Solitary worlds

IT is the mid-1980s, a time when IIT is still one of the twin Meccas for bright Indian students, the other being the hallowed halls of government. A student at Kharagpur watches his friends fill out forms, avalanches of forms in a hundred manila envelopes marked with that blue-and-white Par Avion. He adds his own mite, applying to a school of journalism in the United States for no better reason than that all it asks from him is a four-year degree in any subject. He likes the open-endedness of this, after the straitjacketing rigours of mechanical engineering.

He has never been out of India before. He was born in Bhagalpur, before that town became synonymous with a set of casually conducted, chillingly conceived blindings. He grew up in Kolkata, in Manicktala, lived in the same house for 18 years. The family's first TV set arrived as he was leaving for IIT, Kharagpur. Instead of soap opera plots, he knows the winding lanes, the crowded lanes around his house by heart, spends hours on his balcony watching the city swirl around him.

In the land of the free, he learns that D-minuses are what you get until you've proved your worth. He learns that professors can be equals. He interns at the Washington Post, where they ask him to write an account of a baseball game; he knows nothing about baseball, he says. That's why they want him to write the piece, they say, and perhaps that's when a small fragment of a writer's imagination is fired, perhaps that's when he grasps the possibilities that open up when you take a leap into the unknown.

He works for a local newspaper in the Salinas valley. He's paying his dues as a reporter, no more, but this is also John Steinbeck country, and he roams the land on his days off with his eyes open, looking to see what Steinbeck saw.

He comes back to India when The Statesman sends him a feeler, and already something has shaken loose in his head, stories, images, rattling around. It's 1992-1993. He knows that he is a newspaperman; he suspects that he may be a writer. Rushdie has won the Booker, Arundhati Roy is close behind, it's boom time for young Indian writers, but he has a different set of heroes. Don DeLillo. Philip Roth, who will give him a partial credo. Getting people right, Roth says, is not what living is all about, it's getting them wrong that's living, getting them wrong once, twice, thrice, then getting them wrong again. That's how we know we are alive, he says, when we know we're wrong.

For Raj Kamal Jha, the images demanding that he pay attention to them will plunge him into a secretive, solitary world that he will end up sharing with a growing community of readers. "Especially today, when multimedia and email are part of our lives, reading a book in black and white print needs a certain degree of imagination. There is no practical reason to read in 2003. It can't save you from death, it doesn't change lives, except perhaps your mental life, it has no social relevance. When you come to a book, you're doing something that not many people will do. Not many people read; not many people need to read; it's not a shared form of entertainment, it's personal, it demands solitude."

Solitary worlds

The Blue Bedspread comes out in 1999; it wins awards, draws praise, though not undiluted. Many reviewers aren't sure what to make of the book's connected but disparate narratives, some are shocked, though for no very clear reason, given the statistics on rape and child abuse in India, by his dwelling on the themes of incest, child abuse, violence. But the fragmented images that have been floating around in his brain for seven-odd years have come together sufficiently to establish this: Raj Kamal Jha is one of the most unusual talents to come out of the often over-hyped, greenhouse world of Indian writing in English. With many debut novelists, you wonder whether they will ever write a second book — the question with Raj isn't "whether" but when, and what. "Writing is very tough, it's like a virus, you get afflicted, you have to keep feeding it, it fattens itself," he says. He is one of the infected.

There is a question no serious journalist should ever ask a writer, because it is such an amateur's question. You can see the suppressed irritation that crosses an author's face when a na�ve interlocutor asks: "So, where do you get your ideas from?"

And yet. In The Blue Bedspread, there is snow, in Kolkata. (Snow! In Kolkata!) In Raj's resonant, bitterly angry piece on visiting the Gulbarga society after the Gujarat massacres in February 2002, the voices of the victims are replaced by the tattered pages of burnt, torn, scattered books. In If You Are Afraid of Heights, there is the man who offers curious bystanders a chance to see their city from the back of a crow, to soar into the air clutching onto suddenly gigantic feathers and peer down at the little dots on the roadside. It makes you wonder, what are the rooms inside Raj Kamal Jha's head like? What do they contain? Could a reader find a corner in there that she might want to inhabit forever?

"And then there are the dreams," Julio Cortazar said of his stories. "...Sometimes the whole story is in a dream.... My subconscious is in the process of working through a story — when I am dreaming, it's being written inside there." Eventually, myths grow around every writer, to be repeated as the ultimate truth. It is said that Raj's books are spawned by insomnia, that the glittering fever dreams which mark his writing at its best are drawn straight from the nightmare spaces in between waking and sleep. "There are a few portions in If You Are Afraid of Heights that are lifted directly from my dreams," he admits.

But this is not entirely true, because it cancels out the hours of patient, lonely, hard work that every decent writer must go through before he produces even the first paragraph on the first page.

"I want my books to do all the talking, even if in whispers. I don't think I am symbolic of anything at all. The only thing I want people to see of me are my books. The books are my public space, I would like my readers to walk into the page." In the quiet, subterranean space of his study, Raj Kamal Jha comes across as a shy, almost painfully private man, but a man blessed with a generous mind, willing to share that part of himself which is in the public domain courtesy his two novels. He uses the word "liberating" almost unconsciously, when he's talking about the act of writing itself: I count six repetitions.

And If You Are Afraid of Heights is a liberating read, if you have the patience to unravel the book's nested plots. In the aftermath of a tram accident in Kolkata, two unlikely people find their lives briefly joined, in a building called Paradise Park which rises above the city and escapes from it into an unreal, plastic world of considerable beauty. The first section is haunted by the sound of a child crying somewhere in the distance; the second section ends with that sound, amplified, unsettling. The third section takes us into a journalist's investigation of the discovery of the body of a child, raped, killed and abandoned in a canal. Behind the story of the abuse of a child is an exploration of other kinds of violence.

"It is very easy to tackle physical violence — the bruises are visible, the laws are in place, the next door neighbours can hear. What is more fascinating to me is the violence you can get away with — psychological violence. No court will convict someone who says `there are no bruises, but he made me feel as if I was broken into a thousand pieces'."

Flying back and forth between the two narratives is the figure of a crow; now trapped under the plastic cover shrouding an emerging building, now a vehicle from fantasyland, offering escape, now a mutilated victim, its beak chopped in half, surviving on the kindness of strangers. Some devices work jerkily, as when Jha introduces characters who "mirror" each other — Rima and Amir, Alam and Mala. But some images will walk out of the dreams that inhabit Jha's head straight into your own nightmares, like the sound of that distant crying.

"You have 35 years to write the first book. Then two years for the second." And there's the day job, the one as a very senior news editor with the Indian Express. Raj smiles awkwardly, runs a hand through the curly mass of hair that serve as camouflage for his face. The job's very important to him, he confesses, it forces him to be organised, to get up in the morning. He especially appreciates the luxury of being able to disconnect: "You get the paper out, and when you come home at night, it's gone. From 2 am to 7 am or 8 am, anything can happen. World War Three could break out, but you can't do anything."

It's, yes, liberating. There is an escape route. Not, however, from the stories, the ones knocking around in his head, demanding attention, the one that's asking to be written now that his second book is out in cold print. And for that, though it may cost him many more insomniac nights, those of us who read Raj Kamal Jha in order to be plunged into a familiar but hallucinatory world are deeply grateful.

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