[This is the sequel to the Fireproof post, which you’ll have to read to make sense of the questions]
Given Raj Kamal Jha’s reputation for reticence and not being interview-friendly, I was a bit worried when I went to meet him. But we got off on a good note: when you peruse someone else’s bookshelves and discover the points where your tastes intersect, you have a conversation starter neatly wrapped up. We touched on Philip Roth (he has a whole shelf of Roth titles, mostly those delightful Vintage matte-cover editions), Paul Auster, Spiegelman’s Maus and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials before moving on to cinema: David Lynch, Hayao Miyazaki and Spirited Away, even Unbreakable, which I was delighted to learn is his favourite M Night Shyamalan film, as it is mine. Then we realised that time was running out and the official interview hadn’t even begun.
How did “John Brown and a dog called Chum” come about? Did you already have a book in mind when you wrote it?
No, not at all. In May 2002 I was in Ahmedabad on work and went to Gulbarga [where a mob had burnt 38 residents alive in February that year], almost like a riot tourist. I have this terrible disease of getting distracted – looking at what’s in the margins instead of in the centre of the frame – and there was a child’s partly burnt workbook that reminded me of my childhood, when one would freeze in panic if a textbook went missing. And this seemed to be such a denial of those memories: here was such a book casually tossed on a huge, charred heap, lying there for three months. It kind of burnt itself into my mind.
I came back to Delhi and the piece almost wrote itself. It was a very personal response, certainly not journalistic, but I'm lucky to work for a paper that put it on the Edit page. Then I realised it was like a string I had pulled from a huge fabric hovering over me, and I had to keep pulling at it hoping to puncture a little hole in this fabric. So that I could breathe. It couldn’t be addressed in the conventional journalistic way by getting our reporters to file stories, I had to deal with it personally. That’s how the book happened.
What affected you most about the riots?
Strangely, the hate on display didn’t. Because, of course, you can't legislate tolerance – all of us have our prejudices, you have the right to hate your neighbour. But only inside your head. You can’t deny him his rights, and what was most shocking was how this denial happened. It was as if the law didn’t exist. Senior officers of the State, IAS, IPS, who must have all read their Locke, their Rawls, their philosophy of justice, their CrPC, their Constitution, let politicians ride them. And not one of them has had to pay.
Was that the driving force for Fireproof?
The driving force was the need to write it. And some questions I had about intolerance. Being intolerant isn't about being Left or Right or about religion, or about one's level of education, it's something much more elemental, I think. There are well-educated people, incredibly caring fathers or husbands, who are viscerally intolerant of The Other. Maybe it works the same way as love. Love needs a leap of faith, hate does too. So is intolerance linked in a very fundamental way to who we are as human beings? I still don't have the answer to these questions but these were things I needed to address.
I wonder sometimes about those of us who think of ourselves as liberal and tolerant… are there certain aspects of our lives (unrelated to religion or community) where we are very intolerant too? I think those who have been discriminated against, who have been judged on the basis of one attribute of theirs or because of the group they belong to, and haven’t been damaged enough to be consumed by anger…they tend to be more sensitive about these things. Because you cannot expect someone to be sensitive if he or she is seething inside.
Amartya Sen talks about this in Identity and Violence – the process by which a person is discriminated against by narrowing him down to one identity. Whereas we all really belong to so many different groups.
Yes, that’s what all of us are, like the characters. For example, one guy is a job applicant, he watches TV, he falls in love…and he’s also a bigot.
Where did the idea for the footnotes – the dead people’s narratives - come from?
I wanted to let them whisper their stories, uninterrupted. Imagine if each person killed in Gujarat had the tools that you and I have: a laptop, broadband, a good turn of phrase, access to TV studios – and of course a telegenic face would help. Think of the discourse then. That’s why when I look at this so-called national outpouring over Jessica Lall and the candlelight vigils, I can’t help thinking, where did all that paraffin go when Gujarat was burning? Is it that Mattoo, Lall, though ghastly crimes, are drained of politics and prejudice and that’s why we are more comfortable getting worked up about them? Because they don’t challenge our darker side.
The image of the deformed baby is also very striking.
The birth of a child is the ultimate rebuttal to cynicism; it's almost a physical manifestation of Hope. It's like the child is saying: "I had no choice in this but now that I'm here I’m going to live.” His deformity, of course, makes that statement louder, bolder. The child in the book, though, is many things depending on how you read him: guilt, conscience, guilty conscience and, of course, a baby.
Your fiction tends to be allusive, dreamlike, fragmented, while your day job is as a journalist who deals in hard facts. Is there a conflict there, a double life?
I think we exaggerate the importance and value of style. What's more important to me is the story, the idea. And I could never have written the book if it hadn't been for the hundreds of stories that were coming in from reporters. One of the things I like most about my job is that there’s a story pool lapping away at me all the time. So the two lives coexist quite well.
At a book discussion for your last novel If You are Afraid of Heights, everyone else was going on about how more people should read, but you said that was an unrealistic expectation. Why?
See, the few people who are damaged enough to love reading are essentially those who are comfortable with solitude. Also, reading forces you to have both imagination and empathy – two troubling little things – so you see a bit of yourself in anything you read. And to expect all of us to be like that is ridiculous.
Besides, it’s so unfair – why, if you are not a publisher, would you want huge numbers of people to read? (Laughs) People who feel the need to read will read. It's personal. Even a writer who is very full of himself will never say, "There are 150000 people who need to read me."
So you write more for yourself than for some imaginary reader?
The one reader you really need to care about – at the risk of sounding very selfish – is yourself. You write what you have to write. There's something in your mind and there's something on the screen and there's this huge gap in between. And you know that however hard you work, you're unlikely to narrow it. But you keep trying – I think that’s what forces you to go from your second to third book and so on.
So there will always be people who won’t get from my writing what I get out of it. But there is absolutely nothing I can do about it other than try to work on the writing. I can’t work on myself. And I don't say this in arrogance, it's a simple statement of fact. It sounds selfish, but the writing process is selfish. It’s like a virus – maybe that’s the wrong word but I can’t think of a substitute. Maybe “disease” without the I-V drip!
And the prescription is your book. It is unique, it’s your own shit.
But even the most selfish writers do put their work out in the public domain.
Of course I'm very happy that someone is willing to publish what I've written. And publishing makes a difference – it helps you take leaps in the dark, not worry much about safety nets. But personally, I feel lucky if just 4-5 people like something in my book. Even if a single paragraph works for them, that's very satisfying.
You have passages in your work that are almost stand-alone.
I think paras can work in isolation, pages can work, even individual lines can work in isolation. Fleeting scenes from movies leave a strong impression on me. We were talking about David Lynch just now and in Blue Velvet, more than the famous scene of the severed ear lying on the ground, the moment I remember is the one where after a very violent fight, one of the characters jumps on top of a car and starts singing the Roy Orbison number "In Dreams" about the sandman tiptoeing into his sleep every night. Even now when I hear the song, I can’t delink it from that scene.
There’s a great passage in Pamuk’s Snow where the protagonist cannot understand why the woman he loves values her faith more than his love. It’s just 1 or 2 pages but it’s so plaintive and powerful, and it tells you more about the debate over religion and faith and humanism than 500 books you might read. He doesn’t understand why she doesn’t reciprocate. That exchange, just a couple of pages, you can carry inside you for the rest of your life.
This penchant you have for probing the interior lives of characters – where does that come from?
That’s almost as difficult to answer as “Why do you write?”
These are things even I don’t understand. It’s incredibly personal. Beyond a point, as a character gets fleshed out, he starts to demand certain things and if you have those things to give him, you give them to him. Once you tell yourself that an entire spectrum is available for a character – good, bad, terribly ugly – it’s possible to imagine ugliness for a character without having experienced the same things yourself. You just go where the story pool leads you. And it doesn’t always come up with something beautiful, you might produce something unreadable as well.
What I'd really like to do is write a book where each page blows me away. But that will never happen. The shoemaker’s elves won’t come tip-toeing in at night and fix my paragraphs. There are scenes in my head but I just don't have the words to express them. This might sound like a cop-out, but maybe it’s because this language, English, isn't wired into my double helix.
You didn’t grow up speaking English?
My mother tongue is Maithili. In school it was English but with friends mostly Hindi. My wife is Bengali so we speak most of the time in that language. But like I said, it's probably a cop-out to blame that. Eventually, as the saying goes, a painter learns to adapt to his paintbox: you have a limited number of tools and you work with those. Yes, it’s possible to steal a new paintbrush once in a while and throw it into the box, a new shade of colour, but when you're 40 and your neural synapses are all wired (laughs) – "Jo hona tha, ho gaya".
All you can do now is keep searching for new bits of canvas, the occasional brush to steal.