Book review: Ashes to ashes

(Business Standard, November 2006, Fireproof review)

Raj Kamal Jha
Picador India
Rs 495, 388 pages

“I’m a secular (check the page, has this word burnt a hole?) didn’t-cry-over-Godhra stoneheart. So last week, when I went to Ahmedabad, I wanted to bring home, as souvenirs, a charred body. Or a slit uterus.” These were the opening lines of Raj Kamal Jha’s May 2002 article on Gujarat, carried in the Indian Express under the subtitle: “I Went To Gujarat as a Riot Tourist And All I Got Was This…”

In the summer of 2002, this piece was one of the very few that broke through the indifference, the lies and the hysteria that blanketed the riots in Gujarat where, as Jha records in the postscript to his third novel, Fireproof: “Over a thousand men, women and children were killed, more than 70 per cent of them Muslim.”

Jha’s souvenirs from the trip he made that summer were more fireproof than charred body parts: in that early piece, he recorded the pages of books he’d found in “riot-affected” areas, pages from a child’s English workbook, an IIT Delhi research paper, a Class XII workbook. It may have been possible—heaven knows it was—for people to ignore the news reports, the testimonies told by victims who were trapped in the endless and necessary repetition of their stories to a country that seemed to have gone deaf, the fact-finding reports of various commissions. But reading Raj’s report, in which he tempered his savage anger with clinical detail, it was impossible to remain insulated from what had happened.

Fireproof begins with the birth of a baby, so severely deformed that he seems almost mutilated, to “Mr Jay”, “the husband of Patient Number 110742”. With his wife in hospital, Jay struggles to take care of Ithim—his name for the deformed child—in a city on fire, besieged by its own worst nightmares. Jay’s world becomes increasingly hallucinatory: he sees dead bodies falling from the skies, finds a set of apparently random photographs taken of smashed, ravaged homes and streets, and receives a call from someone who calls herself Miss Glass. She promises to help him with Ithim—but first he must make a strange journey, and play reluctant witnesses to three testimonies that arrive via email, each attachment (Tariq.Doc, Shabnam.Doc, Abba.Doc) carrying tales of vivid lives and brutal deaths.

In Dante’s Inferno, as Dante travels to the innermost circles of hell, he flinches at the thought of the journey he’s on, only to be told by his companion, the ghost of Virgil: “Down must we go, to that dark world and blind.” His only job, before he can climb back up and come forth “to look once more upon the stars”, is to be a witness, and no escape is possible from that duty. Novelists often take on that duty, with mixed results, even for the most accomplished. Books like Githa Hariharan’s In Times of Siege or Shashi Tharoor’s Riot have been only partly successful—they work better as testimonies and as moral compasses than as literature. The weight of virtuous intentions can rapidly become polemical, and bear down ruinously hard on the writer’s own creativity.

Instead of trammeling his imagination, however, the hard facts of Gujarat in 2002 seem to have set Raj Kamal Jha free in Fireproof. He proved in The Blue Bedspread and If You Are Afraid of Heights, his first two novels, that he was in possession of a distinctive voice and a powerful imagination, but these were not always allied to a narrative strong enough to carry his undeniable talents forward. The rage that fuelled Jha’s initial reaction to the Gujarat massacres is transformed here into an insistent need to know, to capture in the best fictional form possible the testimonies of the dead, to explore the ruthless, murderous savagery of perfectly ordinary men. In one section, a young girl who watched the torture and slaughter of her parents learns that she will reach a place where there is no fear: “They won’t come back to kill the dead, you can’t burn what has been charred.” Just a few pages afterwards, Jay cleans his deformed son, touching each misshapen part of the child–the “charred skin” that is the baby’s forehead, the “knife-cut” of his lips with a new and hard-won tenderness instead of revulsion.

Fireproof falters at the exact point where the questions begin to pile up—why does Jay have to read Miss Glass’s carefully compiled testimonies, where is his absent wife, why is his baby so starkly deformed, could one feel sympathy for a slaughterer of innocents, where does our own complicity end? Jha takes refuge in a stylized drama of the absurd, where the objects littered around a ransacked, burned shell begin to speak—a dramatic device, perhaps, but also a distancing one. Some readers may guess what Fireproof is all about; some will be disappointed, because the first two parts of the novel are so vastly superior to the climactic section.

Despite this letdown, Fireproof is an extraordinary work, a feat of the imagination that is also testimony to the importance of the act of witnessing. At one point in the book, a character says: ““There is no burden I carry, whatever the dead might say. Because I am alive, I can choose what to remember, I can choose what to forget.” By entwining the imaginary with the brutally real, Jha refutes this particular belief—memory is all we have, he says, and in the face of something like Gujarat, no one has the right to claim amnesia. The dead must be heard.





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