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Into a closed terrain

Jahnavi Barua says that her Next Door Stories tell the tales of misunderstood characters and universal themes in Assam

PHOTO: K. GOPINATHAN

BACKDROP Jahnavi Barua: ‘Despite the setting of Assam, the stories could be transposed anywhere and still be relevant’

Jahnavi Barua grew up in a more peaceful Assam in the 70s and early 80s. The doctor-turned-writer moved all over the country as a young child, but always went back to Assam and was surrounded by grandparents, aunts and uncles.

And “Next Door Stories”, a collection of 11 short stories all set in Assam, published by Penguin Books India neatly strings a multitude of characters and situations, with the nuances and settings of the state colouring the background. “When I was growing up as a young child, it was peaceful then — you could step outdoors. Assam is known for its simplicity in culture and little class-divisions. With the tribal lifestyle and village setting, it was straightforward and drastically different from the reality of Assam today.”

But for the last 25 years, she notes, the state is in turmoil and the situation, complex. “Though it was physically cut off from India with fewer opportunities, it has integrated into mainstream India now.”

The overpowering Brahmaputra also hydrates and floods the novel with its force. “The beautiful, male river lives up to its name. It is majestic and wide — a life-giving force that swells during the monsoons, creating havoc for the people. But tribes of upper-Assam have lived and moved with the flow of the river by migrating accordingly.”

Scotland of the East, Shillong, also maps its way through some stories, with characters moving back and forth from Assam to Meghalaya’s capital. “The seven sister states were pretty much like one state before they were split. But the transition from the Khasi hills to the plains was something that my great-grandfather did.”

She also says the individual ethnic identities of the different tribes are not lost. “There are more similarities in the dress, food and festivals as the tribes and communities have lived together for centuries.”

Jahnavi moved to Bangalore 17 years ago to study medicine at St. John’s Medical College and as someone who has constantly been on the move, was able to adapt and adopt. “I have seen the change, but one can’t stop it.”

Writing happened by accident for Jahnavi. “I quit medicine and read a lot, won a short fiction contest by Unisun Publishers and the British Council in ’05 and was awarded a Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship to study creative writing in the UK.”

She wrote an anthology of short stories, forgot about it, till “Next Door Stories” came about. There is huge amount of writing coming from the North East, what with the North East Writers’ Forum.

“There is quality writing from the North East in English with writers like Mamang Bai, Temsula Ao, Dhruba Hazarika, Mitra Phukan and Anjum Hasan. It is a fluid group.”

As a short story writer, she feels the technical craft of a beginning and a climax is important. “I think the writings of Anton Chekov, Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver and younger writers like Julie Orringer and Chimamanda Adichie are admirable.”

In the mesmerising, compassionate and evocative collection in “Next Door Stories”, Jahnavi weaves a sensitive portrayal and mix of characters. “From an introverted child to a lonely old man, I picked characters that are not necessarily marginalised, but misunderstood. They don’t have a voice and I was fascinated to delve into characters whose outside personas are not visible or noticed.”

She concludes: “The universality of the themes of the stories, despite the setting of Assam, could be transposed anywhere and still be relevant.” Next Door Stories is priced at Rs. 250.

AYESHA MATTHAN

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