Well, I had to drop everything else that I was reading for this, but it was well worth it. Thanks to Penguin India, my copy of Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua arrived this week, and it has been a real pleasure to read it. Although the novel is based on a culture so very different to my own, its central premise is universal: the desire to love and be loved, and to protect the unborn from all harm. Some might say that such a theme makes this a ‘woman’s’ book, but in my opinion, that’s like saying that novels about war are ‘men’s’ books, when I would argue that ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ is, for example, a book for everybody because it’s a book about humanity. Rebirth is a book about humanity too.
Rebirth is a woman’s journey into personhood. Kaberi has been living in limbo, waiting and hoping for a child, waiting and hoping for her indifferent husband to care for her. It was an arranged marriage, as marriages still apparently are in parts of India, and the gulf between Kaberi and her husband is more than the difference in their social status and aspirations. It is not just that he has another woman and that his so-called business trips have escalated into separation just as the longed-for child is conceived. And – inconceivably from a western perspective – it is not even that he beats her. It is because he believes that he alone has the right to make decisions about their future. Kaberi, on her journey to personhood begins to see that she has not only has the right but also the responsibility to make decisions about her future and that of her child.
A new yearning swells inside me; I want to be pampered and for you to be made much of. That is the right way, the traditional way to do things. I demand love. Now, especially now, at least now. (p41)
Kaberi has always been a follower. She has let others make decisions for her; she has been placid, and patient and obedient to the desires of others. She has suppressed her individuality, her own barely-recognised wishes and her creativity. But in the course of her pregnancy Kaberi not only has to resolve her unsatisfactory marriage, she also has to deal with life events that all of us will experience at some time though the context is unique to her culture. She has to come to terms with the death of Joya, a friend since childhood; she has to learn to let others befriend her without feeling that she is betraying Joya’s memory; she has to accept that the political movement for which such sacrifices were made has achieved nothing much. The death of her father brings into focus the difficult relationship she has with her parents and the competing claims of her in-laws. The child means so much to all of them, and even the issue of whose name it might bear is fraught. Coming-of-age novels are usually about adolescence, but what Barua traces here is that later growth of maturity when we realise our parents’ imperfections are much like our own. It is a chastening moment in our lives…
But what makes this book so special is the narrative voice. Barua captures the bond between mother and unborn child perfectly by writing entirely from Kaberi’s perspective – her character speaks not to us, but to her child. As mothers do, from the moment they become aware of the life within, Kaberi addresses her babe in a deeply private conversation, sharing her dreams, her memories, her fears for the future and her ambition that this child will be loved and nurtured as it should be. She describes her environment in loving detail so that the child can see it: the busy city of Bangalore, the glorious scenery in Guwahati, the trees, fruits, flowers and birds. Her disappointment when a childhood memory is spoiled by ‘rows of concrete houses that grow like cancer‘ (p191). A pleasure trip upriver when she sees a tiger on the bank is a special moment which makes her tremble with excitement: ‘Can you feel it darling?’ she murmurs even as she reflects that a tiger ‘cuts us down to size, in a way, reminding us of our largely insignificant place on the immense stage of nature’ (p58). Every thought and action is framed around the future life of her child, but it is not sentimental. A steely determination emerges as the pregnancy progresses, evidenced in ways that might perhaps not be noticed at first by the reader, so skilful is the writing.
I am going to tell you every day, as long as I live, and even after I die, from that great darkness – or maybe it is light – that I love you, my child. You can never love too much. Or say it enough. (p169)
A simple truth, not often expressed. Rebirth is a lovely book.
Now that I have read all the books on the Man Asian longlist, I will reveal my shortlist. There were six books on it before I read Rebirth but I don’t have to drop one out for Rebirth because the judges shortlisted seven, so I can too! (Those in bold are the ones that the judges also chose. Links are to my reviews, and the official shortlist is here).
The Folded Earth by Anuradha Roy
The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam
Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattachariya
The Valley of Masks by Tarun J Tejpal
The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
For descriptions of all the books (with links for where to buy them)
and all the Shadow Man Asian Literary Prize Team’s reviews (updated as we write them),
© Lisa Hill
Author: Jahnavi Barua
Publisher: Penguin (India), 2010
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Books, India.
Availability: This book is not yet available outside India, but I have no doubt that as its international reputation grows, the distribution issues will be resolved!