The world of publishing in India has seen a flourish of debut authors in the last few years with many of them grabbing accolades and eyeballs of the media and young readers. So, I, too, decided to join the bandwagon and turned my attention to this growing breed of new Indian writers. I picked up a collection of short stories ‘Next Door’ by Jahnavi Barua, published in 2008. This debut collection(of 11 stories) had garnered much critical acclaim and after reading the book, I can say it is well-deserved. Her writing is very mellifluous, filled with vivid descriptions and rich textures of her homeland, Assam, the North-eastern state of India, known for its natural beauty and tea gardens. Jahnavi’s stories are woven with intricate emotions and complex patterns that define human relationships.And just as the mighty Bramhaputra River, known for its flash floods, yet is the lifeline of the Assamese people, so also it flows through her stories quietly and at times, tumultuously. There’s also a sprinkling of Assamese words throughout, which though hard to understand, gives it a unique flavour.
The first story ‘Magic Spell’ starts with a day in the life of a young school-going girl, Jui Das. “She sits up in the bed and gingerly eases the bedclothes off herself. From there, she contemplates the cement floor. Her slippers lie on the floor, neatly aligned, just out of reach of her short legs. Jui sucks in her cheeks and places her palms flat on the bed, on either side of her, arms rigidly straight….Jui takes a deep breath and swings her body again, stretching her legs and feet and extending her toes until they ache and feels her hands begin to slip. Holding her breath she reaches out further and then she feels her toes touch the rubber; she grips the slippers gently and draws them slowly towards herself.”
The story goes on to describe the rest of her day as she gets ready for school, witnesses an argument between her parents about bringing her paternal grandmother home, the walk to the school with her mother and then school itself. Her day ends rather unexpectedly on a tragic note and does indeed cast a spell on the reader.
There are several references to the insurgency faced by Assam in the last 2 decades. One such story, ’The Patriot’ deals with the relationship of the protagonist, a retired Government official, Dhiren Mazumdar with an insurgent, who takes refuge in his house. The story begins with an interesting narration of the elaborate morning rituals of Dhiren Mazumdar, the strenuous task (for an old man!) of collecting a basketful of flowers for his morning puja, an awkward encounter with the dhobi (washer man) who has his shop across the road, followed by a cup of piping hot tea as he sits in his veranda examining his ‘kingdom’- a humble 2 bedroom house, built by himself, in which he and his wife live. And another two- storeyed old dilapidated ancestral house, described as “ When the wind blew in from the river, laced with sand and the smell of fish, the house strained at its joints, moaning piteously….Wild vegetation had taken over the hapless building; tenacious creepers spread over the remaining standing walls …Taut green stalks of the kosu thrust belligerently through the rotten floor , their elephant-eared leaves tightly meshed above”
One day he sees some movement in the run-down house and finds a young injured boy, an insurgent,lying there. The insurgent initially bullies and threatens Mazumdar into bringing food and medicines for him and keeping his presence a secret. But over the days, as he tends to the young boy, Mazumdar develops a fatherly responsibility towards him and helps him to escape from getting arrested by his own son who is the Deputy Commissioner (with whom he apparently doesn’t share a great relationship).
Another touching story is ‘Holiday Homework’. The protagonist, an old man, Mr Barua, after observing his new neighbours (a young couple and their son) and the intense love between the mother and the son for a few days, decides to befriend them, and soon discovers that the young lady is suffering from cancer. The rest of the story goes on to narrate the unusual friendship formed between the three of them and the climax, though predictable, is so moving, that it brought tears to my eyes.
While some of the stories have an abrupt ending, they are still worth reading for her style of writing and keeps the reader engaged with even pace and unique plots . Jahnavi has previously won the Short Fiction contest hosted by British Council in ’05 and the second prize in the Children’s Fiction category of the same in 2006; but with this book, she has truly arrived in the world of literature . Her latest book, ‘Rebirth’ (2011), a novel, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize.