Delicious descriptions from Down Under: Jahnavi Barua on reading

In my recent review of Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth I quoted the following line: “No, I will not buy a book today. I will try and live in my life instead”. I really wanted, though, to quote the entire preceding paragraph, but it didn’t really suit the direction of my review. And so, instead, I’m posting it today.

The protagonist, Kaberi, is in a bookshop (as you will have guessed):

I begin with the As and work my way down the bookshelves. I stop at C; I have not read Disgrace yet and would have liked to have browsed through it but somehow today my heart is not in it. Still, I wander down the aisle looking at the familiar names; I am compelled to stop at K, Kawabata. I caress the spine of the book as if stroking the hand of an old and beloved friend. I cannot forget the girl in his book, The sound of the mountain. Her relationship with her father-in-law haunts me; is it possible that there can be only friendship between a man and a woman unrelated by blood? I had been so deeply unsettled by the book when I first read it; your father had only laughed. He said I had lived so little in the real world that the fictional appeared so significant to me.

I love this paragraph for so many reasons. Let me count the ways! No, let’s not be quite so mechanical but I will say that I like it for personal and structural reasons. Personal because I’ve read and loved the two books she describes, and because I can relate to her need to caress a loved book and her being unsettled by a great book.  And structural because this paragraph contains several clues to character and even plot in the book … but I won’t give those away (beyond of course what you’ve already gleaned from this piece of text itself).

Jahnavi Barua, Rebirth (Review for the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize, 2011)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

What a shame Jahnavi Barua‘s novel, Rebirth, is, to the best of my knowledge, available “for sale in the Indian Subcontinent only” (backcover). Our Shadow Man Asian team had real problems tracking this one down, but I’m very glad we did manage to obtain some copies, eventually, because this is a beautiful book.

The title, Rebirth, might give you a sense of its subject matter – but, then again, it mightn’t! The novel – novella really – is a first person monologue by a mother to her unborn child. The child is waiting to be born – not reborn – but there is a sense that for the mother, Kaberi, a rebirth might be in the offing as she explores the state of her shaky arranged marriage, and of some tricky or unresolved relationships with family and friends.

While set in India – in Bangalore and Guwahati (in the troubled province of Assam) – this novel does not have the noise and energy that often accompanies stories from the subcontinent. It’s quiet and contemplative. Moreover, while it is imbued with gorgeous descriptions of the plants and landscapes of India, and while it refers to the ongoing political unrest in Assam, it is not specifically Indian in theme. Its story is universal, that of the desire for love between husband and wife, and of the love of a mother for her child. And here is the difficult part, because it is hard to describe this largely plotless novel without making it sound twee or mawkish, but somehow it is not that at all. Barua manages to find a voice for Kaberi that is tender but matter of fact, that is tentative but also confident. The progression is chronological, commencing with her husband leaving her for another woman at the beginning of the novel just as she discovers she is pregnant (after many years of trying). She doesn’t tell him – or her family and friends – for some long time as she considers her life. In the opening paragraphs we are given a picture of her as somewhat passive and inward-looking. Before her husband left, she says she

had been partial to the large soft sofa in front of the television, from where I had a good view of the screen, but from where I also looked inwards, into the heart of the house. I did not see much of the sky or buildings clustered around our own, but all that, anyway, did not cross my mind very often, so focused was I on your father and myself and the home we had fashioned together.

Ah, we think … a person ripe for “rebirth”. And yes she is, but it is slow and undramatic as she gradually, by meeting friends, remembering her old childhood friend who’d died in a bombed bus in Assam, and reflecting on her marriage past and present, comes to a better understanding of who she is. Early in the novel she, a keen reader, says:

I will not buy a book today. I will try and live in my life instead.

As the novel progresses, we find that she is, in fact, stronger and more directed than we (and, more to the point, even she) had realised. She has, for example, written a book and organised for her friend Preetha to illustrate it. This is no simple thing, but her husband, “whose public manners were always nice”, knows nothing of this. Ah, we wonder, what is she saying about his private manners, the way he treats her? We learn, through more stories in the next few pages, that what she hasn’t received from him is tenderness and love. But we also receive a clear sense of strength growing in her:

I demand love. Now, especially now, at least now.

This comes about a quarter of the way through the novel … the rest explores, in the same quiet tone, how things fall out for Kaberi, how she confronts her fears and insecurities. Things do happen – her father dies and she returns home to Guwahati, she eventually tells her husband, family and friends about her pregnancy. You can’t hide that forever after all! In other words, there is a plot of sorts, but the story is mostly an internal one and the ending is appropriately open albeit also with some sense of things resolved.

A little over halfway though the novel Kaberi says:

Birds wheel around slowly in the cloudless sky. Seemingly aimless, but I know better; little happens in nature accidentally.

And, I’d say, little happens accidentally in the writing of this book. It has been carefully and subtly structured to lay the foundations for Kaberi’s growth, and this makes it an absolute pleasure to read.

For other reviews by the Shadow Man Asian team, please click on my Man Asian Literary Prize page.

Jahnavi Barua
New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2010
ISBN: 9780143414551

(Review copy supplied by Penguin Books via Lisa of ANZLitLovers)

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Update

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Badge

Image by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

The observant among you will have noticed that I haven’t done a Man Asian Literary Prize weekly round-up of reviews and news for a couple of weeks now. This is because our reviews have slowed down now to a crawl and hardly warrant a weekly post from me. The most recent reviews posted have been:

  • Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth by Matt, of A Novel Approach and Lisa, of ANZLitLovers, both of whom are positive about the book.
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom by Fay, of Read Ramble. She’s written a rather passionate defence of the book, addressing the negatives put forward by some reviewers. This is probably the most controversial of the shortlisted books …

While I stopped posting regular roundups, I have been updating my page of reviews* as new reviews have (dribbled) come in. Please check it out whenever you wand to find team members’ reviews of the longlisted books. Some of our reviewers have been very assiduous, reading and reviewing most if not all of the books. As for me? I am currently reading two of the books and hope to review them before …

We make our shadow winner announcement. We plan to do this a few days before March 15, which is when the official announcement will be made.

Watch this space …

* Shortlisted books are indicated by an asterisk in this page.

Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 Shortlist announced

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

… And my preferred two books – those by Ahmad and Yoshimoto – of the three I’ve read are in the final seven books. Woo hoo … but I have a lot to read to catch up to the rest of the team.

The shortlisted books are:

  • Jamil Ahmad’s Wandering falcon
  • Jahnavi Barua‘s Rebirth
  • Rahul Bhattacharya’s The sly company of people who care
  • Amitav Ghosh‘s River of smoke
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mom
  • Yan Lianke‘s Dream of Ding Village
  • Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake

You can find our  Shadow team’s reviews by clicking the team logo in the blog sidebar or by clicking on the Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 page.

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week January 1-7

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 8 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we now have only a few days to the shortlist announcement on January 10. This week’s reviews are:

  • Tahmima Anam’s The good Muslim (Bangladesh) by Fay of Read, Ramble. She says “it is beautifully structured, the story well told, the characters alive” and believes it will be one of the short-listed novels. We’ll soon know!
  • Tahmina Anam’s The good Muslim (Bangladesh) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. He concurs with Fay and our other reviewers that it is a strong contender for the shortlist. He calls it “a brave and important book”.
  • Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth (India) by Stu of winstonsdad. Stu makes a great point about its universality, which makes me keen to read it … but this book has been one of the two most difficult of the longlist to track down.
  • Rahul Bhattachariya’s The sly company of people who care (India) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. She says that “this is a remarkably clever book; I’m not surprised that it won the Hindu Literary Prize.”
  • Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The colonel (Iran) by Fay of Read, Ramble. She found it an intense read, “a powerful book. Overpowering”. I feel this is one I should read.
  • Tarun Tejpal’s The valley of masks (India) by Matt of A Novel Approach. He loved it but called it “the black sheep of the list”. Now that’s got me intrigued!
  • Banana Yoshimoto’s The lake (Japan) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. He’s not greatly enamoured saying it “drowns in introspection and self-doubt” but he says he’d read another Yoshimoto (so it’s clearly not all bad!)

Other Shadow Man Asian news

  • The shortlist will be announced next week, on January 10th … watch our spaces!
  • I have made it easier for you to find all our reviews now by creating a page listing the books in alphabetical order by author, with links to our team members’ reviews. Click on the Man Asian Literary Prize page tab or our Shadow Man Asian Logo in my sidebar to access the list.
  • If you missed it, I posted my third review this week:  Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon. I do hope that one of two of those I’ve read make the shortlist!

Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011: Reviews from the week December 26-31

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Image created by Matt Todd of A Novel Approach

Week 7 of our Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize 2011 longlist reviewing project and we’re moving along with less than two weeks now to the shortlist announcement. This week’s reviews are:

  • Jahnavi Barua‘s Rebirth (India) by Fay of Read, Ramble who thinks it has some interesting things to say about women’s lives in contemporary India but feels that it’s not fully successful as a novel
  • Amitav Ghosh‘s River of smoke (India) by Mark of Eleutherophobia. Mark liked it, with some reservations. He feels it’s a little overambitious, trying to do too much, but nonetheless calls it an “epic, intense, richly rewarding novel”.
  • Haruki Murakami‘s IQ84 (Japan) by Lisa of ANZLitLovers. Lisa didn’t like it much, echoing many of the bloggers’ reviews I’ve read, including Matt who has also reviewed it for our project.
  • Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please look after mother (Korea) by Mark of Eleutherophobia who liked it, calling it “a quaintly crafted story”.

And, of course, if you missed it, I posted my second review for the project this week: Banana Yoshimoto‘s The lake. My next one will be Jamil Ahmad’s The wandering falcon.