Sunday, November 30, 2003

Irritable & disjointed, but still readable
Suresh Kohli

If You are Afraid of Heights
by Rajkamal Jha. Picador, India. Pages 294. Rs 395.

There is something peculiar about Rajkamal Jha’s second novel. Unlike the first, The Blue Bedspread, it is readable. Despite the irritable, disjointed narrative, he is able to sustain the reader’s interest. He has learnt to formulate a style of storytelling that is distinctive for its peculiarity. A narrative that drifts awkwardly between magic realism and factual journalistic reportage. But the disjointed narrative is often sought to be consciously, deliberately linked through the juxtaposition of certain images that are even otherwise significant to the text. These images, many of which have seemingly been carried over from The Blue Bedspread, also border, at times, on obsessions. The age of the girl, for instance. Jha seems obsessed with an eleven-twelve year old in a frock, or a dress that is red.

The recurrent images in If You Are Afraid of Heights, though the title only has a symbolic relevance to the text, are doll(s), red dress, a white and blue umbrella, Shimla Post Office, Flash Express, Park Street (that gives away the identity of the otherwise unnamed city), man with a crow, Paradise Park, trams, show windows, brass Buddha, the crying child, overflowing canal, incessant rain, and so on. But unlike in the past these recurrent images have been sought to be threaded together, which isn’t a bad idea altogether considering the narrative has at least three distinct stories.

Jha often behaves like a roadside magician. He starts you on a thing and having got your attention, he puts you on hold, and sets out to tell the background, or the story behind the story before returning to the beginning all over again. Sample this: “Are you ready? he asks again./Yes, I say, and he brings out, from his pocket, a large envelope./Hold on, let me check once, I say./And just to be doubly sure that my parents are asleep, I run into the house, stand near the door to their bedroom. I can see the rise and fall of Mother’s chest, Father lies on his stomach, one hand draped over the side of the bed. Both are asleep, the road is clear./Everything is safe, I tell him, let us begin./And he says, first I have to give you a little bit of the background.”

The novel consists of three main segments vaguely connected in the manner described earlier. It really starts on a promising note, the promise of a flight of fantasy riding a crow and the story of a doomed couple brought together through a freak tram accident. This is the incomplete story of Rima and Amir. Rima ostensibly occupies sufficient space in a mysterious limitless apartment block that seems to have suddenly come up in the open ground in the middle of the city, where she brings Amir to recoup after the accident. Amir, a middle-class letter writer, and a part-time teacher, lives in a tiny suburban flat full of cockroaches. That’s where Rima comes to live to experience life after Amir has fully recovered. A space she abandons as she is unable to cope with the cries of an unseen child.

The crying child is constant to all three narratives. The second segment takes the reader with reporter Mala to a small town to investigate the gruesome rape and murder of an eleven-twelve-year-old girl. The narrative changes and takes on the hue of reportage as Mala meanders through mud, knee-deep rain-washed streets, hoping to unravel the mystery behind the death of the girl. The replay of images, the recurring motifs, and the crying sounds that disturb Mala’s overnight sojourn in town can be traced back to her own somewhat troubled childhood. That marks the end of the second and the beginning of the third narrative.

The third segment is the tale of an eleven-twelve-year-old schoolgirl and her middle-class parents living in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is shocked and scandalised by a series of unconnected suicides. Here Jha returns to his forte: a celebration of the banal, the mundane, a twist in the phrase. He is beginning to excel at this. It was manifest between the lines in The Blue Bedspread. And it is omnipresent in the narrative structure of If You Are Afraid of Heights.

It is not easy for a reader to take this excellence in abstraction page after page. Jha can take a breather through the epilogue: “Look at the picture on the cover, there’s a child, a girl in red dress; there’s a bird, a crow in a blue white sky. And then there are a few things you cannot see.” Or understand. But the reader’s search continues much after the narrative is over. He has to sit down to weigh the gains and losses that probably exist in the invisible space between the lines.