Monday, March 12, 2012

*Rebirth, by Jahnavi Barua

Penguin India, 2010
203 pp
(trade paper ed. - India)

Rebirth is Jahnavi Barua's first novel, although in 2008 she also authored a book of short stories entitled Next Door.  It is narrated by the main character Kaberi, and the narrative is addressed to her unborn baby, the type of thing I normally shy away from in my reading choices. No wait. I normally RUN from this type of thing. However,  to be perfectly honest, and much to my own surprise, there are several features that elevate this novel from being just another book of women's fiction or chicklit.  It has a vividly-evoked sense of place and time,  quality prose that does not fall prey to overdone cliches, and the reader catches a glimpse into  issues facing not only modern Indian women, but a bit of India's ongoing regional, political strife that affects people in all walks of life.   There is also a nice, reflective symmetry at work that is well constructed:  the story takes place over the few months between Kaberi's discovery that she is pregnant and the first pangs of labor contractions, and as Kaberi is patiently awaiting the baby's emergence, she is also on a path toward her own.

Kaberi is married to Ranjit (Ron) and lives a very middle-class existence in a nice flat in Bangalore. She has been working on a children's book for about a year, unbeknownst to her husband, and the book is now ready for her to begin the editing process.  But despite her environment, upscale life and her happiness about being pregnant, things are not so great for Kaberi: Ron is having an affair and living with another woman, and has moved many of his things out of the flat.  Ron's behavior toward Kaberi fluctuates erratically; often when Ron wants something from Kaberi, she usually acquiesces with little protest, but he is not above using physical violence on her from time to time. Kaberi hasn't mentioned the pregnancy to her husband; she wants him to return to her not because of the baby, but because he still loves Kaberi.  Actually, Kaberi hasn't mentioned the pregnancy or Ron's absence from their home  to anyone; the one friend in whom she may have confided early on was killed in a bus explosion  during an insurgency in Assam, and Kaberi just lets on that Ron's company frequently sends him away on business.  When Ron comes to her to ask for a divorce, he expects that she will give in to his request, but Kaberi realizes  that now she is in a position of strength, one that is only bolstered by a trip home to Assam when an unforeseen event occurs. Obviously there's a great deal more to the story, but to say any more would be unfair.

Yes, yes, yes, I know it sounds like the standard women's fiction/chicklit kind of story, but there is an unusual amount of depth at work in this novel which lifts the premise of this story from what it could have been to something on an elevated level. The sense of place moves the reader from modern city -- where even in the midst of the city's hustle-bustle an open  verandah attached to a flat can be an isolating experience --  to muddy roads to the lush jungle near Bangalore and then to the scenic river views in Assam where people float on barges for parties, each with its accompanying wonders and vivid colors in terms of flora and fauna. Moving along, the author never feels compelled to document incidents of domestic violence in graphic detail, nor does her main character wring her hands, bemoan her fate in a "poor, poor, pitiful me" kind of way, take revenge or take a lover to spite her unfaithful husband. The spotlight is always on Kaberi, her sense of isolation and the slow realization of her empowerment that comes about as a result of her inner strength, and the prose moves steadily and is, if anything,  quietly understated.  Finally, the author manages to weave in some of the political and social issues of the agitation in Assam, where people took to the streets to make their voices and agendas heard, only to be betrayed in the long run.

Rebirth is a very fast read but a good one, and if this is Jahnavi Barua's very first novel, then she's off to a running start in her writing career.   I did get a bit tired of reading through longish descriptions of different outfits the women wore in this book, and the colors and styles various people used in decorating their homes -- it was just too extraneous for me to really care about and added little to the overall story. But really, if that's the worst I have to say about this book, then that's a good thing! I'll look forward to more from this author in the future.

A note to publishers or to anyone else who cares: as an extremely avid consumer of the written word and buyer of hundreds of books per year,  I think it would be very nice if books listed for international prizes were available on an international scale, but I do understand that there are rights restrictions and whatever.  Personally, I don't get this phenomenon of  limiting award-nominated books to only one country or one region when the publishing business isn't doing so well these days and international releases might boost sales.  After looking around my usual online haunts to find this book, I had the choice of going to Penguin India or paying about $60 US for a 200-page paperback. I went with Penguin India and was happy to do so, but I can't speak for everyone else who might want to read this book here in the US.

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