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In ‘Undertow’ Assamese Writer Explores the Idea of Home and Exile

Undertow by Jahnavi Barua

Published by: Penguin Viking/Penguin India

Fiction: Literary Fiction

Book summary:

Loya is twenty-five: solitary, sincere, with restless stirrings in her heart. In an uncharacteristic move, she sets off on an unexpected journey, away from her mother, Rukmini, and her home in Bengaluru, to distant, misty Assam. She comes looking for her beloved Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, but also seeks someone else – her grandfather, Torun Ram Goswami, someone she has never met before. She arrives at the Yellow House on the banks of the Brahmaputra, where Torun lives, not knowing that her life is about to change. Twenty-five years ago, Rukmini had been cast out of the family home by her mother, the formidable and charismatic Usha, while Torun watched silently. Loya now seeks answers, both from him and from the place that her mother once called home. In her quest, she finds an understanding not only of herself and her life but also of the precarious bonds that tie people together.

A delicate, poignant portrait of family and all that it contains, Undertow becomes, in the hands of this gifted writer, an exploration of much more: home and the outside world, the insider and the outsider, and the ever-evolving nature of love itself.

About the author:

Jahnavi Barua is the author of a short story collection and a novel. Next Door: Stories was published to critical acclaim while her debut novel, Rebirth was Shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize.

My Review

If you have wondered if the words in a novel with 181 pages is enough to leave readers reeling, well then you would need to pick up Jahnavi Barua’s Undertow to know and feel the waves of emotions and thoughts it leaves you with.

Told through the story of a small family whose members are estranged from one another, Undertow is a gentle yet intense narrative that looks at family ties, roots and moorings, questioning notions of identity, of trying to forge connections while trudging uncertain grounds and how loneliness is a weight that is difficult to bear, adding more hurt and anger waiting to surface. It is about exile and late apologies traversing between time and place that spans 25 years, starting from Guwahati in Assam, moving to Bangalore and then back to Guwahati, where the Brahmaputra river stands witness and at times, play a part in furthering the narrative.

The author puts forth both the personal and the political to great effect: the dynamics of the family and the interplay of characters with one another on one hand and the socio political history of Assam in the prism of its own identity in the context of a nation India that remains unaware, uninvolved and uninterested on the other. She does this within the ambit of the narrative with grace and restraint, never as information, or drumming it all in as a lesson to the audience of readers. In between an old generation rooted in a place and a time period and a younger generation that is selective of what they see and understand, Jahnavi Barua deftly weaves the two with their collective hurt and the way it impacts them further.

There is the dynamics of the family and the interplay of characters with one another on one hand and the socio political history of Assam in the prism of its own identity in the context of a nation India that remains unaware, uninvolved and uninterested on the other. She does this within the ambit of the narrative with grace and restraint, never as information, or drumming it all in as a lesson to the audience of readers. The two mother daughter relationships in Undertow captures the arc of oppressor to oppressed and then becoming oppressor, reflecting the political turbulence of Assam that started with a public outpouring over the insider/outsider question leading to violent confrontations with the Indian political system, one that in the long run turns against the very people it sought to protect.

The writing of conflict within the personal and political spaces gives a lot for the reader to chew on, the author not giving justification for any quarter. As one discovers the fissures and the bonds between the characters, so do you begin to see what might have happened that have led to how things are. It’s a book where the reader has to read between the lines: in fact, there are quite a few strands that one can glimpse that helps answer the many whys that is certain to pop up with regard to why certain characters are the way they are and why they do what they end up doing.

The ‘resolution’ that comes at the end may well leave most readers gasping in shock but that is the only way Undertow would have stayed true to its premise of undercurrents and layers beneath the surface that one sees. Definitely a book that will be loved, thoroughly discussed and debated upon.

 

*Jahnavi Barua’s Undertow is in the Longlist for the JCB Literary Prize for 2020

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