Next Door is a collection of eleven short stories by Jahnavi Barua, recently published by Penguin India. Set for the most part in the valley of the Brahmaputra in Assam, these stories deal with extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people living there. These events are not unusual in the sense of being in any way dramatic or earthshaking, but in the sense that these incidents, simple in themselves, acquire a greater meaning and significance in the lives of the characters. They make it imperative for the characters to take decisions that will often change the way their lives move on from that point. The stories themselves flow seamlessly. But like the Brahmaputra that is a strong presence in many of them, the seeming tranquility of the surface hides a strong turbulence beneath. These undercurrents are only hinted at, but the reader is made quite aware of the power of those emotions and thoughts that seethe beneath the surface, propelling the stories forward.
Several of these stories deal with happenings next door. This is perhaps a throwback to small-town Assam, when discussions about the neighbours took up a great deal of time, their lives seemingly so much more interesting than ours! But sometimes the reader gets a frisson of horror as events unfold next door, as in the eponymous last story of the collection.
Many of these stories have children as the main characters. Indeed, several of them unfold from the point of view of childsight. In any case, they have children at the fulcrum of the narrative. Whether it is Jiu in ‘The Magic Spell’, the son of ‘Holiday Homework’ or even the childlike Santanu of ‘River of Life’, children looking at the complexities of the adult world form the theme of the stories themselves. There are other stories where the conflict and turmoil of the land impinge. ‘Honeybees’ tells the story of a simple rural boy whose only ambition is to make life a little easier during the flood season for his family. To earn extra money, he joins the para military forces. Though a large part of his life is spent in the un-military pursuit of gardening in the big police boss’s compound, his sincerity and alertness catch the eye of the boss’ wife who requests him to be part of the security detail when her husband goes on tour in the conflict-ridden land. When the inevitable happens, and he falls prey to bullets meant for his boss, he dies, dreaming of the honeybees who too die defending their golden treasure. ‘The Patriot’ tells the story of Dhiren Majumdar, an elderly man who suddenly finds himself forced to give shelter to an insurgent on the run. Unexpectedly, after a life of conformity, he redeems himself in the eyes of his wife by his compassionate behavior towards the wounded boy.
These incidents are nothing unusual in the landscape of present day Assam. What is different in their depiction is the way they change peoples’ lives in unexpected ways, in a manner that the protagonists themselves least anticipate.
Most of the characters are sharply etched with clean, clear lines, their defining characteristics put forward in no uncertain terms. They are usually products of their environment, not imposing their will on circumstances around them, until something breaks and they are driven to startling deeds, like Buri in ‘A Fire in Winter’.
The stories are well crafted, with events leading up to often surprising, but always logical climaxes. But the point of the ending is never laboured, only suggested, and hinted at, as in ‘Sour Green Mangoes’ when Madhumita’s liking for the raw fruit leads her to the house next door to where a strange man places his hand on her breast, in exchange for a bamboo dola full of the cut, salted raw fruit. The end is suggested in the last words of the story . . . ‘she feels her nipples begin to tingle’.
Jahnavi writes in a prose that is limpid and clear, a style that is very well suited to the stories she creates. Her tales move effortlessly, drawing the reader into the descriptions of the characters, and the surroundings. And yet there is an evocativeness in her style that is often arresting. The landscape of Assam is often minutely detailed, the author’s choice of words bringing a water colour picture of the countryside to mind.
The ‘Assamesization’ of many words is a welcome addition to the lexicon of English as it is spoken and written in India. For instance, instead of ‘puri’ or ‘luchi’ which North Indian or Bangla readers would be more familiar with, she writes of the fried discs of dough as ‘loosi’, in deference to the way they are pronounced in Assam.
The riverscape is often described with a great deal of emotion. The changing moods, colours and character of the vast river form a backdrop to many of the tales. In ‘A Fire in Winter’, for instance, is the riveting description of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati:
. . . it was like the sea: even when the mist disappeared, chased away by the burning sun, the far shore with its blue hills was a wavy blue smudge. . . Surrounded by the swiftly flowing waters, the fine grey sand trickling out from between my toes as I walked, pushing against the stiff wind, the cries of the cormorants and the egrets in my ears, I felt a freedom I have never felt since. . .
These quiet stories, beautifully written, throb with affection for the land and the people of Assam. Sometimes, though, one gets a feeling that the author views events and characters a little too dispassionately. Even though they speak of contemporary happenings, and of characters rooted in the milieu that is described, it is as though these events have unfolded in the distant past, with emotions blotted out by the passage of time. They would perhaps have benefited from having a greater sense of immediacy and urgency. On the whole, though, these stories tell us in no uncertain manner of the arrival of a new voice, speaking of this beautiful, troubled land about which not much has been written, especially in English.
Mitra Phukan is a well-known Assamese writer and contributes regularly to prominent English dailies in Assam. She is the author of The Collector’s Wife (Penguin-Zubaan Books, 2005) as well as a number of books for children.