Hard news collide with the surreal in new novel
Indian writer Raj Kamal Jha has been winning accolades since his debut novel, The Blue Bedspread, won the 2000 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book in the Eurasia region. His second, If You Are Afraid of Heights, was a finalist for the Hutch-Crossword Book Award in 2003, and his third, Fireproof, topped CNN-IBN’s 2006 list of best fiction published in India. As chief editor of The Indian Express, where he has worked since 1996, his powerful, often dreamlike fiction is deeply informed by the newsroom, none more so than his new novel, She Will Build Him a City. He talks to Bron Sibree.
In She Will Build Him a City, you entwine the stories of several characters that live in New Delhi and, in so doing, have given the city, and India itself, a voice. How did that come about?
Working at a newspaper gives you a wonderful vantage point from where you see all kinds of stories bouncing and colliding with each other, and I have always noticed the stories that do not make it into the newspapers. But during the past five to seven years, just seeing what was happening to the city around us, I thought there was a story about the different worlds that live next door to each other and of how people slip in and out of these worlds. And it was a story I could not tell through journalism. But it took a while to form in my head … about eight years.
There is also a strong element of the surreal running through this novel and, indeed, all your fiction.
The surreal to me has always been a wonderful tool to tell a story. And I think I love that tool which I can never use in the newsroom. So a dog that flies or a girl who can fly are important to me because in my world they need to happen. And I think there are many of us who need that world just to cope with the one we live in.
The novel is ultimately hopeful, but there’s no mistaking the profound sadness that also seeps into its pages. This is perhaps the saddest of my books so far. This once again is deeply informed by my role in the newspaper. At one level there is a tremendous buzz about the socalled “India story”, that we have this huge number of young people – in fact half a billion people under the age of 25, which is more than Europe and the US put together. So many young people means so much hope and so much aspiration. But very few people talk about what happens to aspirations if you do not have the means or the tools to meet them or to even start the journey towards making it. And the thing that comes out is despair and rage and anger, but underlying all this is sadness. And that sadness seeped into the writing and into the book.
Another potent emotion colouring this novel is guilt, in its various forms.
If you live in a world where 10 different worlds live next door to each other and where it’s not intellectual, but physical – where you have to step out of your house and onto the pavement where people are sleeping and then step into the railway train where you find people who have no shoes – if this is your daily reality, you do a couple of things. One, you build a bubble in your head or at home where you insulate yourself from this. But that has its limitations. Now if you are a journalist, if you are an economist, there are wonderful explanations for all this, but just at the deep elemental human level it is brutal and the only response – if you are being honest with yourself – is overwhelming guilt. There is one place in [She Will Build Him a City] where guilt is destructive and I needed to show that guilt is not always a healthy impulse. But if there was no guilt I doubt that we would have a conscience. So all the characters in the book have that inner voice telling them to look beyond themselves. And I think that is what keeps us sane, that is what keeps us safe and, in a way, I think that is the bedrock of hope.
Given your previous novel, Fireproof, was inspired by the Gujarat riots of 2002 – which you covered as a journalist and that still cast a shadow over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – how do you feel about his utterances of hope?
Those riots loom large over Modi and always will. But even his staunchest critics will admit that he has been remarkably successful in articulating hope. Now, it sounds wonderful, and has resonated with a lot of people, and that was reflected in the overwhelming mandate he got. One of the reasons was that this time, more than in any other election, there were more young people registered in every constituency, in every seat, and that played a very important role in his victory. Whether he delivers on that we will have to see.
You once said that you the novelist and you the journalist were joined at the hip.
Yes. I’m so lucky to be living for 12 to 14 hours each day with stories colliding with each other in the newsroom – the conflict, the fault lines, the rapid change in the country – and being in touch with 200 reporters each working on his or her stories. And it is against that background that my fiction is born. There are some stories that need the rigour of journalism and there are some that need the freedom of fiction. Both are tools of storytelling and I love it that I get to use both and, all else willing, I would love to continue like this to the last day.