February 18, 2012 by markstani
This completes my reviews for this year’s MAN Asian Prize shortlist. My reviews of the other long- and shortlist titles can be accessed via the panel on the right. The winner of the 2011 Prize will be announced on March 15; the Shadow Jury will select its choice shortly beforehand. For an index of all the Shadow Jury’s reviews, including other, generally favourable reviews of ‘Rebirth’, go here.
Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth is such a delicate and under-stated book that it is perhaps no surprise it should prove so elusive: for sale, its publisher Penguin India rather archly reminds us on its contents page, in the Indian Subcontinent only; yet deserving to resonate with a much wider audience.
Hopefully, the frustration of restricted rights is about to change. Barua’s debut novel, set both in bustling, modern Bangalore and the Assam region from which she hails, has a real chance of carrying off the prestigious MAN Asian Literary Prize, for which it has already been shortlisted.
If such an accolade does hasten the arrival of ‘Rebirth’ on the global market, then it will be confirmation of the adage that good things come to those who wait: a fitting phrase, also, for a story of which patience proves one of its finest virtues.
Kaberi discovers she is pregnant shortly after her husband leaves her, ostensibly because of her failure to bear him a child. He is a selfish, violent man, who is nevertheless still capable of occasional moments of tenderness. This erratic behaviour lies at the heart of Kaberi’s dilemma at the start of the novel: to tell him, and surely hasten his return, or risk an uncertain future alone.
‘Rebirth’ is written as a monologue from Kaberi to her unborn child. It may sound twee, but it is, in fact, an ingenious example of the effectiveness of first-person narration: deeply touching, but never sentimental; restrained, but never frustrating; patient, but always page-turning.
My first thought, as I sat up, was to call and tell your father; after all I still loved him, it was he who had said that he had stopped loving me and besides I knew how much he would love you. I almost called, the cell phone was in my hand, but I didn’t. Two things happened: I felt a black anger surge through me and although I tried to calm down – my anger would not do you any good – it was still a while before my hands stopped shaking. I was startled by this hot rush – I do not tend towards anger usually, but maybe it was the hormones again. In the aftermath of the anger, a new thought struck me. I was certain that as soon as I told your father about you, he would come home, back to me. And I did not want him to do that. I wanted him back, more urgently than I admitted even to myself, yet, at the same time, I wanted him to come back to me, for me. Not to you. Make no mistake, I am not competing with you for his love – there is no competition here at all. He will adore you, you will be the centre of his world, but I want to be assured of his old love for me before he comes back, that same love I have grown accustomed to these seven years.
There are parallels here with another longlisted title, Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth. Like Roy, Barua underpins her work with a rich evocation of her surroundings, from the birdsong in the gardens of urban Bangalore to the slinking tigers and the irresistible – and conveniently metaphorical – Brahmaputra river flowing through the heart of her home region.
Like Roy, Barua has the ability to flirt with cliché to positive effect. She defly avoids the obvious pitfalls: this does not become a novel about keeping secrets, nor is it a familiar tale of a downtrodden wife trapped in an arranged marriage (there is, in fact, no suggestion that being arranged has contributed to its breakdown – rather a chastening experience for illicit western eyes sometimes too quick to judge this aspect of some parts of Indian culture).
It is also emphatically, unashamedly middle-class. Kaberi has a doting maid and meets her friends for coffee shop cappucinos, while her husband, when he is around, heads out in a shirt and tie to provide for his wife and future child. So what? Who says modern Indian literature – at least that which has breached international boundaries – must be the preserve of risen-up lower castes or religious fundamentalists? This is a story of everyday Indians facing everyday Indian issues, and is all the better for it.
The setting for the latter part of the book switches to Assam, part of the lobster-shaped appendage to India’s far north-east, and the childhood and family home of both Kaberi and her husband.
It is a region scarred by political protests and insurgency, memories which remain particularly raw for Kaberi, whose inseparable childhood friend Joya was killed there by terrorists. Home among family, it is sometimes easy for her to feel more alone than ever.
Throughout, Barua never loses her poise, never succumbs to the temptation to lend unnecessary urgency or drama to her story. There are no scenes of pot-throwing outrage at Ron’s infidelity; no attempt to use Kaberi’s hormones as an excuse for erratic behaviour: on the contrary, they afford her a renewed feeling of tranquility and empowerment.
What Barua has achieved is something beautifully simple, achingly real, and which, for all its lack of what you might call a conventional plot, proves ferociously readable.
It will leave you yearning for more, both of this book and its author. Hopefully, the publicity afforded by Barua’s deserved shortlisting will belatedly give her the platform she deserves.