Nightmares do come true

In The City and The Sea, dream and reality are woven so tightly together that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other

  • Published 21.06.19, 7:32 PM
  • Updated 21.06.19, 7:32 PM
  • 2 mins read
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Jha cleverly wades into the debate about the guilt of the juvenile convicted in the December 2012 incident by inserting him as a character Source: flickr.com/photos/syedaliwasif

One way of dealing with a reality so brutal that it does not bear repetition is to imagine it as nightmare. This is exactly what Raj Kamal Jha does in his magic realist retelling of the gruesome December 2012 gang rape in the capital which forced lawmakers to bolster the laws against sexual offenders in India (to no avail as it turns out). This surreal, fictionalized account unfolds in two separate narratives that are deftly merged as the book reaches its climax. On the one hand, in ‘the city’, a son sets off with a strange boy who crawls up his window in search of his mother who has vanished after leaving work one day; on the other hand, by ‘the sea’, a woman tries to fight through the fog of disorientation to make sense of her surroundings.

Dream and reality are woven so tightly together that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. Is the son dreaming when he swims through a gigantic, cluttered drain filled with all “the things we lose” — ranging from dead people to discarded plastic — to reach his mother? Surely, the woman witnessing children riddled with bullet holes from the Sandy Hook Elementary School playing by the seaside cannot be real? Yet, the perennial threat of violence, the stench of city life and the retelling of the brutal incident that forms the crux of the novel are all too real.

Jha cleverly wades into the debate about the guilt of the juvenile convicted in the December 2012 incident by inserting him as a character — the strange boy who promises to lead the son to his missing mother and recounts a rather disturbing childhood on their journey. Is this an act of repentance — is guilt enough for forgiveness — is a disturbed childhood an excuse to perpetuate the cycle of violence? The plot is peppered with such questions that the author raises before swiftly moving on to other issues. The predator outside is not the only one under the scanner either — one of the several ephemeral creatures that drift in and out of the narrative is a woman with a deep red welt in the shape of a rope around her neck who does not want to be found by her father. Also examined are policemen, who, while responding to a missing person’s report, run their fingers over the soft material of her sari in a way that makes the reader’s skin crawl.

This nightmare world is made all the more chilling by the bare, matter-of-fact delivery of both the fantastic and the disturbingly real.

The City and The Sea; By Raj Kamal Jha, Penguin, Rs 499