JCB Prize Longlisted Author, Jahnavi Barua On Writing, Flow And Turmoil
Jahnavi Barua is a writer based in Bengaluru. Her first book, Next Door, a collection of short fiction, was published by Penguin India in 2008 to wide critical acclaim. The second, a novel, Rebirth, was published in 2010 and shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize. Undertow is her third book. It was longlisted for the JCB Prize 2020 and the BLF Atta Galatta Book Prize 2020. She was awarded the Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship for creative writing in 2006. Her books are on the syllabi of many universities and her short fiction has been widely anthologized.
Read as Michelle D’costa interviews Jahnavi Barua on her critically acclaimed books and her writing style and challenges.
- I’ve been following your work for a long time, since your first book ‘Next Door’, a collection of short stories. While there are patterns I sense in all your books, as your close reader I’ve seen a growth in your writing in your most recent book ‘Undertow’. How do you see your writing now?
As a writer, it is difficult for me to comment on if my writing has changed and if it has, how it has. I feel my writing hasn’t changed all that much, except that I have settled into it, over the years, and am obviously more comfortable with it.
- One story from your short story collection ‘Next Door’ titled ‘Sour Green Mangoes’ has stayed with me for the protagonist’s rebellion. She is frustrated with her circumstances and then rebels. How did the story come to you?
In my writing, I have always explored relationships at levels other than the one seen at the surface. This particular story excavates the tensions that lie hidden in families, especially where resentments are nurtured over many years and it came to me in the context of difficult relationships between parents and children.
- Many writers wonder about how one would order stories in a collection. How did you do it?
In my case, this was done by the publisher. I cannot comment on how others do it.
- In your previous novel ‘Rebirth’, you use the second-person narration, as the protagonist addresses her unborn child throughout the book? How did this idea come to you?
In Rebirth, I decided to use the second-person point of view as it served two purposes. First, it added an intimacy to the narrative that was critical. Second, it highlighted how lonely and alone the protagonist was.
- Your latest novel ‘Undertow’ reminded me of your previous novel ‘Rebirth’. You cover betrayal and infidelity in a marriage in both the novels. What about this theme inspires you as a writer?
In both the novels, infidelity brings into focus how precarious and unreliable human bonds are and how, when they crumble they damage people beyond the two involved in the betrayal. Perhaps that is why they found a place in both stories.
- I’ve noticed that the river ‘Brahmaputra’ is always prominent in your plots. What is your relationship like with the river?
The Brahmaputra runs through Guwahati, indeed through all of Assam, and thus runs through my life too. As a child, I lived on a hillock overlooking it and its majestic beauty found a permanent place in my heart and soul.
- You’ve dedicated ‘Undertow’ to your grandfather, did ‘Torun’ the character in your book take after your grandfather in any way?
No, Torun is nothing like my grandfather, except in the fact they both were deeply affectionate men.
- Undertow seems to focus on the ‘turmoil’ in relationships and the state of Assam itself. What kind of research did you have to portray this ‘turmoil’ well?
I did not have to research any of the turmoil, having lived through most of it myself.
- The character Loya is an elephant enthusiast in Undertow. She goes to Assam in order to research about elephants but when she’s there she also ends up confronting her family. She addresses ‘the elephant in the room’. Was this metaphor intended?
No, this wasn’t intended.
- How do you decide on character names? I found this bit of trivia interesting in the book ‘Bhonti meant sister in Assamese, but many girls were named Bhonti too. Sister.’
I pay a lot of attention to naming my characters. The name has to mean something connected to the character and also has to be appropriate.
- ‘Undertow’ is about a complicated mother-daughter relationship among other things. It reminded me of AvniDoshi’s ‘Girl in White Cotton’. Do you think this exploration of the mother-daughter relationship is rare in Indian writing in English?
Indian writing tends to sometimes focus on large issues – societal problems such as poverty, exploitation, communal issues. Novels that are quieter and explore the interior world of families and relationships are the exception and in that sense, mother and daughter stories are not that common.
- Can you share with us the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in writing all your three books?
The biggest challenge has been finding the time to write.
“I would like to be seen as merely a writer; one with roots in Assam and Bangalore, if geography has to be brought in.”
- What do you think of the terms ‘North-East Writing’ and ‘Women’s Writing’? Do you identify with these terms and how do you wish to be seen in the literary world?
I think “Women’s Writing” is a term that should now be discarded. Instead of “North-East writing”, the term “Writings from the North-East” could be an acceptable one. I would like to be seen as merely a writer; one with roots in Assam and Bangalore, if geography has to be brought in.
- Many readers follow lists recommended by editors and publishers. A recent list on Indian writing did not even mention a single book by a North East writer. What are your thoughts on such gatekeepers of books in India?
Lists are dangerous things as by definition they will end up excluding someone. Perhaps, recommendations could mention they are just that – recommendations and not exhaustive lists.
- Your work covers Assam and Bangalore mostly. Are you intending to write about a place that you haven’t visited?
I haven’t really thought about this.
- Your writing is very visual. It made me wonder if you enjoy storytelling through films. Any films that you revisit for exceptional storytelling?
I enjoy a good film but that has not consciously influenced my writing. I have been told many times that my writing makes a reader feel as if they have watched a film.
- How has your writing changed during the pandemic?
I haven’t written at all during the pandemic.
- What have you been reading recently?
Some short stories and very recently, Avni Doshi’s, Girl in White Cotton.
- What do you do when you face writer’s block?
Fortunately, I haven’t had a serious case of that!
- What do awards mean?
It is always an honour to be nominated for literary prizes, alongside the best writing of the day.
- Can creative writing be taught?
I believe that while the skills needed to write can certainly be taught, there has to be something unique within a person – call it a voice or spark – that enables her to become a writer and that can never be taught.