She Will Build Him a City

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Release Date: 
February 27, 2015
Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by: 

“amazing . . . original and experimental . . .”

Raj Kamal Jha, chief editor of The Indian Express, is the author of three outstanding novels. In 2000 The Blue Bedspread, his debut work, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the best first book (Eurasia) and was also a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. In 2003, If You are Afraid of Heights was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword Book Award. In 2006, Fireproof topped CNN-IBN’s list of the best books published in India.

 She Will Build Him a City, Jha’s latest contribution to Indian Writing in English, published recently, was completed at Staatsbibliothek, the state library in Berlin— his own Tower of Bollingen for a year during his sabbatical from work.

Though the setting is Delhi, the celebrated historical city as described in most of the well-known Delhi novels is absent. It does not have the old-world charm of Shahid Siddiqui’s Shahjahanabad (or Old Delhi) for instance (The Golden Pigeon, 2014). Nor does it focus on any major political or historical events that might form the backdrop of the action as in case of Aatish Taseer’s newest title, The Way Things Were (2014), despite the authors’ deep interest in Sanskrit—the common denominator linking them closely.

Jha does not, for that matter, share Pavati Sharma’s concern with the trials and tribulations of today’s middle-class Delhiites either as demonstrated in her latest release, Close to Home.     

Raj Kamal Jha’s Delhi is a dark, morbid place—a “city of horrors” where old landmarks such as forts, gardens, and lakes have been replaced by metro tracks or stations, ugly construction sites, and colossal glass-and-concrete buildings, particularly shopping malls which, once their lights and air-conditioners are turned off in the night, miraculously become home to an altogether different stratum of the society.

This darkness also pervades the characters’ psyche. It can drive an ordinary man to despair and madness, to hallucinations of having committed rape and murder, blurring the lines between dream and reality; to revelations of guilty secrets by a mother to her estranged daughter as an attempt to justify her decisions after her husband’s death.

In yet another unknown corner of the city, a healthy orphan boy is left at the doorsteps of Little House—an orphanage—by his mother: a Dickensian character in a Dickensian setting, though Jha’s world view is anything but Dickensian. The incident is witnessed solely by a stray bitch sitting on a garbage dump nearby, who later acquires importance as a character.

As Jha himself says in an interview with Livemint, “If thoughts could form colored bubbles over the head, dark for bad, bright for good, and if I am looking down at the city from the sky above, I am drawn to the big, black smudges.” His Delhi, therefore, is a city where these “black smudges” take center stage. The storytelling style is experimental, moving from the periphery to the center, a narrative from multiple shifting perspectives, which can seem daunting at first. Three threads run parallel and come together only toward the end of the book.   

Known for his cinematic technique, Jha does not disappoint his readers. Graphic descriptions are interlaced with elements of fantasy to make subtle suggestions and comments: the stray bitch on whose back Orphan makes his way out of Little House and who becomes his self-professed custodian; the babies in the night who, like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, send a thought-message to other babies and tiptoe out of their homes to march towards The Mall; the Kafkaesque CR or “cock roach”—son of one of the 500 farmers who are forced to sell their land to developers for the construction of the “Apartment Complex,” and the Balloon Girl (echo of the French movie The Ballon Rouge) who floats in and out of the rich man’s apartment block, guiding and protecting him are some paradigmatic instances.     

Satire is oblique, occasionally direct, but always sharp and unsparing. Class divides and urban hypocrisies are exposed through different characters. Priscilla Thomas is a brilliant example. A prominent TV journalist, she announces her desire to adopt a child—a son—on national television. As a consequence she lands up at Little House, bypasses Orphan whom Mr. Sharma, the man in charge, has reserved for her, and instead chooses Sunil, a child with Down’s syndrome expected to live for a year or two at the most.  Later in a two-hour special program:

The State Chief Minister and the Union Minister for Child Welfare are the chief guests. A panel of experts discusses Down’s Syndrome, the public apathy to disability, the need for a new law, they all agree that The Amazing Adoption of Sunil Thomas—as the show is now titled—will do wonders in raising public awareness and sensitivity . . .

As for Mr. Sharma, he gets as many as 420 seconds on TV . . . in which he is told by Ms. Thomas’s assistants to talk about how and why Ms. Thomas’s move is a ‘landmark decision’ in the history of child welfare in India.    

By his own admission Jha is affected most by “the fault lines where worlds intersect—man, wife; husband, son; day, night; city, village; silence, noise; fear, hope—what lies in the spaces between these lines.” His life as a journalist has provided him with a great deal of raw material for his works that explore uncomfortable subjects from domestic violence to prejudices, class divides, and even incest.

This novel too was shaped by such experiences. He says, “I was returning home in a cab. There was no one in the India Gate circle, save for a roadside vendor. He had only a single red balloon left on his cart, the balloon that does wonderful things in the book.”

It is interesting that this amazing piece of work should have appeared hot on the heels of Sandip Roy’s Don’t Let Him Know, another original and experimental work from the same publisher’s stables. At a time when some people feel IWE has reached its saturation point and nothing new remains to be done, works such as these make a contrary statement and are very welcome.