She Will Build Him a City: Raj Kamal Jha
Month/Day/Year of release: February 26, 2015
ISBN 10/ASIN (10 digits only): B00QRWVQVC
ISBN 13 (13 digits only): 978 9384052423
Publicity contact email: Anurima Roy: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewer: Divya Dubey
Extent: 344 pp
[Published in The New York Journal of Books: https://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/she-will-build-him-city]
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 the 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.
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Jha’s Delhi is a dark, morbid place – a ‘city of horrors’ where old landmarks such as forts, gardens and lakes have been replaced by metro tracks or stations, ugly construction sites, colossal glass-and-concrete buildings, particularly shopping malls which, once their lights and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 acquires importance as a character later.
As Jha himself says in an interview with Livemint, ‘If thoughts could form coloured 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 centre stage. The storytelling style is experimental – moving from the periphery to the centre – a narrative from multiple shifting perspectives, which can seem daunting at first. Three threads run parallel and come together only towards 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 five hundred 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 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 programme:
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
|Raj Kamal Jha|
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.