“It may seem exotic, but this is the way we lived,” Newark resident Mahasveta (Gitu) Barua recalls of childhood summers in India, playing in the forest during the day and worrying about leopards at night. And then there’s her “sense of wonder, of wanting to believe what might seem impossible.”
Barua, a University of Delaware adjunct English professor, is fictionalizing such stories from her life to develop “Searching for the Ghost Slave,” a novel set in modern Assam, India.
Here’s how she explains it: “In the middle of an ordinary day in her suburban home, going about her job as an English professor, the protagonist, Senai, receives the news that her great-uncle, the patriarch of the family, has died. The news takes Senai back to a time and place, where the surreal had been a normal part of their lives. When she hears that the shape-shifter who had been her great-uncle’s constant companion had disappeared, just as had been foretold years earlier, Senai decides to solve the mystery. Senai’s journey takes her to some liminal spaces as she moves back and forth from past to present, and rediscovers the space where the real and the imagined come together.”
Thanks to several factors this year (a research trip back to Assam, a semester off to focus on the novel and a $6,000 Delaware State Arts Council fellowship for established professionals), she’s written about 40,000 words, including the final chapter—and already has an agent interested in reading it.
Barua, who is in her 50s, has been writing as long as she can remember. She first wrote poetry, inspired by poems written by her mother and grandfather. When her husband, Raja, moved to Delaware to work on his doctorate at UD, she switched to prose. Writing was sometimes hard. “It’s easier to read great literature and teach it than it was to write. You look at your own work and say it’s bad or it’s derivative,” she says. “So much self-doubt. So much baggage.”
But her works are instead good and speak to a different sense and sensibility. One recent story features a mostly naked man wearing an Eveready D battery as an earring; another involves blaming a tiger cub for a murder; and the novel introduces the tale of shape-shifter in the third paragraph.
“I needed to get these stories down,” she says of her own life experiences, often shared with her two sons while they were growing up in America. She’s also doing research with her sister-in-law, a police superintendent in Assam, to develop a detective series set there featuring Additional Superintendent of Police Ramen Sharma, his wife Anita, and Dipu, his curious sidekick. “Though these are detective stories, they are more stories of place and people,” she says.
The novel follows Senai along the Brahmaputra, with incidents revealing the story of each spot and the history of the state—an appropriate touch for Barua, named for the Hindu goddess of learning.