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The Brahmaputra river runs through Baruah's novel like a thread. (Wikimedia Commons)
The Brahmaputra river runs through Baruah's novel like a thread. (Wikimedia Commons)

An Assamese writer confronts migration and exile

Jahnavi Barua’s latest novel is a coming-of-age story that resonates with our uncertain times

A pandemic may not seem like the best time to read a subtle coming-of-age novel set in Assam. Yet Jahnavi Barua’s new book, Undertow, has more in common with the covid-19 world than you may think. It is a novel about migration, exile and loneliness, all themes we will be struggling with in a post-pandemic world.

Rukmini, a medical student in Guwahati, is disowned and exiled by her conservative parents after she marries Alex, her classmate from a different religion and community. Shattered, she flees to Bengaluru, and never returns to Assam. But in Bengaluru, too, she is an outsider.

Twenty-five years later, her daughter Loya, an elephant conservationist, comes to Assam, ostensibly to conduct research in the Kaziranga National Park. In reality, Loya is searching for her roots and a sense of belonging. In Guwahati, she seeks out Torun Goswami, her proud and prickly grandfather. There is friction between the stubborn Torun and the resentful Loya as they limp towards an understanding. But just as they achieve it, matters move towards a startling denouement.

'Undertow' is published by Penguin Random House India (256 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>499).
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'Undertow' is published by Penguin Random House India (256 pages, 499).

Who: Like Rukmini, Barua too is a doctor from Guwahati Medical College who moved to Bengaluru. There, she says, the similarity ends (Barua does not practise any more, while her heroine, Rukmini, loses herself in her work). Barua’s first book, Next Door (2008), was a collection of short stories. The second, Rebirth (2010), was a monologue by an Assamese woman to her unborn child. It was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize. It has taken her 10 years to come out with her third.

In an email interview, Barua explains the delay. “The main challenge I faced while writing this novel was in granting equal space and weight to two voices that were in direct opposition (Loya and Torun). Writing from the point of view of one of these two characters—as is done in any sensible novel!—would have been easy but I wanted to present both facets of the story without taking sides." Ill-health was another reason for the long gap.

What: Undertow is a very minimalist novel. If it could be described in one word, it would be restraint. Readers may be reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s delicate touch. Big emotions—love, hate, resentment, loneliness—are sketched in small brush strokes.

Barua is familiar with this categorization of her work. “I don’t think I have consciously chosen this style—I don’t think any writer chooses his or her style—and simply write in the manner I have always written in. I tend to (prefer) the minimal, the unfussy. I also believe that one does not have to shout to be heard—an old-fashioned view these days, I know—and that great intensity can be achieved with the greatest of delicacy and restraint."

This minimalism works well sometimes, and not so well at other times. Much is left unsaid, or to the imagination of the reader, and at times that left me feeling unconvinced. Alex, for instance, is a chimera, whose actions are puzzling till the end. Torun and Loya are so strongly etched that many of the other characters disappear into the background.

But this mystery adds to the theme of the novel: the impermanence of life. “Human bonds—they were fragile," muses Loya. “People disappeared. Loya had decided she would keep peace: concede, appease, compromise in conflict, not in the passive manner of Rukmini’s, but with more grace and energy."

Why: Read this novel for a fierce sense of place. Assam leaps out of every page, in its gentleness and savagery, but it does not read like a travelogue. The Brahmaputra river runs through the book like a thread, sometimes peaceful and tranquil, at others raging and brutal. Loya, Torun, Rukmini and Alex keep returning to the river.

Barua speaks poetically of the strong pull the river has for her. “The Brahmaputra cannot but touch the soul of anyone who has seen it—the one who has the privilege of living on its banks and the other who has just seen it for a fleeting moment. Along the course of the river run silver sand beaches where townspeople often congregate—makeshift markets spring up on the sands, children gather to play on the soft silver, while others arrive to stroll and admire the view.In winter, great silver sand bars—the chars—spring up midstream, and these draw entire communities. I was privileged to live on its banks when very young and later spent a lot of time at an aunt’s house, which was further upstream. The river wound itself around my heart."

In recent years, writers like Janice Pariat have been vocal about the fragile Assamese identity, and how they think it has been overwhelmed by migrants.The Assamese oppose the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) mainly because they fear the obliteration of their culture. Undertow touches on these issues but it’s the characters that are central to the novel, not the insurgency. The novel was written before the CAA, so there is no mention of it.

Barua explains. “In my writing, I have never made the political struggle in Assam the central focus, and none of my short fiction or novels is directly about insurgency or conflict. It would have been easy enough to write an insurgency novel and ride that wave, taking from its ready energy, but I wanted a larger canvas, one that incorporated the day-to-day lives of the people living in the shadow of that conflict. It is just that the stories are told, and the politics explored, from within homes and kitchens and families, but that does not make them any less important."

Indeed, the constant battle between Loya and her grandfather mirrors the fight of the Assamese. Loya wants to be heard and acknowledged, as do the Assamese. This parallel runs through the novel. “The Assamese people rightly feel anxious at the loss of an identity and space; they are not being unnaturally defensive here. Yet, at a human level, at a practical level, we will maybe have to now all coexist, but with safeguards built in that ensure safety for all communities," adds Barua.

Her book, she says, is about familial love. “Beyond the obvious political self-determination, it is about how human beings find themselves and assert their own identities. The novel ends with the thought that if love and caring for another human being inform all our choices, we cannot go wrong."

Kavitha Rao is a Bengaluru-based journalist and author. She tweets at @KavithaRao.

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