Estrangement. What an odd choice of word to define the not-so-closeness to a person who once was your world. Really an odd choice of word. There is loss, and yet it doesn’t feel like that. It sounds almost clinical, like a surgery has been performed on it, and the word that remained was this. Estrangement, in its various forms.
“Undertow” by Jahnavi Barua is about relationships that go sour, that are no longer what they used to be, that can be mended, relationships that can start over. Loya is twenty-five and has never met her maternal grandfather, Torun, who lives in Assam in a Yellow house all by himself. His wife Usha, the matriarch and an intimidating figure has long gone – it’s been four years. Loya’s mother Rukmini was banished from home, twenty-six years ago, in 1983, when she decided to marry Alex, the love of her life. Since then, a lot changed. Loya arrives at the Yellow House to meet her grandfather Torun and this is where the story begins.
Undertow is not just this though. It is so much more. Nature is described by Barua in a manner that is delicate, nurturing even, and personal. She speaks of clouds, of the sky, of a crow pheasant, of views, of walks, of how humans and nature can co-exist, and she also speaks of climate change most subtly. I loved Barua’s prose that is stable, though there are a lot of emotions simmering underneath, it is on the surface of it still as a lake during summer. No movement at all, and yet the story propels in the direction it has to. A voice of its own, almost.
Relationships aren’t perfect. Neither are people. Relationships are imperfect. They take a lot from you, but also somehow are fulfilling in their own dysfunctional manner. Undertow is all about such relationships – jagged, brittle in the mouth, and where snatches of happiness are far and few and in-between. Yet, there is much comfort in this short novel. Food being one of them. Barua writes about food with much affection. The fish and the fish seller, the five courses of Assamese food, the vegetables, and even a simple cup of tea evokes yearning for all the food. You just want to eat it all as you turn the page.
Feminism is also at the center of all of this – and yet it is not as palpable. Even then, it questions so many things along the course of the novel. Loya’s feminism vs. that of her mother’s. Usha’s brand of feminism and how it brought about emotional destruction in its wake, and even Sita the house help’s brand of feminism that is silent and speaks volume.
The secondary characters see the very same relationships so differently. From Romen, the cook to Biren, the handyman in a sense, to lives that converge and melt into the other lives, without realising that we are all perhaps just connected one way or the other.
“Undertow” shines on so many levels. Barua’s craft is surreal and yet it stings quite appropriately when it has to. Her writing is calm, restless, and disquiet – ample with love and loss, reminding us always that estrangement can be overcome. Over and over again.