The Writer Who Doesn’t Mind the Northeastern Label

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Jahnavi Barua on geographic labelling as a pragmatic exercise, giving up her medical practice, and making it to prestigious literary prize shortlists

Jahnavi Barua, without enjoying multiple launches and going on book tours to promote her books, has quietly become one of the most visible names on the literary scene this year. She was recently shortlisted for two prestigious literary awards—the Man Asian Booker and Commonwealth Book Prize—for her novel, Rebirth, published by Penguin India. Short-stories from her earlier book, Next Door (also Penguin) have been widely anthologised.

Q Among other things, one could also read Rebirth as a book on parenting, the narrative a social ‘conditioner’ (you have played with this word in the book, intentionally or otherwise) for a child, couldn’t one? Tell us about the mother-child bond you were trying to explore.

A Rebirth is not so much about parenting as it is about the unique bond between mother and child. The central idea it explores is, of course, that particular period when the mother carries the unborn child. This is an immensely intense time for a woman: she undergoes so many changes, in her physical self, of course, although that is perhaps the least of it; she experiences an emotional transformation that is as unexpected as it is life-changing. The slow realisation of this other life she is carrying within her is a humbling yet, paradoxically, empowering one. This bond is quite unlike any other and this is something I wanted to describe: a relationship as old as time itself but somehow not explored fully in fiction. There is another relationship also addressed in the novel: that of mother and daughter, a complex bond, frequently fraught with tension, and always fascinating.

Q The tea estate baron’s son Ron and lower middle-class woman Kaberi’s relationship reminds one of the legendary Assamese story Chiraaj, where an affluent resident of the garden is momentarily full of love for a lower-class girl, only to leave her soon. Does class matter similarly in the Ron-Kaberi relationship?

A Unlike in Chiraaj, class does not matter in that it has not prevented Ron and Kaberi from marrying; theirs was an arranged marriage sanctified by the blessings of both families. The class difference here is perhaps not as stark as in the legendary story; after all, Ron’s mother and Kaberi’s mother came from the same social background—they even attended the same school, but one married well and the other not as successfully. Also, Ron’s father is not an owner/baron sort of tea planter. He merely worked for a tea company. The differences here are cultural and the endeavour was to show that Kaberi made every effort to fit into this alien environment she found herself in, to please her new family as well as her old one.

Q The narrator says little about the seven years of marriage. The silence is a little uncomfortable because the marriage is what the narrative revolves around. Your explanation?

A There is actually a lot said about the seven years of marriage without spelling it out. Kaberi’s attitude towards her husband and the marriage so far—Ron has been the star around which her life revolved—says that she has deliberately assumed a subservient role in the marriage and catered to her husband’s every need. She has not regretted this choice or resented it until now, thinking that was the way to win his love.  Apart from these general positions, the day-to-day life of the couple has also been delved into, giving the reader a fair picture of what their lives and their marriage have been like.

Q First the Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist, and then the Commonwealth  Book Prize shortlist. Did you expect this?

A No, I had not expected either. I am honoured to have been part of both these lists. My journey as a writer has been a relatively short one— I began writing seven years or so ago and have published just two books, Next Door and Rebirth. The recognition that the shortlists bestow has thus been all the more gratifying.

Q I have seen Rebirth clubbed under ‘Northeast literature’—a cruel generalisation for literature from some states. Are you comfortable with this tag?

A Actually, Next Door, my collection of short stories, more than Rebirth, is found sometimes in the Northeast Literature section. A story,The Patriot, from the collection has found its way into Jamia Millia Islamia’s MA English syllabus in its ‘English Writings from the Northeast’ course. This does not offend me at all—it is a sort of honour, really—as there are courses offered in American Writing and Russian Fiction too. I have a pragmatic—maybe not the most fashionable—view about this geographical labelling; it has come about recently as a result of the explosion of writing in English from the region (and some wonderful writing has been published), and this writing is seen as new and curious and different (it is different, has to be, for it stems from such a unique position) and thus has many people reading it. That is a good thing. In time, very soon, the geographical novelty value of this young stream of writing will wear off and only the best writing from the region will endure. These writers will then be known as just writers. Rebirth, actually, has been accepted and read as a universal story, although its Assamese location and flavour is remarked upon; it deals, after all, with emotions that are understood all over. I am perhaps fortunate to be in two places at the same time, to be part of two worlds: my native Assam and my adopted home, Bangalore. Bangalore finds its way into Rebirth naturally, and thus, the book seems to straddle both worlds, the Northeast and the rest of the country. In a way, my fiction is a sort of bridge between these two places.

Q You told me once that someone had said the book is written in Assamese English. And this is true. Not italicising words like kuli, phoot and countless others is no small statement. Was this a desire to remain rooted?

I only use Assamese words in my writing when I can find no possible substitute in English—I do not use them lightly and I do not use them to exoticise. And my intention in not italicising Assamese words is to try and keep the writing as natural as possible. Consider how words such as ‘pasta’ or ‘lasgana’ are no longer italicised or explained. In the same way, I use mekhela or naamghar. As far as Assamese English is concerned, that is perhaps a reflection also of the tone and style of the writing, along with the use of Assamese words.

Q Still, some ideas have to be provided to the reader, like your describing what ‘joron’ is. Nationalists do tend to reprimand authors who do this. For example, Jhumpa Lahiri— for explaining what ‘annaprasan’ is and AK Ramanujan for attaching footnotes to his translation of Samskara. Don’t you think these critiques are misdirected? How does a writer strike a balance?

The balance can be struck with some effort, as I have endeavoured to do while describing ‘joron’. Instead of going into anthropological explanations, one can gently put forth the meaning of a particular cultural ceremony in a subtle description of it.

Q There is a misconception that literature from Assam is necessarily conflict literature, stories of violence. Novels like Rebirth—where insurgency does not affect or direct the narrative—are a good answer to this. What more should be done to dispel this notion? Large-scale translation of regional literature?

This perception can be altered by more writing that also portrays other facets of life in Assam. As you rightly said, by works that allude to the insurgency only as much as required. Not every aspect of life in Assam is dominated by the insurgency; it has, doubtless, touched every life there in some way,  even if in a very small way, but life goes on. That has to be also talked about by writers, both in English and in Assamese.

Q You are a doctor who does not practice any more. Is that because you want to be a full-time writer?

 There has been a lot of confusion about why I gave up being a doctor, a lot of speculation. It had nothing to do with my writing. I began to write years after I gave up medicine, which I quit for personal, family reasons, as many women do—to raise a family.