If you walk the footsteps of a stranger, you learn things you never knew,” goes the famous Pocahontas song, Colours of the Wind. One line to remind us of how little we can actually know. For decades, people living outside of India’s north-eastern states have reduced a region rich in culture, tradition and history to a single point of conflict, with sketchy bits of information gleaned through skimmed-over newspaper reports.
Jahnavi Barua, an Assamese author who now lives in Bengaluru with her husband and 14-year-old son, has emerged as one of the strongest voices from the region, using fiction as a tool to open people’s eyes. Next Door, her collection of short stories uses the conflict as a backdrop, while Rebirth transcends any sort of political commentary, being a monologue from a mother to her unborn child and was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Award and the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize, Next Door won her wide critical acclaim.
A doctor by qualification, she quit the profession for family reasons. Growing up in Assam has left her with a deep love for wildlife, “birds in particular,” she says. “My family and I always make it a point to visit a sanctuary or a bird park every year. Apart from that, I love to read — any literary fiction will do for me!”
Barua shrugs off the word ‘activism’ rather emphatically and maintains that her forte will always be fiction. “I don’t think I’m an activist in any sense,” she said. “Yes, my fiction being set in Assam has opened up the landscape, the culture and the politics of the region to readers and that, perhaps has led to a renewed interest in the area and its happenings. I have to say I’m gratified it has done so.”
Art in all its forms seems now to be a medium for propagating social causes, with writers, poets, painters and musicians jumping eagerly onto the bandwagon. Barua chooses to stay an exception to that rule, saying, “I don’t want to pick up on any trend. I write about the human condition and I remain focused on that. If any social cause is essential to the character’s story or the plot, I would write about it, not the other way around. I would not pick up a cause to weave a story about it.”
It’s only natural for the northeast to serve as Barua’s favourite literary setting, what with her having grown up there. She describes the peripatetism of her childhood, brought about by her father, who is a civil servant. “Every few years, we uprooted ourselves and went off to a new place to put roots down again. I grew up between Shillong, Guwahati, Delhi and even England for a brief while.” The hundred-year-old family home, however, still stands in Shillong, a place with which she continues to feel a connection.
This has seeped into her writing largely set in the two Assams she came to know while she was there. In the early 1980s, she said, “The AASU-led students’ agitation was in full flow and things were very turbulent. Later, with the insurgency, matters became even more troubled.”
Her fiction therefore, bridges these two very different worlds. “The juxtaposition of the two situations is something I find intriguing and I often explore it in my fiction,” she says, adding, “There is a profound sense of loss — of human lives, opportunities and time — associated with the turbulent period — that seeps into my work often.” Her a nomadic upbringing has also had her questioning one thing that most of us take for granted — identity — the insider versus the outsider, Barua explains. “At the same time, there is a strong sense of yearning in my fiction of the impossibly idyllic times of early childhood.”
Is it true, then, that the Northeast is defined only by its insurgency, while its culture, art, tradition and history are all condemned to the seldom-visited annals of human memory?” At this point, one can’t help but ponder the ideas of identity, culture and tradition — their ability to endure and their inherent fragility. Are we defined by where we grow up or the company we keep? What is culture?
Is it as simple as cooking food a particular way or the art of making the perfect cup of tea? Barua, through the combination of influences does not isolate the human experience from culture or politics. She writes about life instead, showing her readers that no matter how different people may be on the surface, there is a universality to human emotion that only art can truly put in perspective. We find ourselves relating to people with whom we never dreamed of sharing common ground. If that isn’t a worthy cause?...