Thursday, February 05, 2009

Kingdoms and prisons in Jahnavi Barua's Next Door

For the great American short-story writer Eudora Welty, fiction’s reach, its themes, were universal, but at the same time the power of a story was “all bound up in the local”. Her simple explanation for this was that human feelings, which are the source and also the subject of all fiction, are inextricably bound up with place. Human beings, like trees, have roots in particular places, and often it is fiction that best articulates this particularity.

In Bibhutibhushan Bandhopadhyay’s Kolkata story “Canvasser Krishnalal”, we are told that “for the last eleven years Krishnalal had been living in room number seventeen, a hole in the wall in the western end of the long, two-storied tin-roofed earthen building that stuck out like an eyesore on 25/2 Ramnarayan Mitra Lane”, and perhaps the most convincing detail in that sentence – the trick that persuades us that Krishnalal actually lives here, and not that Bandhopadhyay has just “set” the story here – is that number “25/2”. Similarly, in the great Portuguese novelist Eça de Queiros’s novel The City and the Mountains, the wealthy and discontented hero of the story, Jacinto, lives amidst a surfeit of worldly riches at No.202 on the Champs Elysees in Paris, and as the story progresses the narrator has only to say the word “202” to encompass the torments that plague Jacinto. Seen through the filter of the human mind, place becomes an extension of the self, and literature, which is text, shows us how place too is a kind of text through which human beings continuously refract their hopes and fears and memories.

Indeed, it is the strength of feeling with respect to place that distinguishes the stories of Jahnavi Barua’s debut collection of stories, Next Door. Barua’s stories are set in Assam – a territory not very commonly represented in Indian fiction in English – and they glow with an affection (demonstrated by both the narrator and the characters) for the region’s forests and fields, for the surging, lifegiving Brahmaputra river that cuts a swathe through the state and rushes on into Bangladesh, and the sun that wheels over the land all day and sinks finally “behind the dark hills of Bhutan”. Further – and this is one way of bringing out the peculiar power dynamics of Indian families – many of Barua’s characters either feel trapped by their houses and live in bitterness and resentment, or else love their homes and their gardens intensely, and can be found in their vicinity all day long.

In one of the best of these stories, “The Patriot”, we are shown a retired government servant, Dhiren Majumdar, and his two houses. One is the old, dilapidated ancestral house in which he grew up, and which he cannot bring himself to knock down (and this abandoned house seems to to move and speak, for we are told that “When the wind blew in from the river, laced with sand and the smell of fish, he house strained at its joints, moaning piteously”). The other house is the smaller and meaner, but habitable, dwelling alongside which was all that Majumdar could afford to build for his family. Every morning, we are told, Majumdar sits down in his compound with a cup of tea, and “examine[s] his kingdom as if he were seeing it for the very first time.”

One evening Majumdar sees a flicker of movement in his old house, and is alarmed. He goes across to investigate, and finds a youth lying in the darkness, badly injured. The boy is an insurgent, and he wants Majumdar to get him medicine and food, and to keep his presence a secret. Majumdar, we have already been told, has a grown-up son who is a successful civil servant, but somehow there is no feeling between them – indeed, Majumdar feels abject before his son, as he used to do before his superiors at work. Now, as Majumdar huffs and puffs under the burden of the arrogant young insurgent’s demands, we feel – although Barua never states this explicitly – that he is being fulfilled as a father for the first time. Barua delicately grafts the bloodshed and violence of the insurgency onto the pathos and neediness of the old man’s life.

And here are the opening paragraphs of Barua’s story “River of Life”:
It said so in the morning papers. Santanu had read it himself, so he knew it was true. Sometimes, when Anu-nobou read out the newspaper to him, he did not believe everything she said. He was certain she was teasing him – flying vehicles that alighted on the moon and circled the stars; sheep that halved themselves to make more sheep, exact copies of themselves; guns fired in America that landed on targets half a world away. She must think he was slow-witted to believe all this.
He knew better than to believe everything he heard. Ma had warned him, before she passed on: before she died, she had impressed on him urgently, all the time, to think for himself. ‘Don’t trust anyone but Dada, Santu,’ she had said. ‘And not even him sometimes.’ She had gone on about the house, until he was sick of it. ‘I have left the house to you, boy,’ she always reminded him, ‘I have signed everything there is to be signed. Do not, in any event, sign any papers. Ever! Do you hear?’
His ownership of the house weighed heavily on Santanu. Every morning he emerged from his flat, dreamless sleep feeling as if an enormous boulder, like the ones he had seen in Umtru, near the waterfall, was strapped on to his back.

As the story progresses we find out that Santanu is indeed “slow-witted”, but Barua’s opening, by holding Santanu’s heaviness and the world’s flight in delicious equipoise, swiftly trips us onto the side of the protagonist, making us doubt the world like he does – a skepticism, we see, that he doggedly, almost heroically, employs not just from his own nature but on his late mother’s orders. Like Dhiren Majumdar, Santanu has a kingdom to think of, but he has been reminded of this so many times that he now repeats it continually to himself; no wonder then that he feels weighed down by a boulder “like the ones he had seen in Umtru”.

Many other stories in Next Door also take the relationship between parents and children as their theme. In “Sour Green Mangoes”, we experience the frustration of a young woman, Madhumita, at the way her aging parents (Barua’s phrase is “her withered, rickety parents”) control every aspect of her life. Barua’s writing works beautifully here to give us a sense of a home as a prison, even as we Madhumita is shown leaving it:
The brooding house is enclosed in a ring of dark mango trees that holds it in a tight embace. In the backyard, a cluster of areca palms stand tall and vigilant, their slim, strong trunks smothered by betel vines that crawl jealously up them, their glossy dark leaves gleaming in the half light. [...] Madhumita wrinkles her nose delicately and then, feeling eyes raking her back, briskly unfurls her umbrella. A sudden spark of anger flares up in her breast; if flickers briefly and, just as quickly, dies down. Every morning, her father and mother stand concealed behind one of the blind windows of the house and follow her progress to the front gate and then out on to the narrow road that runs in front of the house until she reaches the corner, their gaze clinging to her greedily until she is out of sight.

The phrase “blind windows” here, although literally true (the windows look like blank crevices; the house itself is without light), also appears to have a secondary meaning as a transferred epithet, for of course it is Madhumita’s parents who, even as they follow her progress greedily, are “blind”, oblivious to their daughter’s wants and needs. With time Madhumita has learnt to harass her parents as they harass her, yet even this gives her no satisfaction, for she knows that her reverse pettiness is ultimately yet another symptom of her sickness. “She will not let them defeat her now,” writes Barua, “but what was done was done; she has already become what she is today.” This is an observation of great empathy and subtlety.

Some of the stories in Next Door may strike the reader – to use a metaphor in the spirit of Barua’s work – as ripening buds rather than flowers in full bloom. At times the plotting seems slightly rushed, and I felt there were points when the dialogue seemed to hit the wrong notes. Yet there are very many deft and pleasing touches to be found on these pages, and all in all this is an original and striking debut that marks its author as someone in the top tier of contemporary Indian short-story writers.

Another old post about fiction deeply attached to place is here: "Home and away in Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing", and there are some more thoughts on the power dynamics of Indian families in "Mathematics and rebellion in Nikita Lalwani's Gifted"


Jacob Russell said...

Just wanted to say, that I'm glad to have found my way back to your richly nuanced reviews... and to add new books to my "must read" list.

Deepika Patil said...

The role of ‘place’ was enlightening!
I must confess – unlike my usual hurried readings, spending quality time on this post was joyous.

Chandrahas said...

Jacob Russell - Thank you. But why did you go away in the first place? Never do that again.

Deepika - Those are the best words any writer can hear. And of course it is your quality time that makes all of this worthwhile. As for myself, the good work at the root of the further good work here iss Jahnavi Barua's.

sumana001 said...

I have an essay on Barua's lovely book in Biblio.
I think one of the charms of the book lies in Barua's ability to create and then dismantle and again create a discourse of comfort in most of her stories. Think of the first paragraph of the first story where the young girl, Jiu Das, is trying to reach out for her slippers. Barua's success, I'd say, lies in investing the political in apparently innocent acts like these, descriptions which would perhaps be 'invisible' in other narratives. Have you noticed, also, how all the stories are annotated by disease and death? Barua - a doctor by training - places that too within a political discourse, but with such subtlety that it doesn't jar the reader's vision as they often do in other writers where the focus is so much on the writer's politics that your focus tends to shift to the subtitles from the main 'action'.

Chandrahas said...

Sumana - These are some impressive points. I look forward to reading the whole essay in Biblio.