‘I say, in earnest, that I should probably have been able to discover even in …… a peculiar sort of enjoyment—the enjoyment, of course, of despair; but in despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one’s position.’
Fyodor Dostoevsky in Notes From Underground
SHE WILL BUILD HIM A CITY is a book by Raj Kamal Jha. Published in 2015, the book has lived almost six years of its life but the age of a book hardly defies a review. The book reminds me of a Professor who taught me international economics in Masters in Gorakhpur University during 1978-1980. The Professor introduced me, like his other students, to the concept of box-diagrams. I feel compelled to draw a similarity while reading this book. Metros like Delhi or extended a bit National Capital Region (NCR) are superimposed models of poverty and affluence like box diagrams used in books on international economics. Once a box gets superimposed over another, people inside get sandwiched. Jha’s book is a book about people living inside superimposed boxes where everything is in movement with huge stagnating shadows: ‘He raises his hand, just an inch or so, to check if he can move.’ Jha knows importance of movements in closed circles.
Jha, takes humdrum life of a Man, a Woman and a Child with their pseudo-civilized characteristics and transports readers to a realm where all the three bring forth shockingly delineated art from indecipherable sources making it an intellectually engrossing work of high order. Time, love and abhorrence, past and its resonance, alienation and a sense of dooming extinction are the hovering themes in this book which propels itself on disjointedness: considerable disjointedness in terms of ‘what we see, what we touch and what we hear,’-a phrase culled out from French philosopher, Henri Bergson who Jha fondly remembers and who enables Jha to ‘sprinkle visual dust all around,’ against the otherwise well-spread out ‘the darkest hour.’ ‘Visual dust’, Jha avers, ‘is fed by memory and sensations… and all these combine to become the content of dreams.’ To understand Jha’s ‘SHE’ who will build ‘HIM’, ‘A CITY’, one has to live, a la Bergson, ‘outside of oneself.’
The book is about threadbare account of typical modern day society: life in the slums, lavishness of the affluent, day-to-day miseries of the lowest strata of the society, shrunken homes and frustrations of middle and upper-middle class working men and women, boisterous life styles of children and teenagers of the upper and most affluent in society, pervasive aspirations in the guise of service and efficiency that underlie the actions of bureaucrats (‘Don’t break rules for me, Mr Sharma,’ she smiles.’ ‘No, no, no, Ms Thomas, no braking rules. Every day in your news show you issue a clarion call to this benighted nation against corruption, how can I break the rules for you? Just a little adjustment.’ ‘I like adjustment, Mr Sharma.’ Ms Thomas gets up from the chair.’), all these and more find space in this tale of modern India where, ‘She cannot understand what he says because he speaks a language she has never heard.’ This is the beauty of true India. India, sometimes, survives amidst real misunderstanding or no understanding of lavishly displayed wealth and obscene human degradation and penury.
Apart from themes, what dazes me as a reader is Jha’s language. For Jha language is not merely a bunch of words and sentences which are mechanically strung together. It’s a cultural system alluding to lived life of people. Language implies social power and motive. Jha’s language is closely bound up with his perceptions of marginal and marginalized existence of people in deeply unequal society. For instance, let us see this ‘Fly’ from the AIIMS mortuary that slips into car and sits on dashboard. ‘He cannot avoid the flies just as he cannot avoid the poor……..At traffic lights, they tap and claw at his windows. Leave trails of glass. They even look like the dead, many of their faces half-eaten by disease…..’ A writer of Jha’s stature perceives truths in display as these very truths pass through his mind. Social power of language is an important instrument in Jha’s hands enabling him hand over such a graphic account of what every one of us sees daily, on moment to moment basis, but cannot express.
Another remarkable feature is passageway to Jha’s consciousness secures nebulous access to what he has gathered from his day-to-day observations of verity and verisimilitude people carry with them. Salman Rushdie exorcises his readers through the linguistic complexity he employs to reach the contents of his ruminations. Jha, on the other hand, simplifies facts and fictions in a way his reader adopts these as reflections of his own perceptions. But, in the process, Jha leaves his readers in a quandary: ‘Where does he get his remarkable images from? Well that’s a mystery…….’ Yeah. The book has a plethora of mysteries: great novelists love to toy with mysteries. Jha, like George Santayana, has a deep sense of aloofness, detachment and spectatorial stance.
In the course of his narration, the author resorts to the use of symbols and frames to give life to his thoughts. In between a few frames, seemingly having no semblance or relevance to the natural hop from one frame to another, something has crept in, causing, at times, a feeling of a faltering step or straying off-route. This leaves the reader pondering (see for instance) why the remarks from the scientist from Brisbane ‘life expectancy for people with Down’s syndrome is steadily going up’ are ‘welcomed with thunderous applause.’ One may watch the contradiction between the suffocating pain of Down’s syndrome and increasing life expectancy. Let us move further.
Balloon Girl, Orphan, the street dog ‘Bhow’, the sub-human character living in the darkness of the theatre in the Mall, ‘the 18 inches long, just under 10 inches wide, the size of a small cat’ cockroach in the swimming pool, the 12 feet tall woman figure (who elicits a question to Ma, ‘how do we go about looking for her?’ to which Ma replies, ‘Don’t you worry. I say, we will meet her… Because how can you keep someone so tall hidden for so long?’) who comes to carry you away in your sleep etc. are a few of the symbols Jha has used successfully to bridge the gap between fiction and reality, leaving much to readers’ speculation and imagination. Symbols used multiply and grow tentacles before clasping the world of readers. Jha’s book is about linkages. His novel proceeds on linkages. Sometimes disorderly ones.
Having finished the book more than half way, I hunted for writer one can compare with Jha. What about Edward Albee, the American play wright? I feel Albee is one who comes very close to Jha, in as much as Jha, like Albee, weds realism of modern life obtaining in streets of Delhi and Gurgaon with philosophical orientations of his mind: something Albee has done in his play The Zoo Story. It’s this combination which peeps from linguistic contrivance these two genius writers are so apt at:
‘But that’s the way the cookie crumbles.’ Jerry’s pragmatism is lucid.
Writings of both Albee and Jha can be viewed in terms of their personal relationship with the ideas occurring to them due to human-caused anguish. Writers normally suffer one limitation. It’s their failure, at least to some extent, to understand what peoples’ deepest desires dictate them to act upon which, in turn, leads writers to realize incongruity of circumstances people face. Albee introducing his readers to Jerry’s lousy rooming-house, the death of his parents (Jerry’s parents died when he was young ‘ten and half years old’), his attempt to poison drunken woman’s dog though unsuccessfully, his distasteful neighbours are like Jha introducing his readers to the messy and fragmented stories of Man, Woman and Child: the eternal separation in human anomalies and conditions.
But life for plebeians is not always murky. Off and on, one gets some glimpses of genuinely open caring mentality of middle-class family, where there still exist strong family bonds. Kalyani suffers from TB. She gets into a long conversation about her disease with her acquaintance Mrs Chopra, of course on telephone. Mrs Chopra ends the talk with words of assurance, ‘Call me any time’. These four words act like source of great solace for Kalyani. There are lifelike characters one comes across in everyday life giving space, at times, to some very fine nostalgic memories of a common and lovable ordinary household.
The influence of Bergson on Jha is visible when seen in the context of Bergson’s views on time and reality. Bergson sees reality as continuously changing process which he calls, ‘durée réelle’ i.e pure time. Time is not an imaginary entity. It is a continual palpitation of moments. Bergson feels any perception is full of memories and with the availability of immediate data of our senses, we mix a thousand details out of our past experiences. Thus every perception is already a memory. The way Jha handles many of his perceptions, it puts a reader on varying plateaus affording him an opportunity to look at time from different dimensions that seem not easily accessible to his own perceptual process. The author only conveys some hints and places pointers leaving meaningful suggestions. ‘And he takes a U-turn at the next red light, heads back to AIIMS, he needs to check the mortuary.’ Or, on not finding the body: ‘That’s a good news then, whoever you came to look for is alive,’ laughs Mortuary Man. Then there is ‘some cursing followed by the silence of resignation.’ Jha lets the show reveal and unreel itself in the minds of the reader.
It is believed a good writer is one who does not tip-toe vagaries of time, ideas, memories and words. Rather he creates his own world of ideas, words amid memories and superimposes on that world vagaries of time, ideas, memories and words. Endeavouring to find unhackneyed meanings into the decayed stuffs of life: this novel is all about art of living amidst disquiet and ruins. Stories swarm leading to extension of boundaries of psychological symbols of life, language and motive. I read, ‘Kalyani tells him about the baby inside her. In reply, he replies as if he’s reading from a script, standing on stage, stiff and awkward, his face white under the lights, his body unsure what to do with his hands and feet. As if he’s standing in front of an audience he cannot see.’ Ephemeral life is short but crucial and does not respond directly.
The book is likely to be rated as a masterpiece in its own class and breed. This work has depth and demands readership also with an inner perspective capable of delving deep into the subject with creative and imaginative mind to grasp the whole of the impact the author aims at conveying. While both Albee and Jha concern themselves with unmet desires, wants, callousness, human anomalies and stupidity, Jha has one more dimension: he emphasises on the value of falling man and of magic: it relives the underprivileged from their pain. ‘The capsules work like magic. Ten minutes, the pain is gone.’ Unfortunately no magic relieves life of its pain. Magic mars reality.
In the end the book leaves readers ruminating over how eccentric life is. Every moment we come across, we meet eccentricity of our own or of others. This vital facet of life is writ large on every page of the book posing a question: Is life not a riveting narration of hopes, lost hopes, and endlessly ensuing hopes? Don’t we meet in our life thousands of people, if not millions, incessantly weaving this narrative? Life is like a frame which never gets filled. Do we really have anything to fill life with? Mesmerized by our helplessness, human beings are helpless in true sense of the terms. Life is like, to use, Jha’s word, ‘a pale dot of lifeless light.’ Life as portrayed by Albee and Jha is like Albee’s Jerry’s unfilled two Empty picture frames:
Peter: About those two Empty picture frames….?
Jerry: I don’t see why they need any explanation at all. Is it not clear? I don’t have pictures of anyone to put in them.
SHE WILL BUILD HIM A CITY is, about empty picture frames: it expects readers to place pictures in the frames. With both the borders of minds and borders of memories ever shifting with one single mind and one great memory remaining intact, readers have a choice: to fill the frames or not. Do they have any choice? If they have, will they ever exercise that choice? Only readers would know that. A stunning book by a sensitive writer portraying life, to use Jha’s words as ‘debris from dead spaceships, unnoticed, unfelt.’ or to use, Fyodor Dostoevsky words, as ‘hopelessness of one’s position’. The book tells us: plurality of voices cross and cross multiple times with no assurance of being resolved into unity. SHE WILL BUILD HIM A CITY tries to seek that unity thereby showing future a reality, a path.