Jahnavi Barua belongs to that growing pantheon of Indian writers in the English language whose style is a new movement in literature that has quietly developed, almost unseen over the past few decades. The story of ‘Undertow’ is mainly set in Assam and Bangalore and touches upon various themes like home, family, belonging, finding oneself, and self-love—all of which will touch the readers in some way. It is Assam in the 1980s. As deep political unrest simmers in the background, the intertwined lives of a household will change forever.
The book talks about estranged families and relations and how they can be mended over time. ‘Undertow’ explores how family dynamics are altered when a family member chooses to marry an “outsider”, in defiance of cultural expectations and parental wishes. The novel also deals with how relationships undergo a sea change when a family member defies societal norms and parental wishes to marry an “outsider”.
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 a 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.
The story is universal, and the reader will relate to it because it is the story of people around us. Author Jahnavi Barua tried to explore what happens when reconciliation doesn’t happen. We learn how to deal with other human beings right from childhood and within our families. While we learn about love, trust, loyalty, honesty, ambition, hard work, and politics in an extended family, we also learn about rejection, betrayal, and selfishness. Author Barua tried to tell us, that we go out into the world with what we learn in a family. The tangible and intangible ways we respond to people depend on what we learned growing up.
The core of the book is what it is to be human and a lot of it depends on being self-aware. There is a kind of positivity, acceptance, and tolerance in knowing what you want and getting it in a good way, without stepping on someone else’s toes. The novel ‘Undertow’ deals with the many such small things that make up a whole where relationships are concerned—how old hurts, grudges, and ego get in the way, as do new anxieties.
Novelist Jahnvai Barua writes in the book: “The house was high up on the hill, although not quite at its summit. It had an unobstructed view of its surroundings, and what a view it was.
Loya had seen many beautiful places – she had spent enough time in the hills and forests of south India – but to have such a vista before one’s own home! This was picture-postcard land.
The Brahmaputra curved languidly along the base of the hill, its blue waters glimmering in the sunlight. Boats of all kinds floated on its seemingly lazy current. In the far distance – this river was wider than any she had seen – a blue-green blur of hills lined the opposite bank. To the west, there was a bridge – the Saraighat, named after, she had read, a famous battle fought in the area.
Pleased-to-meet-you. This time the bird was closer. She looked around, peering into the dark hearts of trees around. But she had been looking too long at the bright light over the river and all she saw was a green blur. She turned away to look up at the house instead.”
With characteristic restraint and disarming, author Jahnavi Barua lays bare the disquieting predicaments of contemporary urban life and reveals the timeless and redemptive power of love, friendship, and self-renewal. It may sound unusual, but it is, in fact, an ingenious example of the effectiveness of narration; deeply touching, but never sentimental; restrained, but never frustrating; patient, but always page-turning. The beauty of Assam and the river Brahmaputra are so mesmerizingly described, which compels you enamored reading it and there is this uncanny yearning to see this heaven!
Barua further writes in the book: “Loya found herself speechless. She had expected her grandfather to answer the door. Whoever this was, it couldn’t be him, he was too young. Well, he wasn’t young, but he wasn’t old.
“Who are you?” she asked in return, in heavily accented Hindi.
The man straightened up and Loya thought she saw his thick moustache bristle. “Never you mind who I am, who are you?” he asked, his Hindi better than hers.
“I am Loya Alex,” she said, in English this time, standing taller. She matched the man head to head.
He appeared to understand her, but replied in Hindi again. “Well? Am I supposed to know you?”
“I am not sure,” Loya said, choosing her words carefully.
“I am Mr Torun Ram Goswami’s granddaughter. Rukmini’s daughter.”
The man’s mouth dropped open. He clapped hand to his open mouth. “Hey bhogoban,” he said, “Rukmini’s daughter!”
The man reached out and grabbed Loya’s wrist. He pulled her with such force she almost fell. “Come in!” he said. “Come in quickly.”
This moving book evokes in one a longing for the lucid exchanges that take place only in the most intimate moments. Rich in lyrical passages and rife with descriptive beauty. From impulsive, split-second decisions to the patient and overly optimistic, Jahnavi Barua writes with depth and evokes manifold emotions through her effortless prose and skilled storytelling. Terse and tense, this wonderful book is worth every second that you decide to spend on it.
Quite adept in stirring emotions, the author addresses most characters, giving us their side of the story. Loya’s choice of men, in search of comfort and to be held, a physical action denied by her mother surfaces every now and then. Tarun’s guilt for abandoning his daughter runs parallel to his unabashed love for his wife Usha- the epicenter of all troubles. The other characters bring a different perspective, this building is a story layered with emotions and the nuances of the human being.
And amid all this is the Brahmaputra, a silent observer and sometimes, a patient listener to the troubles of this family, a river that has seen this land come into existence, fight battles of its own and has offered solace to many a weary soul. The people of Assam believe fiercely in their roots, a love that is rare. This is the anchor that holds this story together, instilling in Loya the love for her roots and finally, giving this family much-needed closure. This book is heart-wrenching at the same time encouraging and full of hope. The story grips the reader in such a way through all kinds of emotions, sadness, and uncertainties of life. Raw feelings regarding abandonment as well as coming to terms with emotions so deep have been portrayed well.
It is a book worth going back to on a day when you’d want to find the light at the end of your despair tunnel. This novel evoked so many unspoken emotions within you that your heart would be heavier with love and full of hope turned the last page.
Jahnavi Barua is a writer based in Bengaluru. Her first book ‘Next Door’ a collection of short fiction, was published by Penguin India in 2008 to wide critical acclaim. The second, a novel, ‘Rebirth’ was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize. ‘Undertow’ is her third book. She was awarded the Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship for creative writing in 2006 and Kalinga Literary Festival Book Award 2020. Her books are on the syllabi of many universities and her short fiction has been widely anthologized.