In 'Magic Spell' Barua takes the reader through one day in the life of young Jiu Das. The child is unsettled by her parents' bickering at breakfast. When she returns home after school Jiu looks for the seeds that they say make wishes come true. It's an innocent act that goes horribly wrong.
In 'The Patriot,' one of the longer stories in Next Door, a retired government employee is filled with regrets and what-ifs. When he encounters a wounded militant in the house next door, his own rundown old house, he sees a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his wife and his Deputy Commissioner son.
'A Fire in Winter' is one of the few stories not set in Assam but its beauty and pull are evident as an immigrant, Jeet, recalls the event that brings him back home from the UK to visit his mother. The story moves back and forth through time, from his childhood to the days after Jeet learns of Buri's death, a woman who was like a mother to him. Much of the story is set in a wintry Glasgow where Jeet goes to visit his sister before leaving for Assam. Buri's death brings out old jealousies and reaffirms family bonds. It sounds all warm and fuzzy, but as in the other stories, Barua doesn't let the reader off the hook so easily. Nannies can have a dark side, you see.
'Holiday Homework,' my favorite in this collection, starts with the simple sentence, "There is a boy next door." An old man of "ill temper" who lives alone is brought back to life as the three form a friendship, the little boy, his mother, and the old man. With his own children gone and his wife dead, he feels blessed to have found this new family and is honored when the mother asks him to help her son with some special homework.
In contrast, the shortest story in the collection, only three pages, 'Next Door' was disturbing. Even though it's the last story in the book I read it first and needed to put it down for a bit before continuing. If I had ever been curious about the people next door, I was cured, unlike the narrator of this story,
That wall draws you and your brother like honeybees to nectar. What lies beyond is unspeakably alluring, and made even more so by your mother's constant warnings to stay away from it.
Barua effortlessly puts the reader into each of the character's lives, and, on occasion maybe even in his or her head. My only complaint about this collection is the focus on the extreme, the dark side of life. Surely death, murder, or attempted rape aren't necessary for, say, family members to change how they relate to one another? By the time one reaches the stories at the end of book, such as 'Awakening' it's a given that a grieving mother's simple request to her late son's friend, "Tell me how it happened" won't yield a simple answer. While effective, the use of a surprise element in each story does get a little stale. That's not to say the 'surprise' itself in each case is, though. Of course, that the stories may have such a strong impact on readers demonstrates Barua's skill as a writer.
Book Description: In 11 stories, Jahnavi Barua takes us into the private, individual worlds of a varied cast of characters and exposes the intricate mesh of emotions so often concealed under the fašade of everyday lives. Innocent desires and furtive longings, the complexity of fierce love and the terrible consequences of its betrayal, simple aspirations that compel brave action, life's startling reversals that reveal deep insecurities and yet pave the way for forgiveness and reconciliation -- these are just some of the themes played out in these remarkably nuanced snapshots of life. Predominantly set in the verdant, politically charged landscape of Assam, yet constantly transcending the particular, the stories in Next Door are unerringly human.
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