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Raj Kamal Jha

The City And The Sea

The magic realism approach to the Nirbhaya tragedy is courageous even if the writing gets monotonous after a bit....

Published : Saturday, 1 June, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 1866
Reviewed by Anil Menon

The City And The Sea

The City And The Sea

The fish have many legends, and among them is the story of a land-dwelling race of air-breathing monsters that, from time to time, reach in with cruel hooks and visit violence upon them. After the telling, there generally is some innocent who will break the sober silence by squeaking: But why? Why do they hate us so? Why? Because we are fish. Because the monsters wish to be fish. Because they cannot empty the seas of water. Because. Who knows how the fish console themselves?
Raj Kamal Jha's The City And The Sea belongs to the genre of consolation. Works in this genre are often framed as giving voice to victims, or opening our eyes to what we would rather not see. Indeed, in one of Jha's recent interviews, in the context of discussing Herta Müller's work, he suggests that a story can act "as a bandage to dress our wound".
Of course, some events are too vast and consequential to be healed by any one work. The World Wars, the Holocaust, the Partition: each of these blast zones of incomprehensibility and inconsolability has generated its own trauma literature. For India, the Nirbhaya tragedy seems to be well on its way to being another such inerasable memory trace. Though the event was materially confined to one victim and a few perpetrators, it implicated our entire civilisation and its private history of extreme violence. How does a novelist approach so brutal an event?

Two strands
Jha's solution is to use an one iric narrative. Or, less pompously, his novels read like the recounting of a dream. The novel's protagonist, a young nameless boy, let's call him X for convenience, returns from school one day and finds his mother missing. X's father, an unemployed entropic failure, eventually begins to panic. Cops are called, the situation slowly escalates.
The novel alternates between two strands. The City sections deal with the boy's search. In the Sea sections, X's abused mother lies in a coma in a hospital, and her mind constructs a narrative of being on vacation at a Baltic resort. "The Sea" is a lot of
things in this novel. It "collects the things we lose," the stuff we discard, "dead and disused, needless and hopeless." It is all "around us, it's all over and across the city, we are in it, it's immense, it's human, non-human." The Sea has the same philosophy as Microsoft's recycle bin: everything that's erased ends up in The Sea, but nothing is ever truly uncreated.
Things pick up a bit after X gets a visit from one of The Sea's denizens, a boy called December. X's search for his mother, with December as his guide, has all the characteristics of a dream. People appear and disappear, cause is divorced from effect, corridors are as significant as placentas, but there's that peculiar sense that everything makes sense.
Though X is searching for his missing mother, what he discovers is the solution to his own existential puzzle. In one of Zoran Živkovi?'s equally dream-like stories, a character asks: "Did you find someone from my past?" And his guide replies: "No. But we found your past." I am not giving away anything if I reveal that X also finds his past. It's why characters dream in novels.

Uncanny valley
To my mind, there are only two reasons to endure someone else's dreams. Either we're being paid to do so or we accept it's the price we must pay for having friends. Few phrases inspire more resignation than hearing "I had an interesting dream last night." After the first 50 or so pages, a certain monotony starts to set in. Occasionally, the fine writing is marred by inelegant moves such as the procession of dead people who conveniently wear labels so that X can learn who they are, or the revealing of an important backstory via a found diary. It doesn't help that the Sea sections, dealing with the mother's afterlife, have little to do with the City sections. No novel has ever succeeded in making the afterlife interesting, so it's no discredit to the author that this one also fails.
This novel doesn't suffer from a lack of skill or effort or sentiment. The problem is subtler. In the 1970s, the roboticist Masahiro Mori suggested that we are discomfited, often even repulsed, by objects that look all-too-human but clearly aren't. Such objects, Mori argued, fall in the "uncanny valley" of semblance. Perhaps magic realism too has an uncanny valley, wherein tragic characters arouse discomfiture when they're modelled on real-life people but are obviously fictional.
X's mother isn't Nirbhaya, but the tragic import of X's mother is derived from what we feel for Nirbhaya. For me, X's mother resembled Nirbhaya just enough to generate imaginative resistance. It helps to contrast this situation with, say, Toni Morrison's Beloved, dealing with American slavery and its horrors. In Morrison's novel, the eponymous heroine isn't an actual slave whose experience was fictionalised, but instead, she is a fictional being who becomes real to us on her own standing.
In his book The Human Mind, Karl Menninger remarked that "it is hard for a free fish to understand what is happening to a hooked one." Raj Kamal Jha's The City and The Sea is precisely such an attempt. My complaints and cavils aside, it's a sincere and courageous attempt worthy of appreciation.
Courtesy: THE HINDU





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