Undertow is Simple on the Surface but it has Hidden Depths
Have you ever read a book outside your comfort zone and been mesmerised by it?
Well, I have. I’m still mesmerised, in fact.
Twenty-five years ago, Rukmini, a young Assamese girl, was cast out by Usha, her headstrong mother, for marrying Alex, a Malayali man, while Torun, Rukmini’s father, looked on helplessly.
Cut to the present, Rukmini and Alex are divorced, their 25-year-old daughter Loya living with Rukmini, and Usha is no more. Loya, a quiet, sincere girl, who’s the spitting image of Usha, turns up unannounced at Torun’s yellow house on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Assam, demanding answers.
Follow Loya as she learns to communicate with Torun and others from her mother’s past, forms tentative bonds with them, and discovers Assam in all its beauty and turbulence, changing her life forever.
On the surface, Undertow is a contemporary novel. It’s simple. Sweet. Normal.
A girl elopes with her lover and they marry against the wishes of both their families. And then differences arise and the marriage…ends badly, leaving their child(ren) in a lurch.
Haven’t we all heard this story before? It seems, to me, at least, as if everyone has that one disgraceful aunt or uncle – that cautionary tale…not a tale of what goes wrong when you abandon your children just because they chose a partner you didn’t approve of, but a tale of what goes wrong when you marry against your parents’ wishes.
So…normal, isn’t it?
Only, it’s not.
The relationship between Rukmini and her mother is not normal. Loya’s vivacity is…not normal. The backdrop of Assam’s turbulent politics? Definitely different.
Anupma (@mostlybooking on Instagram) told me, after she read the book, that she wasn’t fooled by the pretty words and the atmospheric descriptions.
Well, I’m not sure about that.
But I certainly knew, right from the get-go, that the book was more than it seemed on the surface. The beautiful descriptions and the simple but lyrical writing and the vivid imagery made the book gripping, yes, but what really hit home was all the emotions I felt while reading it.
I got attached to Torun and Loya and Romen (the cook) and Robin koka (Torun’s old friend). I came to hate Usha, but even long dead, she left an impression on me. Rukmini? Well, I pitied her a little, but I could also see the resemblance between her and Usha.
I wanted to shake them all for being so darn stubborn, but I saw them as annoying relatives – ones I didn’t like sometimes but loved all the same.
The book made me reflect about communication and about how ego gets in the way of good relationships. It made me think about all the people who probably go through the same broken family life every day, and how little we think of those people. How normal it is.
Some people call this book “political”, but I fail to see how. In Assam, knowing about politics and being involved seems to be a way of life…so of course politics forms a stark backdrop in this simple family story. At its heart, though, I think Undertow is about family. About ties. And about what happens when we let our feelings fester and simmer without saying them out loud.
I was heartbroken by the ending, honestly. I found it a little rushed and I hated that some parts of the story got no closure. I’ve reconciled to it, though. Because that’s life, isn’t it? Uncertain and ambiguous. We don’t always get the answers to the questions that niggle at the back of our head, and Ms Barua has made us feel exactly what her characters must have felt – unsatisfied, and wondering, “What if I had just swallowed my pride and spoken my feelings out loud?”
I buddy read this book with my friend Laeba (@_readgret_ on Instagram). I’m so grateful that I could discuss (rant about!) the book with her. I also admire her patience because she finished the book a night before I did and I can’t imagine how she must have felt then.
I also ranted about this book to many other people, including my bestie Swetha (@booksqueaks), Anupma (@mostlybooking), Rashi (@treat_yo_shelves_) – with whom I had a really fun discussion, and probably a few more people I can’t remember right now.
After screaming in DMs, I went back and re-read several reviews of this book that I had saved, including those by @booksqueaks, @paperbacksandpen, @thebookishtales, @sunflowersandcottoncandies…
I'm so grateful to all these people for helping me process my feelings around this book!
About the author:
(It saddens me a bit, to see brilliant authors getting so little recognition. While I usually find enough info about authors to go on from Wikipedia and the likes, this is literally all I found about the amazing person that is Jahnavi Barua)
Jahnavi Barua is an author from Assam, currently based in Bengaluru. She was awarded the Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship for creative writing in 2006. Her first book, Next Door, a collection of short stories, was published in 2008 and received wide critical acclaim. The second, Rebirth, a novel published in 2010, was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Commonwealth Book Prize.
Undertow, published in Feb 2020, is her third book. It was longlisted for the 2020 JCB Literature prize and the BLF Atta Galatta Book Prize 2020. Ms Barua’s books are on the syllabi of many universities and her short fiction has been widely anthologized.