By Atul K Thakur
She Will Build him A City
Author: Raj Kamal Jha
Raj Kamal Jha’s fourth novel, She Will Build Him A City is about the lives in one of Asia’s most vibrant spaces — India — specifically its capital city and the hybrid expansion of cosmopolitanism in its capital regions. Jha, who has earlier experimented with the subtlety of surrealism in his previous, refreshingly original novels, The Blue Bed Spread, Fireproof and If You Are Afraid of Heights, is known for weaving stories out of stories and further also effortlessly qualifies to be known as a major chronicler hopelessness and hope.
A formidable sipper of both news and views Jha is, by profession, a journalist and chief editor of The Indian Express, one of the most venerable newspapers of South Asia. He respects the stories in his own admittance, every kind of story — good, bad and of course ugly. These actually mirror the socio-psychological volatility of the current times where “persuasion and anxiety” exist incorrigibly. Thus, the author in him finally brings Jha to find characters to live in his novel on his own.
She Will Build Him A City is among those few fictional works that go beyond the methodical to underline a new style of characterisation. Thus, we see such a wonderful use of the adjective in place of or with the noun. A meticulous reader of this novel finds enough solid ground to believe that a “balloon girl” or a “security guard” can exist without the proper recognition of their identity but certainly not without the common distinctive nature of humans, who are infallible most of the time. The anxiety is a persisting driving force for the characters inside the novel, showing the vulnerability of an elite living in the monstrous high rise of Gurgaon.
Although insensitive to bribing the “security guard” for managing the hushed entry of the “balloon girl and her mother” into his apartment in the dead of night from near AIIMS crossing, he still stays sensitive enough to hear the drops of water running out of the air-conditioner from his building. Notwithstanding the high amount of ambiguity of his keeping them in such a doubtful manner, he instead caresses these characters and thinks of all the possibilities of harm these two face in the world. Like the leading beneficiaries of a “rising economy”, the elite man does not forget to drop the “unlikely guests” before the dawn.
The characters appear like lost men living close to shopping malls, the opulence and miseries of survival. Like the shopping malls’ fortune, the characters’ stats are in flux, at least at emotional front. In an attempt to overrides this, the elite man even ends up bribing the guard of AIIMS mortuary; he is there to avoid the apprehension that the balloon girl he has known might be raped, or raped and killed alone or with mother. He finds many disfigured bodies, mostly of women who have died unnatural deaths; such is the realm of physical fantasy. But the balloon girl still survives there and she guides him out of the corpse room to the normal world outside.
She builds him into a city, as she being a child, brings to him the better part of human nature. Although it would be a mistake to confuse what we read in the book with human acts, what we see is brutally adventurous. It must be recognised that Delhi, Asia’s ‘rising star’ has emerged as an “active hub of rape”.
Amazingly lucid in forwarding the ills of humanity and its coming to terms with the kind of development where darkness is an alternative but domineering factor in shaping the emotional state of individuals makes Raj Kamal Jha’s She Will Build Him A City a book to be relevant without a foreseeable time period. His master class is at its best in finding the extraordinary in ordinary lives. An affluent user of fine prose, he is a novelist with extraordinary sensibility, someone who watches the world in silence and sends across his views to the public after taking a painful break of a few years.
The greatest admirers of Raj Kamal Jha may wish to read his writings more frequently, on the pages of a novel or possibly his own regular column in The Indian Express. Even a passive critic may have a similar opinion, as not many can measure the pulse of a city or “cities within a city”, just through letting his characters think frequently and speak but in also judging how a conspirator to murder in the metro and the mother of a newly born baby thinks at the same time, in the same thinking space. Irrespective of these cases, a city unrelentingly keeps building itself on.
She Will Build Him A City is about city life even when Raj Kamal Jha refrains to keep any particular book or writer, in his mindf or long; he does a balancing act of this gem from Charles Dickens’ 1837 classic, Oliver Twist, at the very beginning of the book: “Midnight had come upon the crowded city. The palace, the night-cellar, the jail, the madhouse, the chambers of birth and death, of health and sickness, the rigid face of the corpse and the calm sleep of the child: midnight was upon them all.” Well, the “immortal midnight” deserved it too.
Literary fiction is going to have a rather a stronger base in Indian literature as Raj Kamal Jha ensures with his seminal work, She Will Build Him A City. Including him and Pankaj Mishra, the writers of their generation are effectively channelising a way out to look on India’s abrupt growth expectations and hassles.
(The writer is a New Delhi based journalist and writer. He can be reached at email@example.com)
The Daily Times, May 11, 2015