[This review was written before I interviewed the author (will post the Q&A soon). Incidentally parts of the book reminded me of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead, which also has a paranoid father left in charge of a misshapen baby, and I was pleased to learn subsequently that Raj Kamal Jha is a big Lynch fan.]
In May 2002 The Indian Express published a piece titled “John Brown and a Dog Called Chum” by the newspaper’s executive editor, Raj Kamal Jha. The column (online link here), which came out of Jha’s visit to Ahmedabad in the aftermath of the riots that had raged across Gujarat earlier that year, is a pastiche of images from those terrible days: charred bodies, a slit uterus, the partially burnt books he discovered in the debris, including a child’s English workbook with a story about a blind man and his dog trapped in a hotel fire. There is indignation on behalf of the marginalised and special empathy for how children (who, properly speaking, shouldn’t even be seen as belonging to a particular community or religion) were affected by the violence.
Powerful though the piece was, it cried out to be freed from the constraints of a pre-defined slot in a daily newspaper; to be expanded into something fuller. Now the culmination, Jha’s third novel, is here, and the four-year wait was worth it.
Fireproof starts with a prologue that gives us a joint statement by riot victims speaking to us from beyond the grave. These anonymous dead will continue their testimonies in little footnotes interspersed through the book: fretting about their families, wondering if the provident fund will be enough for those left behind, the older ones musing stoically that they at least got to live a full life. But the story proper begins in an Ahmedabad hospital on the day after the Godhra murders, with our narrator, “Mr Jay”, discovering that his wife has given birth to a grotesquely deformed baby. The eyes and eyebrows are perfectly formed, but the rest of the child is a mess: “the forehead a narrow strip of flesh, less than a finger wide…a slit, like a knife-cut, where his lips should have been…no arms or legs…”
Jay leaves his convalescing wife in the hospital and takes the baby home for the night, reflecting on this cruel end to their many dreams for their child. But then he receives a call from a mysterious woman who tells him to come to the railway station the next day, so they can “set the baby right”. Jay has seen a glimpse of this woman earlier in the evening, through a hospital window, and he’s intrigued. Reaching the station isn't so easy, however, for the city is on fire.
At one level Fireproof can be read as a fairly straightforward allegory: a baby is born on a day that sees the full human potential for evil explode to the surface, and this ugliness is manifest in the child's physical appearance. The father, worried about this terrifying world his child has come into, sets out to make it whole again.
Simplistic though this sounds, the book does work even at this level, for Jha tells a solid, engrossing story, never allowing the reader’s attention to flag. But by the time we get to the climactic revelation, it becomes clear that he's reaching for something deeper and more complex – about the nature of universal guilt and the strange workings of conscience and redemption.
Jha’s writing tends to draw extreme reactions – there’s often an element of moral outrage in criticism of his work – and one reason is that he examines the interior lives of disturbed people; he reaches places many other writers don’t go, and he can make readers genuinely uncomfortable. (Manjula Padmanabhan is another writer with this gift – see Harvest, or some of the short stories in Kleptomania.) It isn't beyond him, for instance, to try and put himself in the mind of a person who rapes and kills a pregnant woman, cuts her belly open, removes and mutilates the foetus. (At least one such incident did occur during the Gujarat riots.)
There's one entirely fictional passage in Fireproof that I imagine will make some readers firmly shut the book, never to open it again. Near a movie-hall counter, Jay encounters a pleasant young couple who see the baby inside his bag and make fun of it, calling it a monkey. Jay hurries away from them, enters the near-deserted hall and drifts into a dream, where he imagines having the two youngsters at his mercy. I won't go into the details but it’s enough to say that not many other writers would have had the courage to describe this violent fantasy, that too in the first-person.
This sort of thing can of course be simply gratuitous, but here it serves a function. By allowing a narrator who we have so far seen only as a caring, protective parent/husband to imagine things that would send shivers down the spine of a seasoned gore-movie buff, Jha is holding a mirror up to our own darkest feelings. This also fits the lessons we learn from the worst riots – that ordinary human beings, at most times content to live their lives in peace, can turn into monsters when their identity is threatened, or when they fall under the sway of the mob.
We've had realist literature about communal violence, we've had numbing first-person accounts by victims, witnesses and reporters. Now Jha gives us a phantasmagoric tale built around a real-life tragedy, and he does it with imagination and compassion. A startling final act involves a solicitous dwarf, a watery land where the dead go to tell their stories, and first-person accounts by a book, a watch and a towel – and the author’s achievement is that rarely does any of this seem out of place. If anything, it’s poignantly appropriate to this subject matter – for could any fantasy writer dream up scenarios more unfathomable than some of the things that really happened in Gujarat in 2002?
P.S. I didn't much care for Jha's last book If You are Afraid of Heights (I thought it was leaden and too self-conscious), but I revisited a couple of stand-alone chapters recently and found that the writing was easier to take in small instalments. At any rate, I doubt anything in the book was as bad as the tasteless review I wrote; this was in my more impetuous days, I was more concerned with being clever than with actually discussing the book, and the piece was dashed off on a short deadline. If I find the nerve, I'll put it up here sometime, as an example of How Not to Write a Review.
P.P.S. That image up there really IS the book’s cover – it doesn’t have the author’s name or the title on it.