Home, identity and finding one's own: Jahnavi Barua on the 'Undertow' propelling her latest work
Bengaluru-based Jahnavi Barua’s latest book Undertow was recently longlisted for the JCB Prize 2020. In this exclusive interview, the author among other things, tells us, about issues of identity, the role of the Brahmaputra in Assam and her response to social and political turmoil in the state.
The themes of home and homecoming and also of identity and finding one’s own have always been close to me. This prompted me to explore these themes in Undertow. By home and identity, I don’t mean just the obvious ones of place or the region you belong to, but also the more personal ones of who you are as a person, what you stand for and where it is that you feel accepted and thus, at home. Another area of interest to me has always been the family and the complexities of this unique entity. In Undertow, I have woven this thread in along with Loya’s search for home.
The novel has a strong sense of place, and portrays the changing worlds of Guwahati and Bengaluru. Tell our readers about your personal relationship with the two cities.
My roots are in Guwahati where my family is based, although by the time I was 34, I had moved 13 times across 10 cities. The fact of belonging to Assam makes Guwahati special to me; its unique terrain of low hills and valleys nestled between, the gorgeous Brahmaputra winding through the town and its now lost architectural character of the beautiful Assam type houses lent it a particular charm. There are also strong ties to the people there—family and friends—a connection that gets only stronger. Bengaluru is another home. I first came here 28 years ago as a young doctor to study and work, and fell in love with it. I am still here, deeply rooted in its gentle soil.
The Brahmaputra is the life blood of Assam. It provides water, nourishment, a channel of travel and is embedded deeply in the minds and hearts of its people. An exceptionally beautiful river, it flows through Guwahati (and other cities too) where many of its residents live on its shores. It has become a part of the daily lives of the people. The day is marked by the sun rising and setting on its waters and is coloured by its ever-changing moods. Ferries move from bank to bank carrying people, boats loaded with cargo move up and down it—there is a constant sense of motion on the river. In winter, the river shrinks and throws up great sandbars where sometimes entire villages spring up and on others, people spend the day in an extended picnic. There is much in our literature and music about this river. It is called the ‘Luit’ and sometimes, ‘Burha Luit’, in affection.
Identity is a complex issue in the state, with religion, culture and nation all claiming their share. Is it possible at all to assimilate them into a unique ‘Assamese identity’? How did you grapple with the question of identity in your novel?
Identity has been a complex issue in Assam from the early 70s and maybe even before that. While in the 70s it was largely polarised between the illegal Bangladeshi migrants and the Assamese majority, there are fine divisions among the Assamese too. There are so many different groups of people in this region, so many tribes, all speaking their own language and with their own histories that it may be difficult to gather them under a common umbrella. Religion, however, has not been as divisive a factor here as in many other parts of the country. There used to be a strong sense of an Assamese identity—an Assamese would identify as Assamese first and then as a Hindu or Muslim or Christian. Other differences dominate here. In Undertow, these very differences are addressed as Loya—the young protagonist— who grapples with being half an insider and half an outsider.
Assam is currently going through social and political turmoil regarding the NRC, exclusion, culture and religion. What are your thoughts on this, and what do you feel is the role of a writer in this respect?
As I have done in Undertow, which explores the complex tensions in Assam and the Northeast, a writer can only illuminate the issues and suggest different pragmatic approaches that may—or may not—work in resolving the situation.