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Undertow by Jahnavi Barua: My thoughts

Today I am sharing my thoughts on UNDERTOW, by Jahnavi Barua, a new and stunning story of family, love and Assam.

Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua
Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua

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Loya is twenty-five: solitary, sincere, with restless stirrings in her heart. In an uncharacteristic move, she sets off on an unexpected journey, away from her mother, Rukmini, and her home in Bengaluru, to distant, misty Assam. She comes looking for her beloved Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, but also seeks someone else-her grandfather, Torun Ram Goswami, someone she has never met before.

She arrives at the Yellow House on the banks of the Brahmaputra, where Torun lives, not knowing that her life is about to change. Twenty-five years ago, Rukmini had been cast out of the family home by her mother, the formidable and charismatic Usha, while Torun watched silently. Loya now seeks answers, both from him and from the place that her mother once called home. In her quest, she finds an understanding not only of herself and her life but also of the precarious bonds that tie people together.

A delicate, poignant portrait of family and all that it contains, Undertow becomes, in the hands of this gifted writer, an exploration of much more: home and the outside world, the insider and the outsider, and the ever-evolving nature of love itself. 

Check out the reading vlog I made for this amazing book!

my review

Set in Guwahati, Undertow has been a gem of a book and I was in love from the very first page. It was our first ever Book Of The Month for our very new venture – Assam Book Club.

Reading this book during this time in history (as I am self-isolating during the Covid crisis) is probably the reason why this book hit me as it did. I saw my beautiful state, or rather, my beautiful city from the eyes of Loya, who is visiting here for the first time. I was travel-sick in a way and at the same time, home-sick, and I wanted to roam about the city as I did once upon a time.

Undertow was also included in the longlist for the JCB Prize in Literature and it felt so good to be represented. In mainstream Indian literature, which is also mostly of Central India, we Northeasterners hardly figure except as token characters. So this was a refreshing and welcome change. I felt represented, my culture and my way of life felt represented. This representation of Assam, taking into consideration the time period it is set in, was actually very apt and I myself could remember various scenarios I faced as I grew up (particularly the political aspects).

Check out my list of THE BOOKS TO READ from North East India!

Check out these pictures where I dressed up as a typical Assamese bride. This was special because my Mom lent me her own bridal clothes for this photoshoot.

I also made a spread for this book where I took for my inspiration the vibrant blue of the cover. And here is when we spend a few moments to admire the symbolic cover (I’m a lit major after all). The girl felt solid and at at the same time, a lone figure amidst the blue swirling around her.

Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua - a Bujo Spread!
Undertow, by Jahnavi Barua – a Bujo Spread!

I also think that just like the beautiful cover, the writing too was full of stunning imagery. And it so was. I felt like I was a tourist here, but then again, the representation of Assamese life is so true and realistic.

The relationships among the people were also well portrayed, including all the various nuances and undertones of emotions. Anger, spite, love, sadness, guilt etc. were all shown via the actions of the characters. I think it was all so beautiful in its wholeness. The author also delves over the lines that can separate families, orthodox ones; over choices in one’s spouse, job etc. It was true in the case of Rukmini (spouse) as well as Loya (job).

Talking about the ending, which has understandably divided the readership into two, I have to admit that I am quite satisfied with it. It felt like the story has in some way come to a full circle. I would like to reiterate that I really do believe that ending was necessary and that it was justified.

Overall, I thought it was a gem of a book and you should definitely pick it up! 5/5 stars!

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