Jahnavi Barua’s debut novel, Rebirth, reads like Impressionist art. Like Monet painting controlled nature, Barua too expresses her perceptions of nature — impressions, rather than create exacting reflections or mirror images of the world.
In Rebirth, Kaberi, a young pregnant woman in Bangalore, grapples noiselessly with uncertain relationships. The story explores the bond between a mother and child at its core. Leaving much unsaid, Barua weaves in contemporary Bangalore and Assam seamlessly, bringing you a scent of roots left behind.
“What a fragile thing perception is?” Kaberi exclaims in the story — something Barua portrays through out with her understated elegance in narration.
DNA caught up with the writer at the launch of her book in Bangalore recently. Excerpts from the interview:
Q. Rebirth retains the fragrance of your earlier stories that made readers strangely nostalgic. You use words with so much restraint, as if you are afraid of language and words. But as a writer, your life is defined by those — do you see an essential writer’s contradiction here?
JB: Yes, a writer’s essential tools are words and language; a writer is defined by them, in a way. However, there are many ways in which these tools can be wielded and I choose to use them sparingly. There really is no contradiction here, for the same thing can be said with many words — a lot them of superfluous — and it can be said, as effectively and maybe with more impact, with a few well chosen ones.
Q. The power of the unsaid — that’s something you have wielded like no other. Is it an attempt to go beyond the screen of language to find some sort of truth that lay on the other side?
JB: The power of the unsaid. This is, at one level, an extension of the spare writing style I choose to write in. At another level, I feel it is an accurate reflection of life itself — looking for the truth beneath the obvious. Life leaves so much unsaid, one has to glean so much from between the lines of conversations one has with people all around; one has to constantly excavate below the surface of things. Then why say it all, explain it all, in a novel or work of fiction that seeks to reflect the pattern of life as it is? Besides, I think it is more engaging, I think a reader connects more with a book, when he or she has to work with it in this way. It is more respectful than pointing every single thing out to the reader.
Q. Tell us about Kaberi. You repeatedly clarify that Rebirth isn’t autobiographical. But the character Kaberi, is she like you? Or have you met a Kaberi? How did the idea of Rebirth first come to you?
JB: Rebirth is not autobiographical; Kaberi is not me. I don’t think I have ever met a Kaberi. In my work, I return again and again to relationships and the bond between a mother and child is an extraordinary relationship. No other human bond can probably compare with it and this novel began as an exploration of that intriguing connection.
Q. Critics have hailed the honesty in your stories. But isn’t the whole process of writing fiction a process of sidestepping the truth?
JB: Fiction, I think, is the looking-glass of real life. One cannot sidestep the truth and write in an honest voice. What good fiction does and what I hope my fiction has been able to achieve, in even a small way, is to hold up that mirror. The images in the glass may not be familiar, fiction does not necessarily tell you something you already know or have seen, but you see the pattern of life in them. And it provokes you to think, to explore and to react.
Q. You’re read as poignant, more sober writer. There’s hardly any humour. Why?
JB: I like to think there are glimmerings of humour in there, but not always in your face, they have to be looked for. Dhiren Majumdar, Shiva Prasad Barua, Madan in Honeybees — these are characters in the short stories who are blessed with a strong sense of humour. Kaberi, unexpectedly, has a certain wry sense of humour too. And although my work is read as poignant, sometimes sombre, if one looks carefully it is always lifted up by hope. There is, in many instances, always something to look forward to.
Q. How would you classify your writing? Are you a modern writer?
JB: It is very hard to classify one’s own writing. Someone else has to rightfully do that.
Q. Your stories are full of beautiful visuals. Are you an artist?
JB: No. But I suppose, it is because one is not an artist that one has had to use words to paint pictures!
Q. How has your training as a doctor helped in your writing? Or has it helped at all?
JB: My training as a medical doctor has been invaluable. It has taught me what being a human being is actually about: about how fragile, how ephemeral life is and thus, how absolutely priceless. I have seen, from unusually close, human suffering and that has given me a certain perspective on things. Sometimes the things we think are so very important are nothing at all in the immense theatre of life. Medicine has also reinforced my natural tendency towards brevity and accuracy; saying what one means and as concisely as possible is something we learn well there.
Q. If there is one thing that you think we should, as readers, take away from your work, what would that be?
JB: After reading any of my writing, I would be happy if the reader came away feeling moved, feeling that he or she has experienced something that touches them deep within.