Profoundity of things unsaid

 … by the turbulent Brahmaputra

Jahnavi Barua has a Rabindrik (Tagorean) trait in her story telling. It is difficult for anyone initiated to Tagore’s short stories not to notice this attribute. The simplicity of the narrative. The subtle handling of the human mind. The profoundness of what is left unsaid. All these give Jahnavi’s stories a sense of timelessness. And this comes more as a pleasant surprise, like a whiff of fresh air that bears a hint of the favourite aroma. 

Next Door is a collection of eleven short stories by Jahnavi. As a frame for her stories Jahnavi has stuck to her roots, that of Assam of her and our time. An Assam that is ancient, like the Bramhaputra River. An Assam that is also living in the shadow of the forces of iniquity. And yet an Assam that is defiant in the courage and aspiration of her simple people. 

The characters of the stories breathe in the heavy air that retains the wet earthen smell of the banks of Brahmaputra as the river often provides the metaphor. Yet, Jahnavi’s stories are contemporary. They dwell in the fear and hope, shame and joy that are much universal and yet sprout from the soil of the land, their land. In this sense, the stories are a window to the life of that part of our country often hidden behind that imaginary shroud hanging from the thin string of land that separates out what is habitually termed in crass generalisation as — the North East.

But there is a culture unique in its psyche, in the nuance of everyday chore, in the shape of their thoughts, in the colour of their sound. A culture that is distinctly Assamese — Ahomiya in the local language. And Jahnavi brings this home much to the delight of the reader. And she has garnished her stories with specks of Ahomiya-English, and never overdoing it, that brings the characters alive. This soaking in the distinctive culture of Assam is indeed a precious take-home for the reader. 

And yet, the stories, the characters — mostly every-day people drawn from the middle class, they jump out of that frame of the region and culture. Not in any way to deny the roots but to transcend. And transcend they do. For the hope and grief, a bottled-up anguish, the slight and sarcasm, as much the joy and vibrancy, that the characters reveal, or sometimes fail to hide as Jahnavi crafts them that way, are quintessentially human, universally. 

Jahnavi impresses with the first story of the collection with its poignant expectancy. The second story ‘Holiday Homework’, hits the bull’s eye. Told from the perspective of an elderly neighbour about a sick woman and her child, the story lingers long after being read. In her other stories Jahnavi explores the deepest chambers of her characters. Of Uma in ‘Awakening’ — a mother reconciling to the death of her son. In ‘The Favourite Child’ the debilitating disposition of Junu as her myth shatters. 

Jahnavi has mastery in drawing on death. In triumph and in devastation, in boldly embracing it or in endlessly waiting for it. In her stories, not in all though, death shows up, expectantly, sometimes as a player, sometimes as the play. Revealing what life cannot.  Next Door is touching. And Jahnavi Barua is a writer to watch out for.

Next Door
Jahnavi Barua,
Penguin Books, 2009,
pp 458, Rs 295

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