Set against the backdrop of Assam’s gripping politics, Jahnavi Barua’s Undertow is the story of “The Yellow House” and its many inhabitants. Barua explores the nuances of familial ties and weaves together a heartwarming tale. With a mother betrayed, a daughter banished, and a grand-daughter seeking nothing but an apology, Undertow is also the story of the patriarch Torun Ram Goswami and his quest to salvage his relationships with his family.

The novel goes back and forth in time, through a passage of 25 years, to portray the changing worlds of Guwahati and Bangalore. A sweet melancholy overpowers the narrative, resonating with Tolstoy’s classic phrase from Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Keeping it in the family

“Kinship ties were never felt more keenly than on the days they were loosened or severed”

The picture Barua paints of the Goswami family is similar to that of most Indian families. Rukmini, the daughter, is banished for marrying outside her race and religion. Her treacherous act is looked down upon because her betrayal is not merely towards her family, but towards Assam, her motherland. Rukmini’s story traverses the patriarchal institution of nationalism, and gives us an insight into how women are under scrutiny throughout their lives.

In contrast to Rukmini, there’s her mother, Usha; a dutiful wife and mother, married to a man chosen by her parents, and the archetype of an ideal Indian woman. The characters of Usha and Rukmini exist in parallel to the native Assamese and the alien Bangladeshi – the insider and outsider. Barua intricately connects the character arc of each person to the existing political climate of Assam, thereby giving a new face to the plot and the characters’ journey throughout the novel. Moreover, the themes of family, kinship, motherland, and the changing settings of rural and urban life intertwine with each other to bring in a sense of familiarity to the reader.

The mother-daughter relationship plays a huge part in Barua’s novel; first, with Usha and Rukmini, and then with Rukmini and Loya. The ramifications of Rukmini’s relationship with Usha are reflected in the former’s relationship with her daughter, Loya. Loya’s decision to journey to her mother’s native place in Guwahati stems from anxiety regarding her present relationships. In the Yellow House, Loya unearths Rukmini’s past through the remnants of her youth.

Surfing through Rukmini’s vinyl record collection brings a smile to Loya’s face. A glimpse into Rukmini’s life in Guwahati helps in humanising her image, something which Loya seems to be craving for. After all, she has little idea about who her mother was before she was exiled. Past trauma and old grudges have a way of embedding themselves in our already complicated lives, and Undertow is a standing testimony to that.

A river runs through it

“She was reluctant to leave the yellow house, but an ancient tumult, a restlessness that beset migratory birds, began to beat within her.”

We encounter various facets of the underlying theme of migration throughout the novel. Barua, who is herself a native of Assam, but a resident of Bangalore, breathes life into the city of Guwahati. Discovering the city through her lens is a nostalgic experience. The manner in which she weaves in the majestic Brahmaputra into the lives of Rukmini, Loya, Usha and Torun and ties them to their natal city is indeed a work of art.

The river perhaps plays the part of a fifth central character in the novel, having witnessed the love, resentment and anguish of an entire state. The overarching presence of the Brahmaputra also allows for the co-existence of the central voices of Torun and Loya; it portrays the dichotomy between an indigenous person who has sunk his roots in one place, and a migrant who has no tangible roots. The river, therefore, is always static in Torun’s view, and is constantly flowing when seen from Loya’s perspective.

Undertow, finally, is also a commentary on cultural hegemony. Torun is appalled when Loya asks him who the Ahoms were. “Do you not know who the Ahoms are, being Asomiya and all?” he asks her. The realisation that his grand-daughter is unaware of her culture and history forces Torun to play the part of the wise, old man and impart all the knowledge he possesses about his motherland. It also forces the reader to introspect about the deep fissures that exist in our system, wherein the history of one region is so widespread, and that of another completely disregarded.

Barua gives voice to a subaltern culture through her novel – one hidden in the banks of the Brahmaputra. Undertow, thus, is not merely a saga of family, loss and love, but also an attempt at reclaiming a world which is otherwise dominated by “mainlanders”.

Undertow, Jahnavi Barua, Penguin Viking.