15 February 2015

Book Review: Nebulous Narratives

She Will Build Him A City
Raj Kamal Jha
Rs. 599
Bloomsbury, 2015.
In the Jan-Feb 2015 issue of Biblio, I reviewed the latest Delhi novel:

Raj Kamal Jha's new novel is not an easy read. The prose is often lyrical, and the images vivid and strange, like dreams. But there are all sorts of factors that make this book difficult to enter into, and perhaps even to think of as a novel. For one, its structure is deliberately elliptical, starting somewhere in the middle and looping back and forth in wayward whorls. Then there's the fact that the central characters are deprived of proper names: we must learn to live with them under the annoyingly precious titles of 'Man', 'Woman' and 'Child'. Each chapter in the book is devoted to the world of one of these characters, with a subtitle – for instance, 'Man: Highway Mynahs', Woman: Lecture Notes', or 'Child: Traffic Signal'. If there is a chapter that doesn't feature any of the three, it comes with the tag 'Meanwhile'. (The 'Meanwhile' chapters are my favourite parts of the book, perhaps because it felt as if the author had freed me from the pressure to connect them up to a central narrative.) Given the number of characters and sub-narratives we're dealing with, of course, it's not quite clear whether there is a central one. And Jha's propensity for surreal flights of fancy – sometimes in the authorial voice, sometimes his characters' – doesn't make comprehension any easier. I would have described the book as a jigsaw puzzle—except that having reached the end, I'm still not certain that I've pieced it together.

Still, I shall attempt to provide what hazy outline I can. 'Woman' is the only character to speak in the first person, addressing not us but her absent daughter (who goes from being a breathless “eight years nine years old” to a taciturn young woman with a secret). 'Child', in true Dickensian style, is a baby left at the doorstep of an orphanage and named Orphan. The book's epigraph is from Oliver Twist, so one assumes this is homage. Orphan does not speak. The updated Dickensian cast of Orphan's carers starts off as the most convincing thing in the book (and they have real names, too). There's the poor trainee nurse Kalyani Das, the publicity-hungry orphanage director Mr. Rajat Sharma, the memorable media-anchor turned potential-adoptive-mother Priscilla Thomas. But I stopped going along when a street dog called Bhow joins the list, speaking like a human being. And later we must meet a ghost-like old lady called Violets Rose (her name is an anagram of 'Love Stories') who lives inside a multiplex, and after she takes charge of Child, it becomes unclear if Child is real, or a composite figment of different people's desires.

Finally, there's 'Man', who is introduced to us in this somewhat theatrical fashion: “He is going to kill and he is going to die. That's all we know for now, let's see what happens in between.” The “all we know” suggests a narrative contract into which the author-narrator wishes to bind us – except since he knows full well what's going to happen, and we (readers) don't, it feels rather precious.

Even so, Man is arguably the book's most arresting, because most shocking, figure. We first meet him on the Delhi Metro, making his way from Rajiv Chowk to Gurgaon, which Jha insists on calling New City. (Again, it's not quite clear what's achieved by mixing the named and unnamed: there is practically nothing about New City that wouldn't be true of Gurgaon. But more on that later.) Within less than a page of meeting him, we have been inserted into Man's disturbing, often inchoate fantasy world: “The station is crowded, he closes his eyes, sees everyone naked and bruised... He feels an erection coming. He opens his eyes, his heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains, John Keats.”

Over the next few pages, Man quotes Gieve Patel at us, reminisces poetically about a barium sulphate examination he underwent as a child, and describes the horrific Diwali murder of a dog, carried out by him and his friends. For the rest of the book, every time Man appears, the sense of menace is palpable. When he takes a street child ('Balloon Girl') and her mother back to his impossibly plush home in 'Apartment Complex, New City', we remain on tenterhooks, waiting for the violence we are sure will follow. But Jha will not fulfil that voyeuristic desire/fear so easily; instead he gives us a succession of sequences where it is never quite clear what is really happening and what is inside someone's head. The book thus steers clear of graphic violence. But it often seems in danger of aestheticizing it.

She Will Build Him A City comes with front-cover (Neel Mukherjee) and back-cover (Jeet Thayil) recommendations that describe it as revelatory about the “New India”. Certainly, the text is spiked with moments that are meant to reveal the yawning abyss between the rich and the poor, like a game played by the four young dog-killers, where they put the price of everything they see in brackets: “Arsh flicks his cellphone (Rs. 41,245), records the explosion, its aftermath.” Or later, describing the situation outside Man's apartment: “There are six security guards huddled at the gate, forced to wear long-sleeved shirts and ties in this heat. Two are from Bihar, the other four from Uttar Pradesh, all leaving behind fathers with cancer, mothers with TB, wives with uterine cysts, children who have dropped out of school, all waiting for Rs. 4,000 to come every month.” And all sorts of underprivileged people get their five minutes of fame, labelled with capitalised names by Jha, as if they were some strange sea creatures that have floated up out of the depths: 'Bandage Baby', 'Mortuary Man', 'Taxi Driver', 'Driver'.

In contrast to these gimmicky, flash-like glimpses into the heads of Others, our access to Man's interiority is total. The main thing we need to know about Man is that he's rich. He is so rich that he orders Chinese takeaway from the Leela. But the great sign of his absolute separation from the masses is his near-pathological inability to deal with the heat and dust and grime they must inhabit. Whole passages are devoted to his desire for freezing air-conditioning, his olfactory sensitivities, his compelling of unwitting future victims to scrub and clean and deodorise themselves. (And yet, we are also expected to believe that he “loves the Metro from the bottom of his heart”, so much so that on some nights, he deliberately abandons his car and takes it, despite the fact that people in it smell “like rotting vegetables, bread and bananas gone bad”.)

For a book so invested in newness, and in the depiction of the new, it is odd that what Jha's 'Man' most reminds me of is a figure of Victorian lineage. It was 19th century London that produced the powerful myth of the really well-to-do man who went out into the city anonymously and committed unspeakable sexual, sadistic crimes against poor women and children. If WT Stead's journalistic expose, 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon', reworked the Minotaur myth to paint London as a modern-day Labyrinth in which thousands of “the daughters of the people” were “served up” nightly “as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich”, the sensationalist speculative coverage of the Jack the Ripper murders a few years later cemented this vision: the purveyor of unnatural lust who preyed on the poor. This anonymous elite villain took fictional form in RL Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Stevenson wrote the book in the summer of 1885, soon after his friend WE Henley had eagerly forwarded him the instalments of the 'Maiden Tribute'.

The subliminal basis of Jha's book (both the Man and Child sections) doesn't seem that different from the one that emerged from that Victorian melange of tabloid melodrama and urban danger: a city in which the rich feed on the poor. And metaphorically accurate though it might be, somehow the execution of the idea left me dissatisfied. Neither the experimental quality of Man's grisly hallucinations nor Child's surreal surroundings could keep the central theme from feeling hackneyed. Similar effects have been achieved with much greater success by others, in the specific context of Delhi, the Hindi writer Uday Prakash's 'Dilli ki Deewar' and 'Mangosil' come to mind.

The Woman sections of the narrative feel fresher, evoking both her long-ago marriage and her relationship with her daughter with all the power of memory. Rendered mostly as incidents and conversations sharply recalled, there is plenty here that captures the irrational sweetness and bitterness of childhood joys and fears. Jha seems genuinely interested in children. Other than Woman's daughter, he gives us short but fascinating portraits of the lives of two very different eleven-year-olds, both old beyond their years: a boy whose extraordinary sensitivity reverses our pervasive fear of a new generation stunted by technology, and a girl whose responsibilities to family and work have forced her to stifle her own childish desires.

Jha's book adds itself to the growing list of volumes 'about' the Indian city, and especially, in recent years, Delhi. But what Jha attempts here with Delhi has been done much better with Bombay in Altaf Tyrewala's No God in Sight (2005): a slim, sparkling little novel that Kiran Nagarkar described as “an unsettling relay race, in which the baton is passed on from one character to another... till you come full circle.” It is clear that Jha's aim, too, was for his million little pieces to make up the shape of the city. But while there are plenty of 'scenes' that work, the whole does not cohere. Many elements, and the connections between them, remain indistinct and fuzzy. What we end up with is not a planet, but a nebula straining to be one.

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