Book Review: Rebirth by Jahnavi Barua

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There are books that blow one’s mind open. There are books that leave one shaken, altered, destabilized. Those books are easy to talk about, their effects easy to describe in superlatives. And then there are books that wander in without bells on, as quiet as the comfort that fills the heart while watching the day’s first or last light from one’s own window, alone but for the succor of a cup of tea. Perhaps that is the analogy that comes closest to expressing the peace that Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth brings. This profoundly intimate novel is one of the most beautiful books seen in Indian fiction in many years.

We are held for a time and then we are released imprinted, as though from within a womb – a testament to Barua’s impeccably crafted narrative voice, for this is exactly what the novel is about. Kaberi is a homemaker in Bangalore, pregnant with a longed-for baby about whom no one – not her estranged husband, not her parents in Guwahati, not her few friends in her adopted city, not her domestic help – knows, except for her gynecologist. Her second trimester has begun, and before long she will not be able to conceal her expectant state. Rebirth is her monologue to that child who begins as a secret and an uncertainty, then turns into the pivot on which she will renew her life itself.

Of all the psychic locales that writers over millennia have explored, there are none as complex as a woman’s interior landscape, a landscape so fascinating that long before feminism put pens into women’s own hands, male bards sought to emulate their voices. There is no dearth of the first-person female voice in the genre of the contemporary novel today, but Barua’s contains an unusual timelessness – it has a curious but highly successful lack of urbanity and modern neuroses, thus delivering the sense that, as with some of Kamala Markandaya’s work, it could be set anywhere within a span of decades. This is one of the book’s strengths: chiseling Kaberi’s experience down to her most private sphere, influenced solely by her own emotionality.

What emerges is delicate: we are not subjected, for example, to melodramatic outrage about her husband’s infidelity, or unmitigated grief about the deaths of loved ones, or even self-consciousness about Kaberi’s own promising work as a writer. It is only much later into the novel, when the pregnancy is no longer a secret and a salvaging of the marriage is being negotiated, that Kaberi begins to regard the unborn baby as an entity to whom stories must be told, and a sort of rhetorical distance emerges. Until that point, the baby is but an extension of her psyche, and her single source of solace. Over the course of her pregnancy, she acquires the strength to support both her child and the needs of her own evolution. Barua traces this journey with a fine sense of nuance.

Rebirth is a deeply compassionate novel, consoling the reader the way Kaberi’s baby consoles her for many months – gently, with tenderness, and with neither demand nor plea. The tranquility it offers lingers similarly: this is not a novel in which characters haunt, petitioning us to find absolution for their unexplained futures and unanswered questions. Instead, one is content to leave them where they leave us, carrying forward the perfection of the brief time we have spent with them. With extraordinary intimacy and understanding, Barua has found a way to echo gestation itself: holding the reader safely, but just long enough so that they reenter the world calmed, soothed, deeply moved.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu Literary Review.

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3 responses »

  1. The books seems wonderful, but i am afraid i would again see another woman accepting fate , resolved in sadness and loneliness. no retribution whatsoever. one of ur sentences rankled ,miss sharanya manivannan.pardon me, but what do u mean by ” melodramatic outrage over her husband’s infidelity ” ? the way they describe in book , may seem melodramatic, angst-ridden, but at least that’s outrage , expressing anger over the injustice, which have been forced on 1000 s on every year in over the world, and when asian women are still expected to turn other cheek , just accpet, because they are afraid of being case aside, howmuch the stigma, they still needs to be called married , so they dont express outrage . i havent read the book, but please do reconsider about that outrage thing. i am not saying they should break things or suicide, but many times letting go of the anguish , anger , speaking of one’s mind to those bastard helps to heal the inner turmoil in the long run . i am 22, what do i know, dont know what love is or opposite of that, but i do see things. while everything is not pure B & W, some gray shades should not be hidden , they have so much black in them that it should be condemned.
    A women’s solitray journey , it can happend while still being married, has always happened. women who love their children, get obcessed over them, most of them didnt get their woman’s love returned by the one they bestowed it upon. we women are lucky, fortunate , blessed in one thing no matter what. that we can become mothers, have that soul connection with another human in the deepest, it lessens the grief when we dont get that same thing from our mate.

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