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Jahnavi Barua’s Rebirth is a haunting story of one woman’s relationship with her unborn child, through the journey of her pregnancy.
Review By Unmana Datta
It seems so much more difficult to review a book you loved than a book you had mixed feelings for. Balancing pros and cons is much trickier when you can find no cons!
Rebirth is a novel with an unusual narrative premise: the narrator is a pregnant woman talking to her unborn child. This unusual framing device helps to establish that Kaberi, the protagonist, is so alone that she has no one more sentient to talk to and no more meaningful relationship to hold on to. It also means that the entire novel takes place within the space of Kaberi discovering that she is pregnant to before she gives birth, thus constraining this meandering, almost timeless narrative inside the span of a few months.
As the entire book is written in Kaberi’s voice, the language gets jarring at times. The narrator isn’t erased to make you comfortable; Kaberi is undeniably present in each word, daring you to judge her life. I am full of admiration at the author’s skill – the framing device of Kaberi speaking to her foetus never falters; any uncomfortable disclosure is always acknowledged by the narrator. When towards the end of the book, Kaberi reveals a shocking secret, it doesn’t seem unconvincing that the unpleasant fact was hidden away for so long. It is more than believable that Kaberi doesn’t want to say it outright to her baby, that she instead blurts the truth out to her mother in a vulnerable moment.
I found the book very satisfyingly slow and devoid of action or conversation. Much of the “action” is Kaberi reminiscing in solitude, talking to the child whom she can now lavish all her frustrated affection on. Kaberi spends days in quiet, barely speaking to the affectionate daily help, barely leaving the house for weeks. She might be depressed, or she might just be someone who doesn’t need much company, and either explanation is equally satisfying.
When, a little into the story, Kaberi’s husband comes back from his lover and unapologetically demands that she host a dinner for his friends, Kaberi obediently swings into action. You wonder how, and why, she is so undemanding, so willing to please. Barua offers much of the answer in Kaberi’s intermittent nostalgic musings.
Kaberi often thinks of her best friend, Joya, whom she idealizes, you slowly realize, as much because of the place she had in Kaberi’s life and the fiery personality Kaberi admired as because of her death; making her in a way, inviolable. No one now present in Kaberi’s life gets quite the same adulation.
But this isn’t a novel where little happens apart from the slow reveal of the characters’ personalities. Even though the pace is measured and slow, much does happen in the book, and the effect of it all on Kaberi’s personality is considerable. From being submissive, almost apathetic, in the beginning, she gains a confidence that leaves the reader hoping that she takes control of her life.
Read the book for the beautiful descriptions of Assam (since I, like Kaberi, grew up there, I was overcome with nostalgia through those paragraphs), for the skillful writing, and for the haunting story of a woman who veers between being irrevocably weak and intensely strong.
Publishers: Penguin Books
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