Made in Assam

Next Door by Jahnavi Barua is a collection of stories where the characters are so close to life that you wonder if raising it as a problem is the problem. Meet one of them. Jiu Das’s mother, Nilima, is a teacher who faces the prospect of having to give up her job as schoolteacher to look after an aged mother-in-law. She says she will not give it up, why doesn’t Gautam (the husband) give up his instead?

“Prepare yourself,” Gautam tells her after a page of ping-pong over whose salary is indispensable. “I will bring down Ma at the beginning of next month”, he announces. The episode ends with Jiu, the child, in the drawing room “listening to the phurr phurr of her mother’s mekhela…and her earlier lightheartedness leave(s) her.”

There is no problem with domestic conversations but they must, when employed as literary device, deepen characters and move from the personal to the social and throw light on both. Realism for the sake of realism doesn’t amount to much. If a book tells us that a bottle is a bottle and an apple, an apple, can we not simply go to the window and look?

When an artist sits before paper/canvas, that paper/canvas is not blank. It is filled with the many things in his head: the artist’s memories, perceptions, images from cinema, objects in his room. So, what should he do? Simply this: try not to over-write objects from life, but create a new object. Create forms that are knocked out of all sorts of stuffing and, in the process, clean his head.

Barua’s Assam-yness, to continue that same argument, which she has imposed on her characters, is an imposition. From Jiu’s mother Nilima (The Magic Spell), the maid hanging clothes out to dry (Holiday Homework), Rashmi’s (The Favourite Child) cream silk shawl she adds to her shoulders on a visit to her dying mother, Anupam’s mother (Honeybees), a master weaver — most women characters in this book are either wrapped in their mekehela sadors or saris or in a one-dimensional ‘womanliness’.

Between Dhiren’s wife, Uma, (The Patriot) who “if she had any regrets never revealed them”, and Madhumita, a child of aged parents whose yearnings lie concealed under her mugha mekhela (Sour Green Mangoes), take your pick.

The men fare no better. Most are wimps in awe of their starchy wives and half-jealous of their sons’ relationship with their mothers or non-communicative people whose ‘deep feelings’ are only to be guessed at. Which is a pity because Jahnavi Barua in her first book, despite all of this, shows that English is her language and that she is capable of more.

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