Undertow, Jahnavi Barua’s second novel, covers a span of some twenty-six years, during which a family in Guwahati fractures and breaks over the same questions that roil Assam: whether to accept the outsider and on what terms. From the years of the Agitation to the ULFA’s slow decline, three generations of the Goswami family must find their way to address the question of belongingness, along with the human and cultural imperative of reconciliation.
Here is an excerpt from the book.
Romen was in one of his black moods.
Torun sensed this as soon as he emerged from his bedroom in the morning. A smell of burnt toast wafted out of the kitchen and from his seat at the head of the dining table, he saw Romen standing at the sink, scraping furiously at a piece of blackened toast with a butter knife. That charred piece was beyond redemption but Romen continued to slash at it.
‘What’s the matter?’ Torun called out.
‘Why are you murdering that piece of toast?’
‘Why?’ Romen hacked once again with the knife. ‘Aren’t you the one constantly telling us not to waste things, to make use of everything, to understand the value of money?’
‘That may be so, but that hardly means salvaging things beyond repair.’
Romen made no reply but flung the knife and the bread into the sink. He banged the kettle on the hob and then proceeded to lay the table as loudly and vehemently as he could.
The girl had appeared at the table by now. She sat down warily, at the far end of the table.
Romen had a scarf wrapped around his neck—a bad sign that urgently called for attention.
‘Only bread and fried eggs today,’ he declared.
‘And tea?’ the girl said, lightly.
‘OK, tea,’ Romen said in a tone more conciliatory. He granted the girl more concessions.
Torun remembered the postman handing over a letter to Romen the previous day. Things were now beginning to make sense.
‘Have you heard from home?’ he asked.
‘All good there?’
‘All good? All good? How can anything be good there?’ Torun chewed on his hard toast.
‘With that no-good brother of mine back home how can anything be good?’
From the kitchen he carried on.
‘First he runs away from home, joins the ULFA, drives our mother crazy and then after a couple of years he surrenders, comes back, becomes Surrendered ULFA and swaggers about the village terrorizing good folks and now he is tired of that and wants to become a business man. Ha! He wants to start a broiler chicken farm and he wants me to pay for it.’
A cabinet shutter slammed shut. ‘What do I look like? A Laatt sahib?’
‘What is a Laatt sahib?’ asked Loya when they finally made their escape to the front veranda.
Torun chuckled. ‘Lord sahib—meaning the governor.’
The girl smiled and just as quickly frowned. ‘Why does the ULFA want to break away from India?’
‘Good question, one many intelligent people have asked.’
‘I am not joking, you know; I would appreciate an answer.’
Torun felt a flare of anger but spoke with a smile.
The girl looked away from him and at the river. After a moment, Torun cleared his throat and began.
‘It all started in the late seventies when certain people were unhappy with the way the Central government was treating the people of Assam.’
‘I am telling you, let me speak! Some people felt that the resources of the state—and there are plenty of that—were being harnessed for use in all parts of the country, except for development here. The tea that was grown here was being sold in Calcutta and the sales tax on it benefitted the West Bengal government. No roads, hospitals, school or industry worth its salt were being built here.’
Torun took a sip of his tea. ‘During a by-election in a town called Mangaldoi it was discovered that the voters list had swelled enormously, unnaturally, from the previous one. No birth rate or natural movement could account for it.’
‘So, what was it?’
‘Patience!’ Torun waved his hand.
‘It was discovered that the list was packed with names of immigrants from Bangladesh.’
‘Yes, and that is what started the students’ movement. The illegal immigration was soon found to have infiltrated the entire state. Now, of course, the new citizens as they are called are a majority.’
‘What about the Accord with the Central government?’
Torun grimaced. ‘Nothing came of it.’
The girl ran her hand through her hair. ‘And the ULFA?’ ‘They had been around. But after the failure of the Agitation, they came out into the open. And they were different from the students. For one, they made no pretence of being non-violent and they did not want a treaty with India. They wanted full independence.’
‘The ULFA is still around, though more subdued, and people are still aggrieved, but more cynical. They expect little to change, and they go on with life.’
The girl looked unsatisfied with his answers, but Torun had no intention of discussing more and picked up the morning paper, and held it open resolutely in front of him.
The state of the country was hardly his fault; the ULFA had not consulted him on their violent path, nor the government on how to quell the unrest; he was hardly culpable in any of these matters, yet she seemed to hold him accountable in some mysterious way.
An odd bird, this granddaughter of his was.