The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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If You Are Afraid Of Heights By Raj Kamal Jha, Picador, £ 15.99

“Look at the picture on the cover, there’s a child, a girl in a red dress; there’s a bird, a crow in a blue white sky. And then there are a few things you cannot see” — this is how Raj Kamal Jha leads the readers into his book. He intends to show his readers what they often “cannot see”, or rather, choose not to see, but things that are there and can be seen only from a height. Jha divides his book into three parts, each part apparently dealing with a different story involving a different set of characters. In the first, titled “Of Heights”, Amir, a man of “medium height, medium age, medium nose, medium eyes, everything medium” meets Rima via a road accident, and they fall in love. She takes over his life completely, but strangely walks out of the relationship, haunted by the cries of a child which she hears whenever Amir is around.

In “You Are Afraid”, Mala, a reporter from the city, comes to a town on the trail of a child-rape and murder story. She is helped by a man called Alam, who appears from nowhere and then disappears into nowhere. Mala is unable to unearth anything significant for her story. However, during her investigation, she is reminded of her own past from time to time; and she finally returns to the city without a solution. “If” is about a little girl who, disturbed by the suicides in her neighbourhood, begins to fear for her parents’ life and her own.

All the three stories can be read in isolation; yet Jha manages to subtly united them. Each is preceded by a prologue where the narrator tells us something about the child in a red dress who appears on the cover and whose shadowy presence runs through the book. This is also the child of “If”, who cries apprehending her parents’ death. Perhaps it is her cry that compels Rima to leave Amir. She could also be Mala’s child, waiting for Mala to return. Or the child whom Amir had seen with her mother on the road. Or the child whose body was found in the canal.

The novel is reflexive in nature. The names of the characters (Rima and Amir; Mala and Alam) are mirror images of each other. So are the characters: one is Hindu, while the other is Muslim. To read the titles of each part is to read the title of the book backwards, and the three stories can be read backwards too. The epilogue thus becomes the prologue. It too says, “Look at the picture on the cover…” The book, therefore, is a mirror image of itself.

What captures the attention of the reader is the fear and insecurity experienced by a child. It is evident that Jha is attempting to show up the ugliness of the “dying city”, where it is not just a particular child who feels afraid and insecure. The trauma could be the trauma of child abuse, a reality that society chooses to ignore. Jha simply takes his readers to a height from which everything is visible, a height that we seldom attain because we are afraid of confronting the reality. Which is perhaps why so many of us are “afraid of heights”. The book provokes serious thought, raises many questions, and it is a must-read, if only because the agony expressed by Jha is shared by all of us.

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