by Jahnavi Barua
Publisher: Viking Penguin
Recognizing a Common Humanity of Vulnerability: Reading Undertow by Jahnavi Barua.
Published earlier this year, Undertow is Jahnavi Barua’s third work of fiction. Having already made her mark in the literary world, with Rebirth and Next Door; the latter being a collection of short stories; Barua now presents Undertow in her provocative and pulsing narration. The first thing that you need to know about Undertow is that it is an honest novel. It does not force; it does not push. It speaks and suggests, while allowing ‘time’ to pace on its own… The novel grips you tight right in its opening sentence, “As if things were not bad enough, the morning of her wedding the All Assam Students’ Union declared a bandh”. As an Assamese living in Assam, I can already feel the tension which emerges from the pronunciation of a ‘bandh’; and mind you, this is 1983 we are talking about.
Barua has a gift when it comes to description. She does not shy away from describing, from drawing, and from detailing. It is beautiful how the old man river has been embroidered into the narrative. The river is omnipresent in the novel. The river knows it all. It is a witness to everything that has happened and of everything that is happening. Every character in the novel has their own connection with the river, whether that connection is documented or not…“That river could make a grown man cry”, Barua writes. And indeed, Brahmaputra has this power to overwhelm you. The river leaps out from its own boundaries as a geographical entity and becomes an almost character in Undertow – a character whose roundness our writer acknowledges, at times coy and calm, and at others, swollen and sullen…
The novel is divided into three parts. The second part is titled as “The Yellow House”. It is 2009 now and it in this part of the book that the major developments happen. This house as well, very much like the river, refuses to be contained as a mere structure. The walls of this house have stories to tell if one can listen. There is a certain kind of magnetic charm about this house which attracts Loya inside, and finally, calls Rukmini back as well. Critics and reviewers are very tempted to read this novel from an overburdening political perspective. In my opinion however, Undertow is not a political novel. The political in the novel is part and parcel of the greater personal story that Barua tries and writes – an essential story about ‘homecoming’ – about recognizing a common humanity that makes all of us vulnerable.
“Human bonds – they were fragile”; this sentence towards the end of the second chapter of “The Yellow House” can be used as a summary of what the narration is trying to hint at.
Undertow throws many questions at us. What kind of a mother treats her own daughter with such indifference? What kind of a father does not reach and iron out the differences with the child even after all that time? What does love mean when it leads to loneliness? What do parents do to their children when they decide and separate? Be that as it may, there are no clear answers to these questions. Barua’s characters are not black and white. One cannot distinguish them in binaries. I believe that it is an achievement on the part of Barua, for having able to tell her story in a manner which does not allow me as a reader to pass judgments. It is introspection that the novel leads you to. Our writer does not close her narrative. Similarly, Loya’s fate at the end of the novel remains open-ended. Aruni Kashyap, another Assamese writer, in his novel The House with a Thousand Stories writes, “…life goes on and stories have to end, and yet not end – which is also one of the features of any great story”. The story of Loya and in her association, the stories of Rukmini, Tarun Ram Goswami and others, end and yet transcend; making this story, for lack of an original word, “great’.
Things change, people leave, but life…life goes on. And in the goings on of life, sometimes we find our stars aligning towards one or the other kind of ‘return’ – a ‘return’ we understand in the name of ‘homecoming’. All returns do not provide a route to remedy, but they try and direct us towards the bridge of reconciliation. “It will be all right”, these are the penultimate words of the novel, followed by a final statement of reassurance, “Everything will be okay”.