The child by his side, and a little bit of fear

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By ANUSUA MUKHERJEE
  • Published 6.04.07
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FIREPROOF By Raj Kamal Jha,
Picador,
Rs 495

Arguably, it is as difficult to represent the good as it is to represent evil. Attempts on this regard, except by the very finest of artists, are likely to produce either a work of brittle smartness or one of cloying sentimentality. Perhaps in a conscious attempt to escape a predicament of the latter kind, Raj Kamal Jha unwittingly ends up making Fireproof an instance of the former. In an effort to capture the horror of the Gujarat genocide in the “the unrelenting light of reason”, he ends up producing a fictionalized account that is ridiculous in its pomposity.

Jha’s intention in the novel is a laudable one: to prevent people from comfortably relegating that ghastly episode to history by bringing out the commonplace nature of the evil it embodied — and hence, the possibility of its recurrence. The narrator, Mr Jay — anxiously awaiting the birth of his first child at Holy Angel Hospital in Ahmedabad on the day after the Godhra carnage in February 2002 — seems, at first, to be “one of us”. He is later revealed to be one of those who abused, raped and murdered on those fateful days. But before being exposed as the murderer, inhuman in his frenzy, Jay has proved himself to be only too human in the love for his “severely deformed” baby, which, in a narrative twist, is actually the unborn foetus he had killed, along with its mother. The fact that Jay comes to care for his baby, in spite of it being almost non-human in its deformity, is supposed to demonstrate the spontaneous and redemptive nature of the love, which is the only antidote to the overwhelming evil all around. Love is undoubtedly the opposite of hatred, but when it is posed as the answer to the malevolence that manifested itself in Gujarat, then the solution seems pat and anodyne. And it is doubtful whether the Gujarat carnage can ever be removed from its political context and a fable be made of it.

The way in which Jha chooses to bring out the flowering of Jay’s love for his child, whom he names Ithim, makes for some of the most unbearable parts of the novel. This is ironic, for Jha had perhaps intended to achieve quite the opposite effect through these descriptions. Presumably, the reader is expected to give way to purging tears, on reading the ‘touching’ account of the father, eager to show his one-day-old son around the familiar world, even as it rains dead bodies in the ravaged city. A map is produced, tracing Jay’s route as he carries Ithim to the bus-stop. The normalcy of the everyday world is recorded in tedious details, if only to emphasize its fragility. There are sections entitled “Fruitseller”, “Manhole Man”, “Street Divider” and “Insurance House”, signifying Jay’s encounter with these figures and landmarks in his sojourn with his son. At the end of each section a pious voice informs us that “A father wants to share things with his son”, “A father has dreams for his son” and that Ithim and Jay make up “A father and son, never to be separated”. This might have come straight out of the idyllic world of advertisement commercials for, say, a life insurance policy.

The stylistic quirks in the novel are sheer gimmicks, for they add up to nothing, while repeating themselves endlessly. The phrase “city on fire” recur so many times that it starts sounding like an empty refrain. Jha seems to have a fascination for disappearing letters. The plastic name-tag on the Head Nurse has its ‘u’ rubbed off and a bus has “back to th city” written on it. Are they supposed to be reminders of the desperate appeal of “help me”, with its running letters, made to Jay and so, to all readers of the book?

It is unfortunate that Jha chose to use some of the most hackneyed of devices to drive his message home. The mystery woman, who acts as the mirror in which Jay comes to recognize his culpable self, is predictably named Miss Glass by Jay. There is the figure of the dwarf/fool who acts as Miss Glass’s accomplice and leads Jay on his journey to self-discovery. But it would be expecting too much of the readers if they are supposed to discern profundity in the doggerel verses he keeps mouthing. Jha outdoes himself in his creation of Ithim. Grotesquely malformed, faceless, limbless and charred, but with two perfectly formed eyes, the personification of Jay’s guilt could not have taken a more predictable shape.

There are the pages inserted between the narrative as “footnotes”, from which the dead “whisper”. Although each of these had met a violent death in the hands of the mob, they seem peculiarly forgiving of those who abused, mutilated and murdered them. Scrubbing the moon clean, dancing underwater on the tips of leaves and hoping for the well-being of those left behind, they seem to have become ambassadors of goodwill after their death.

The ultimate shape that Jha’s novel takes is disappointing, for it begins promisingly enough. The “opening statement” made by the dead — juxtaposing the terror gripping Ahmedabad with life continuing unaffected in the greater world (girls in bikinis being barred from a Commonwealth summit in Australia, Ravi Shankar receiving his third Grammy) — is more touching than many of the later attempts at poignancy. Jha might have succeeded in the aim of making his readers realize their complicity in the Godhra massacre if only he had thought a little less of his ingenious skills. The three pictures of, and the facts about, the carnage provided by him speak more powerfully than his painfully contrived tale.