souls listening in transit.” –Red

“A kind of Canterbury Tales for a sedentary, globally savvy era. It’s a simple idea, executed with elegance and charm.” –The Observer

“Dasgupta has steeped himself in folk and fairytale tradition (as well as Borges and JG Ballard) and inventively adapts many stock characters and devices, such as changelings and dolls, that come to life and refuse to do their creator’s bidding.” –Telegraph (UK)

“One of the most unsettling, discomforting and utterly brilliant debuts you’ll encounter” –Hindustan Times

“Intriguing . . . A highly confident literary debut.” –The Bookseller (UK)

“Beautifully crafted, the stories in Tokyo Cancelled insist on the uniqueness and universality of the imagination.” –Metro (London)

“Extraordinary for its readability and for its explorations of the myths that underlie contemporary life.” –The Telegraph (India)

“Bizarre, fantastic and sometimes darkly comic . . . Original and unflinchingly harsh, Tokyo Cancelled is an intriguing debut and with it Dasgupta has created a new set of fairy tales for an increasingly unsettled, transient world.” –Julian Novitz, The Dominion Post (New Zealand)

“This is not a short story collection pretending to be a novel, but a novel about the nature of stories themselves. . . . These are fairy tales in which the CEO replaces the king, celebrities stand in for deities and technology is an approximate magic. In the global village–the book recklessly and charmingly bounces from continent to continent like a satellite’s transmission–there is still room for the campfire. . . . Dasgupta’s characters may be archetypal, but their experiences of joy, loss, betrayal and hope are rooted in the real. Their shapes may metamorphose, but their humanity is intact. . . . This is a very bold, very striking book. . . . It is exceptionally refreshing to read a writer who is daring to imagine, rather than transcribe. Tokyo Cancelled is an unforgettable book, with its own peculiar charms. I shall be fascinated to see what happens next.” –Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman



There was chaos.

Will someone please explain why we are here? – What are we going to eat? Who has thought of that? – Who is in charge here? Let me speak to him!

A 747 had disgorged its 323 passengers into the middle of a vacant, snow-brushed tarmac expanse, left them to trudge across it through the cold and the floodlit glare to a terminus whose neon name was only illuminated in patches and anyway was in a language most of them could not read; had abandoned them, in short, in the Middle of Nowhere, in a place that was Free of Duty but also, much more importantly, devoid of any obvious egress, like a back corridor between two worlds, two somewheres, where people only alighted when something was seriously kaput with the normal eschatological machinery.

Do you realize I have a vital meeting tomorrow morning? I haven’t got time to be here!

Sir: we have already explained it to you several times.

This snowstorm breaks all of Tokyo’s records. The city is blanketed, completely inaccessible. Do you understand? Absolutely no possibility of landing there. Everywhere in this hemisphere planes are lurching as we speak, U-turning, overnighting where they can. We cannot argue with the weather. These things happen.

Three hundred and twenty-three people clamoured for a hearing for their unique Woes. My husband is waiting for me at the airport. I’m only going to get one honeymoon. I have to be back in New York on Friday: my vacation is Over. Over. This cannot be happening. Heads in hands, bloodshot eyes towards heaven.

A queue formed, of sorts, at the one open desk where a man tried to hold off the snaking, spitting vitriol long enough to find a solution. We understand Madam it’s very late yes the little one looks quite unhappy please bear with us.

People checked for passports, money. Do Americans need a visa to be here? – What are the hotels like? Where can we sleep? –

What is the problem here?

The man stood on his chair. Hands raised to beat down the voices, you had to give it to him he wasn’t going to let himself get intimidated, Can you please listen?

I don’t know if any of you has read the newspapers recently but if you have you will know you’ve just landed up in the wrong place at the wrong time – latecomers to the world fair, no room at the inn. Everyone is in town right now and there isn’t a hotel room in the entire city. Well what were you expecting? Every world leader is here and ten thousand journalists and forty thousand demonstrators. Don’t you people watch the news? We’ve had water cannon and barbed wire and rubber bullets and all kinds of other frolics. In our streets! What I Am Trying To Say ladies and gentlemen is that the city is full to overflowing, getting proper accommodation is going to be a problem for you and there’s no point getting hysterical about it. We should be able to get you on a flight in the morning – the worst possible scenario is that you have to spend a few hours here and that, I am confident enough, is not going to kill you – but don’t worry, calm down! we are going to do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen.

The crowd detested him already and as he abused them in this manner a wave of foul language gushed from their several mouths, shivered and swelled and crashed over him full of lonely feelings and terrible thoughts. He was undeterred:

I would like you all to know that my wife is a travel agent and I have already informed her you are here and that you’d all like a place to stay for the night. She’s at home as we speak calling round all the hotels for you and trying to sort you out. We’ll do it first-come, first-served and we’ll try to get you in bed as soon as possible.

The place felt like an emergency ward. Captions on the departure board rustled frantically – TOKYO CANCELLED TOKYO CANCELLED TOKYO CANCELLED – and the packed baggage carousel squeaked like an anxious heartbeat monitor under the weight of hundreds of suitcases it had not been expecting.

You don’t understand. I need to get out of here right now. I was never supposed to be here. I’m presenting at a conference in eight hours.

No – excuse me all of you – excuse me! – sorry sir you’d better make your phone calls now. I don’t think it’s likely you’ll be anywhere but here in eight hours. Can you all try and remain calm please! Thank you!

Somebody made the discovery that mobile phones worked. Even here! The tumult diminuendoed into urgent private consultations and intimate reassurances: No I may not be there tonight, they’re telling us tomorrow now, Of course I’m safe no this place stinks but the people look OK. Yes tomorrow I promise I think you ought to warn Bob that he may be doing the presentation – yes get him out of bed for God’s sake! – the file is on my computer. My Documents. I love you too. Sir would you mind if I made a really quick call from your phone? It’s just that it’s really important.

OK good news ladies and gentlemen! We have ten double rooms in a hotel downtown. Yes Madam I think that’s a good idea there’s no point your little one staying up please go this way. Three star. Nine more people please! Sorry that’s the best we can do for now. We will call you all in the morning. By 8 a.m.

People filed out into the cold, foreign night, got into a minivan, were gone. “At least he looks as if he’s in control” spread between people, maybe it’s best to just wait like he says. Wry smiles passed between strangers sharing their Why does it always happen to me!

If the company had sent me here I’d be in the Hilton . . .

It only happened when it was absolutely crucial that everything go smoothly, on the one day: that constant small-minded cattiness of the cosmos, the incompetence of people with insufficient awareness of the importance of Things who are unfortunately indispensable in the system, you have no choice but to depend on so many people who don’t know and don’t care.

We’ve just found a hotel out of town that can take eighty of you! This way! Quickly. Thank you. Fifty. You’re together? Seventy. Seventy-eight. Thank you. No I’m sorry Sir they told us strictly no more you’ll have to wait for the next place.

The crowd diminished slowly, the noise separated out from its hubbub into discrete conversations and exclamations. Ruminations. People were Taking Stock. Tokyo tomorrow night that means I miss the connection the next one is Thursday which means I have to spend a couple of days there God I’ve always wanted to see Tokyo! The snowstorm was like a wall across a highway that brought cruise control to a whiplash standstill: but as you thought about it there were ways around it, through it even, and the other possibilities started to seem more, well, felt. Fists and tempers were still shaken at the blatant injustice of it all, but around the airport hall the mutant seed of force majeure was already sprouting up through the edifices of cherished Plans, cracking the walls and floors until they crumbled in a cloud of dust which, as it cleared, revealed something new. Well anyway what can you do? – I think the insurance covered this. – We’ve just got to see what time we get out of here in the morning.

Buses and taxis bustled outside, headlights clipping the snow, and the man on the desk, phone cocked between shoulder and ear, hands busy on the keyboard, produced regular triumphant announcements: guesthouses and bed-and-breakfasts and undocumented hotels that the global visitors had missed. It was late: lights went off in the Duty Free stores and the snack bar closed. Someone summarily extinguished CNN’s airport news service, and grandiose light boxes advertising American Express and The Economist flickered, and became dull. Middle-aged women with headscarves and mops started to trace epic shiny corridors from one end of the floor to the other, shaking themselves free of detritus – plastic cups, newspapers, baggage tags – each time they turned around. An assortment of almost unnoticeable people – who were those people? – settled down in various shadowy corners to sleep on vinyl chairs.

Thirteen people were left, muted by fatigue, able only to stand and try to follow the curlicue meanderings of the phone conversation that contained their future. Full too? OK. And no dice with the Sunshine Hotel. Yes, I remember. What other options do we have? Really. Yes I know what time it is. No I think you’re right. You’re sure there’s nothing else? OK. Thank you so much. Thank you. I’ll see you later. He put down the phone slowly, tenderly.

Ladies and gentlemen I apologize for the time you’ve had to wait here, you’ve been very patient. Now I’m afraid that there doesn’t seem to be a single place left for you people to stay. We really have tried everywhere but as I said to you earlier it’s not a good time to be looking right now. I haven’t got anything left to suggest. I’d invite you all to spend the night at my place but unfortunately my wife and I have only a one-room apartment and I’m not sure that you’d be very comfortable there. So I think that – I’m really sorry about this – you’re going to just have to do the best you can right here. Now the good news is – I’ve just got the schedule confirmed – your flight is leaving at 09.55. The snowstorm has already subsided in Tokyo. Check-in time is 7.30. So it’s really just a few hours. I’m really sorry.

It wasn’t his fault. No point making a fuss. This place was depressing and dead but what could you do? He’d tried his best. Just a few hours, as he said. He picked up his jacket and left. Good night. Good night. Night.

The baggage carousels were still and silent, and in the half-light there stood security people with guns and military uniforms. The great windows of the building revealed nothing but blackened copies of the hall where they stood, with a huddle of thirteen in each one. They felt an inexplicable need to stay close, as if during the reconstitution of themselves around this new Situation a sort of kinship had emerged. They moved towards the chairs like atoms in a molecule, no closer but also no further away than their relationship dictated.

They sat. Wearied smiles were exchanged. An American woman spoke. I’m going to see what the little girls’ room has to offer. Another woman joined her. Everyone faced each other on rows of chairs, three sides of a square. – I was supposed to be on my way to Sydney by now. My brother’s wedding. Maybe I’ll still make it. – Everyone had a story.

(One man watched in fascination as, in the distance, an astounding, prehistoric kind of thing, a land mollusc, a half-evolved arthropod, all claws and wing cases, limped slowly from one side of the hall to the other. An insect, surely, but from here it looked the size of a rat. No one else seemed to notice.)

The two women returned with water bottles and packets of snack food. The guards got us these. It’s something, anyway. Toilets are OK if anyone was wondering. You know this is the first night I have spent away from my wife in fifteen years of marriage. Can you imagine? (A Japanese man with his tie loosened.) Every night for fifteen years I have slept next to her. It feels strange to think of her lying alone on one side of the bed right now. Lop-sided. If she only knew I am spending the night with so many new friends – and so many pretty ladies! – boy what would she think! Oh-boy-oh-boy-oh-boy! The first night I ever spend away and here I am staying up through the whole night! This is wild.

I haven’t done this for years.

There was little to say, but an undeniable warmth. People passed round peanuts. A large middle-aged man with remarkable crevasses across his face accepted the last cigarette of the backpacker girl next to him and they smoked slowly, occasionally dropping ash into the empty Marlboro box she cupped in her hand. No one spoke. The guards dozed with rifles sticking up between their legs.

You know friends I don’t think we know each other well enough to sit in silence. Have to go through a lot before you can do that. But we shouldn’t ignore each other. Don’t you agree? Let me make a humble suggestion – maybe you don’t agree – but I was thinking just wondering to myself: Does anyone know any stories?

When I was a student we used to tell stories in the evenings. No money for anything else! I’d love to hear some stories again. It calms you down, you think of other worlds. And before long we’ll all be ready to check in for our flight. What do you say?

I don’t know any stories. I’m not very good at that kind of thing.

But everyone felt it was good there was talking.

Look sir you’re not going to tell me that! Everyone knows stories! I just told you I slept in the same bed as my wife every night for the last fifteen years in the same bedroom of the same flat in the same suburb of Tokyo – and look at all you different people! You just have to tell me how you travel to work every morning in the place where you live and for me it’s a fable! it’s a legend! Sorry I am tired and a little stressed and this is not how I usually talk but I think when you are together like this then stories are what is required.

Someone spoke: I have a story I can tell.

Simple, just like that.

©2005 by Rana Dasgupta. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

Reading Group Guide


1. How is an atmosphere of menace created from the beginning of the book? A planeload of several hundred people has dropped out of the sky into “the Middle of Nowhere, in a place that was Free of Duty but also . . . devoid of any obvious egress’ (p. 1). What else in the scene contributes to the nightmare fairy tale even before we begin the tales? Were you reminded of Kafka’s characters who are plunged into threatening, unfathomable worlds? Does the giant recurring beetle in the airport support this connection?

2. Do you feel increasingly drawn into the book as several hundred passengers are billeted, and only this corps of thirteen is left? They are the rejected for rooms, but are they also the chosen? When they are abandoned in the bleak, darkened airport, how do they settle into “a sort of kinship” (p. 6)? Who is the inciting force for the storytelling? What about: “I’d love to hear some stories again. It calms you down, you think of other worlds’ (p. 7). How is this also a more general validation of writing and reading fiction?

3. Do you find yourself wondering who is telling each tale? In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a group of travelers also tells stories, but the narrators are differentiated as characters. Why do you think Dasgupta made the decision to present the tales disembodied, told anonymously? Is he implying something about postmodern disconnection? Is his method reflective of jet travel and the computer age? Is his goal, perhaps, to have the tales stand independently and speak for themselves?

4. Dasgupta himself has both traveled and lived in at least five countries. How does he evoke the details of real places, such as London, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Istanbul, and Buenos Aires? What are some of the sights and smells he uses in Tokyo Cancelled? Even though the plane is stranded, through the tales do you have a sense of Around the World in Eighty Days?

5. In “The House of the Frankfurt Mapmaker,” what are the ideas of progress and prosperity? Is it a nightmare life in the future? Did you think of Brave New World? What is the fate of love and beauty in such a world? The fate of innocence? As Deniz faces Klaus and the identical Karl, she says, “What unspeakable things are piled up at the edges of civilized people’s imaginations’ (p. 128). Comment on this idea.

6. “The Store on Madison Avenue” moves at a rollicking pace from fairy-tale elements (love child of Robert De Niro meets aquarium swimmer who is the daughter of Isabella Rossellini and Martin Scorsese) to events recalling Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Describe some of the dramatic metamorphoses in the story. “Pavel’s trials in the woodland by the I-95 had transported him to extremes of the mind that are rarely attained by human beings’ (p. 155). What does he achieve in the transubstantiation of matter?

7. In “The Flyover,” was Marlboro just fulfilling his destiny? Or did he have free choice in his actions? “But Marlboro had a lot on his mind, and perhaps he felt that, before he could return to his life, he would have to Understand” (p. 167). Does he seem to reach understanding? What is his fate?

8. How is Yukio both a Faust and a Frankenstein figure in “The Doll”? How does obsession repeatedly subvert his life? Does Minako both contradict and fulfill the expected role of a Japanese wife? Is there hope of redemption for the couple in the end?

9. In “The Rendezvous in Istanbul,” Natalia is an emblem of reinventing oneself. Talk about some of the ways she does this. For instance, Natalia has a miraculous clairvoyance, from her dream to interpreting the seabird’s cry (p. 246). Explain. We read that “it is sometimes when reality has exhausted itself that the imagination rouses from its sluggery” (p. 226). Is this an apt description of the stranded travelers? How are birds symbolic in the story? (See pages 228, 234, 235, and 237.) Another symbol is the number thirteen. How is it used repeatedly?

10. How are questions of immortality set in motion in “The Changeling”? What are the limitations for creatures like Bernard? He “was sensitive to the charms of human experience that keep changelings, despite everything, coming back for more” (p. 259). How does Fareed engage Bernard in his own last quest? “I have decided to spend the last days of my life looking for words: words that will explain these mysteries. . . . I know that somewhere there will be the words that will help me to speak through my own blankness’ (p. 266). What does Bernard learn from Fareed about what it is to be human? How are witch hunts a recurring theme in the story?

11. How is the idea of power central to “The Bargain in the Dungeon”? What are Katya’s special gifts? How do they determine her fate and the fate of others around her? Do you think Katya feels avenged in the end?

12. In what ways are voyages metaphors for the human condition in these stories? Not only are the thirteen travelers suspended midvoyage, but within the tales characters often travel to find fortune or love or themselves. Which characters stand out in your mind? Do you think they are generally rewarded or are they just as likely to be thwarted?

13. In the mythical themes of initiation and moral education, human beings often endure reversals before they achieve self-knowledge. Do you agree that we must descend into the pit before we see the stars–or the fishes swimming in the sky (p. 291)? Which stories are marked by these ideas of initiation and moral education?

14. Sometimes in the stories characters appear, coming from nowhere, who promise that “things will become clear” (p. 307). Is this assurance usually borne out in the stories? Which ones? Do characters in this book seem to have an unusual zeal to seek truth? Or do they–fantastic, bizarre as they often are–actually represent Everyman in a quest for clarity?

Suggestions for further investigation:

Fish Story by Allan Sekula (photo essay); Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes by J. Robert Lennon (‘short short” stories); In What Language? by Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd (jazz/hip-hop reflection on airports and migration); Naked and Secrets and Lies, both directed by Mike Leigh (films); Breaking the Waves directed by Lars von Trier (film); the work of artist collectives The Atlas Group, Raqs Media Collective, and Multiplicity

Author Essay

When I began Tokyo Cancelled, I conceived of it as a set of myths of contemporary cities. The attractive thing about the language of myth for me is that it operates according to certain archetypes that can be very egalitarian. A mythical lover has the same significance as a lover whether she or he is a peasant or a merchant or a monarch. Using mythic forms therefore allowed me to gather a very wide range of characters into the narrative without resorting to sensationalism. These characters include not only industrialists and film stars but many of the shadowy characters that lie at the edges of our news stories and political debates, such as illegal immigrants and migrant laborers. Tokyo Cancelled is concerned with the development of a language of human character that is robust enough to incorporate all these figures and give equal dignity to each.