February 22, 2012 by markstani
Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth (pub. Penguin India), a delicate, contemporary tale of love and loneliness in Bangalore and Assam, is shortlisted for the MAN Asian Literary Prize. My review is here. Read on for an exclusive interview with the author.
Where did you get the idea for ‘Rebirth’, and to what extent, if any, is it autobiographical?
‘Rebirth’ is not autobiographical. Kaberi and I come from the same place – Assam – and we share an interest in flowers, trees – and flowering trees! – and in forests and what lives in them, but our paths diverge there. Kaberi’s story, her journey, is her own. It is hard to say exactly where I got the idea for ‘Rebirth’ from, but it
slipped insidiously into my mind as I looked at women around me – at their struggles, dreams and aspirations.
What was the process behind identifying such a unique narrative device [the book takes the form of a monologue from the mother to her unborn child]?
It is a rare woman who does not speak to the child she is carrying in her womb – though not everyone speaks for as long and as much as Kaberi did. When Kaberi finds herself in an unusually isolated situation with no family or friends at hand, it is natural that she begins to speak to her unborn child. Once she begins her monologue it feels just right, and it instantly brings into sharp definition two things: her extreme isolation and thus, the interiority of her world and her very intense bond with her child.
To what degree has the conflict in Assam shaped your fiction and, indeed, your life? What is the situation in the region now?
In the last two years, there have been definite signs of peace in Assam, after thirty long years of conflict. A conflict that was fuelled by the sense of marginalization that people of the region often feel, a feeling of being distant from the centre of things. The tensions of a conflict zone, where everything seems harder than anywhere else, do find their way into my writing. This is, perhaps, more pronounced in my short story collection, ‘Next Door’. Also, the sense of being on the periphery, of being on the margins,of being alienated works its way into my fiction often.
However, more than this recent conflict, what I find informs my writing are other things about the region: the magnificent natural beauty; the gentle, calm people who live here. Many things have changed with the years of relentless conflict and violence appeared in valleys where it was once unknown, but still the land is beautiful and the people gentler than many. Over the years, I find Bangalore working that same magic on me; the gentleness of the city – in danger though now – its trees and birds make frequent appearances in my writing.
In the end, human relationships and the human experience are what interest me most and thus, how all of the above disparate elements influence or impact this experience.
Much of the Indian fiction we see in the West now addresses fundamentalism or the caste system: both issues ‘Rebirth’ broadly avoids. Is there a distinction between the kind of fiction favoured by Indians in India, and that which is ‘exported’ and championed elsewhere?
I don’t think the kind of fiction popular in India is really very different from the kind that finds favour outside the country. Having said that, maybe, the more colourful, exuberant subcontinent novels are more attractive to readers outside.
Issues of caste and fundamentalism do not make an appearance in ‘Rebirth’, perhaps, because these issues are not as relevant in the part of the country I come from as in other parts, although they do exist.
Geographically and historically, the North-east of India has been in a very interesting position: the region straddled the interface between the South-east Asian countries in the east and the subcontinent on the West. Even as there was contact with the lands to the west, there was a coming and going (and wars) with countries such as Burma in the east and the region shares many similarities with these eastern countries – food, textiles, even the terrain. Hinduism here is perhaps more liberal than elsewhere, being influenced by local beliefs and being practised by a people culturally different from the rest.
Kaberi is in an arranged marriage – a custom which invokes wholly negative reactions in the West – yet you never especially seek to use that as an excuse for its failings. Again, is there a difference between how outsiders and Indians themselves regard this aspect of (some of) their culture?
Living in India, we see so many arranged marriages work out well that there is no instant negative connotation associated with the custom. Most of the time these days, at least in the educated sections of society, there is no coercion involved. Parents and family members put together two people they think will get along, having of course,matched certain parameters they think important, and the young people meet and decide if they will take it forward. Works quite well, very often.
Were you surprised to be shortlisted, and have you read any other of the shortlisted titles?
It was unexpected, yes, the shortlisting. I have read ‘River of Smoke’ and am reading ‘The Sly Company of People Who Care’.
I am working on a novel that I hope to finish shortly.