Storyteller of the Red River…
Asom’s glorious and chequered history has been the pet subject of writers, artists and other creative professionals alike for a long time now. Not only have litterateurs beautifully exploited the rich and varied traditions and diverse cultural history of the State, they have also successfully raised the standard of regional literature to an altogether new high. Though a lot has been written on Asom, its history and the chaotic situation prevailing in the insurgency-stricken State, it remains a fact that very few writers working in English have taken the pains to document the life and essence of the people living here. Meet Jahnavi Barua the doctor-turned writer, who is creating waves in the national literary scene with her debut collection of short stories, Next Door. Jahnavi is special, for besides being one of the very few homegrown talents to have made a mark in the national literary scene, she has also successfully managed to shift the focus of people from the State’s political and social insecurities to something more vital — the very beauty and grace of the lives of the people residing here, and the overpowering Brahmaputra, which floods the novel with its force.
Jahnavi’s debut offering, Next Door, is a collection of 11 short stories, all set in Asom, which neatly strings together a multitude of characters and situations, with the varied nuances and settings of the State colouring the background. In this mesmerising collection of fictitious tales, the author expertly plays around with words, thereby opening up an entirely new dimension for Asomiya writers working in English, besides creating the best possible dialogue between the characters and the locale. With Next Door, Jahnavi weaves a sensitive portrayal of a varied set of characters, while the universal themes ensure that the compilation, despite its Asom settings, can be transposed anywhere and everywhere. Apart from anything else, the book, which has been very well received throughout the country, has marked the emergence of another prolific writer from the State.
Presently based in Bangalore, Jahnavi is married to Anand Shyam Barua and both are blessed with a seven year old son. I recently sat down with Jahnavi for a tete-a-tete. Following are excerpts from our discussion.
Aiyushman: Could you please share with our readers something about your childhood?
Jahnavi: I was born in Guwahati as the first child of Bhaskar and Krishna Barua. At that time, my father was posted in Shillong and I spent the first few years of my childhood in the bustling household of my paternal grandparents in Laban. My great-grandfather Late Raibahadur Kamala Kanta Barua’s house – ‘Kamala Kareng’, which is now over a hundred years old – contracted and expanded with the comings and goings of other family members and that closeness has remained a constant feature of our large, extended family. After a couple of years there, my parents and I moved to the picturesque hill-town of Haflong where my father took charge as the DC of North-Cachar Hills. The beauty of that quiet town stayed with me and I have worked it into some of my stories. While we were there, my brother, Deepak, was born. Within a couple of years, we moved back to Shillong and a few months later to Guwahati, where my father assumed charge as DC, Kamrup.
It was there, in that bungalow above the river, that I fell in love with the Brahmaputra and I have carried its images with me throughout our later nomadic existence. The river appears in almost my works, a sort of leit-motif, a constant friend and a symbol of the incredible beauty of my homeland. My sister, Padmaja, was born during that stay in the bungalow above the river. There followed more wanderings – few years in Delhi interrupted by a brief sojourn in England, in Manchester, then back again to Asom, this time into the thick of the Assam Agitation. From Asom, I then made my way to Bangalore to study and work in St. John’s Medical College. Even after marriage my wanderings did not cease: we lived in Ahmedabad, Cohin and Kolkata before making our way, this time, back to Bangalore , where I live now. My childhood , therefore, has been a full one, packed with new places, sights and experiences but in the background constantly flowed the warmth of our large extended family, providing me with stability and grounding and a strong sense of place and identity.
Aiyushman: You are a trained doctor. Why the sudden transition to full time writing?
Jahnavi: I began my MD in Pathology, enjoying tremendously the richness of the subject I had chosen. But when, after my marriage, my studies required me to stay on in Bangalore, while my husband moved as dictated by his professional requirements, I rethought my plans. There was absolutely no pressure from anybody – people assume that family pressure led me to reconsider my path in Medicine. It was not pressure at all, but considerations about family that prompted me to discontinue my work in Medicine. I realised soon on, that my husband’s career would require us to move around, and I was clear I would move with him. At the same time, I knew that such a life would not allow me to sustain a credible medical career. After all, a year in one place and two years in another was not the kind of hospital experience I was looking for. So, I turned my attention to another critical aspect of life: raising a family and that is what had occupied me since.
We have a son, Arjun, who was born while we were in Calcutta and who is now seven years old. It was during the early years of looking after my son that I took to writing. For long periods of time, I was housebound which led me to read a lot. After much reading, I somehow began writing short stories that I absolutely did not think of publishing. I somehow had the impression then that no one published short stories – and they remained tucked away in a folder, until one day I submitted one of them, for a competition hosted by a publisher called Unisun publishers and the British Council. That story won the first prize, the British Council gave me a Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship and that enabled me to go on to a Creative Writing workshop in the UK conducted by the Arvon Foundation. I continued to write, was picked up by Penguin and that was how my first book, Next Door, a collection of short stories came about.
Aiyushman: One of your first awards was for a short story that you had written for The Sentinel. Would you please elaborate a bit on this front?
Jahnavi: The award from The Sentinel was the first public award for Creative Writing that I had received although I had received prizes in school before that. It was when I was in High School that the Sunday supplement of The Sentinel announced a short story; I joined, my story was called The Face at the Window and it won the second prize.
Aiyushman: All the stories in Next Door seem to be annotated by disease and death. Is this a result of your profession as a doctor?
Jahnavi: I, for one, do not think that all my stories are annotated by death and disease. In this collection of eleven stories, there are six stories (River of Life, Sour Green Mangoes, The Patriot, The Favourite Child, Tiger and Next Door) that are not about death or disease. In The Favourite Child, the real story is not about the dying mother but what is happening around her. As for the rest they have as much to do with death and disease as real life has, since my stories are representations of life in the real world. The themes of the stories have little to do with my profession as a doctor.
Aiyushman: You make strong references to certain areas of Asom which outsiders are not able to relate to or recognise that easily. Was it intentional?
Jahnavi: The stories have been set in places that the plots demand; the locations have not been chosen with the intent of either avoiding well-known landmarks or with the hope of attracting an outside audience. Tiger, is one story that has been located in a place that is instantly recognisable – Manas National Park – but that is again because the plot required it to be set there. However, one very visible landmark flows through almost all my stories: the Brahmaputra; its beauty and power and unpredictability a metaphor for life in Asom.
Aiyushman: Most of the characters in your stories are shown to be in some conflict with their own selves or families. Is this some sort of reflection of the conflicts of familial and social life in modern Asomiya society?
Jahnavi: Conflict is one of the central requirements of storytelling, be it in the novel or in short fiction. In fact, it is constantly emphasised that there can be no successful story without conflict; the reader fully relishes a story only when there is conflict and that tension is subsequently resolved. Hence, each of my stories has at its core, a conflict, be it the protagonist’s internal conflict or versus family or society or environment. This conflict is not a reflection of modern times but is an eternal one, being around ever since man has existed.
Aiyushman: How did you handle a delicate subject like insurgency, to which you made certain references in your book?
Jahnavi: The subject of insurgency has been addressed in depth and more skilfully by many accomplished authors in other Indian and Asomiya literature; it comes into my stories only obliquely, as a part of everyday life in Asom. I have not written a story around that theme but as and when it requires the political situation collides with the lives of the characters in a story – very much like our lives today in Asom.
Aiyushman: Your stories are highly moving emotionally. Is it an extension of your own self?
Jahnavi: As a reader, I have always particularly admired literature that reaches out and touches a person and I have attempted to do the same in my writing.
Aiyushman: All the characters of your stories are vastly different from each other. How do you go about deciding your characters?
Jahnavi: It is always a challenge to step into the skin of different characters and be able to detail them convincingly – especially when they are far removed from you. For instance, it was tough to visualise an old man or a young man from a vastly different background. It required hard work but I was prepared to do that and I suppose that and a lot of patient observation is what helped me sketch out my characters.
Aiyushman: What aspects do you try to keep in mind while writing short stories?
Jahnavi: There are a few basic elements of the short story that a writer has to keep in mind when writing one – the plot, the characters, the setting, the tone of the story and dialogue. I try and ensure that the plot is a convincing one so that the story comes across as one with depth. Again as far as characters are concerned, I attempt to build up a credible character with a voice that is believable and that resonates with anyone reading about them. The setting, which is the physical location of the story, is something which I consider to be very important and I try to describe it and relay its flavour as accurately as possible. In the same context, I try and create a dialogue that is a good match with the characters and the locale. In the end, I try and write a story not only with the above elements in mind, but also with integrity so that it moves and touches the person reading it.
Aiyushman: What kind of literary influences do you have?
Jahnavi: There are so many that it would be hard to list all of them! My interest in short fiction led me to the works of writers such as Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, among many others. My mother was a student and teacher of English Literature, in fact, her doctoral thesis is on Indian women writing in English, and that fuelled a lot of reading and discussions in our home while we were growing up and that has always led me to seek out books.
Aiyushman: Any suggestion for other aspiring writers from the region?
Jahnavi: Being a new writer myself, I will not presume to give any advice. But I would definitely like to say that honest writing from an author who knows his or her own voice well will always find a place.