12 Million Strangers

12 Million Strangers

Source: The New York Times, April 9, 2000


This debut novel takes place in Calcutta, a city that is at once lonely and teeming with life.

By Raj Kamal Jha.
209 pp. New York:
Random House. $21.95.


If strength is in numbers, then cities are a dismal exception. Nothing is as deflating, nothing as alienating, as the cramped austerity of the modern metropolis. Albert Camus called cities ”the only desert within our means”; never before have so many people in such proximity lived in such isolation.

The unnamed narrator of Raj Kamal Jha’s first novel, ”The Blue Bedspread,” is like a desert explorer lost in the Sahara without water or compass. He lives a barren existence, thirsting for companionship and, astray in Calcutta, a ”city of 12 million names,” is shorn of bearings. His northern star — his beloved sister, who ran away from home as a child — is eclipsed: a police inspector calls from the hospital to say that she has died in childbirth. The narrator takes custody of the baby, and during the course of the heated night that makes up the novel, while the baby sleeps on a blue bedspread, he writes the stories of his family, hoping to give the baby a past and his own life some coherence.

These are stories only in name — like the novel itself, many of them have little narrative unity or direction. But what they lack in structure, they more than make up for in mood. Each episode is like a dream, a gently contoured moment from childhood or urban life obscured in the vapor of the aging narrator’s imperfect memory. The narrative is hesitant, shy: it is full of self-conscious references to its own authorship; its vocabulary is one of ”maybe,” ”perhaps,” of the ”truth” that ”lies somewhere in between.”

In part, this obfuscation is deliberate — the narrator is struggling not only against a failing memory but against an aversion to memory, an unwillingness to revisit his painful past. Like his narrator, Jha, an editor at The Indian Express in New Delhi, wrote ”The Blue Bedspread” by night, and the product is a sepulchral tale of wife beating, murder, child abuse and incest. But the obfuscation is not only about a refusal to remember; it is also about the impossibility of naming — of penetrating the complexity of a Conradian soul in which depravity is entangled with goodness, revulsion with longing, despair with anticipation. If ”The Blue Bedspread” is a novel of the night, then this is not the disciplined night of the Indian countryside, in which the stars stare fixedly from their appointed spots, white never seeping into black. This is the ambiguous night of the city, the streets and sidewalks a marbling of gloomy yellow lighting and gray shadows.

Companionship, in this novel, is stained with the indelible knowledge of aloneness. Two women who find friendship share an inner darkness that ”merges with the darkness of the city.” Happiness is tinged with that peculiar human attachment to misery. The narrator is reluctant to give up his solitude, fearing that the city (which ”likes lonely people”) will spurn him for ”another lonely man or woman in some other neighborhood.” A father who sexually molests his children in one chapter buys them an ice cream in the next; later, after another gift, the children ”thank Father from the bottom of whatever is left in our hearts,” the exhausted hearts a poignant intimation of the grief that stalks even our happiest moments.

All this dreaming and subtlety could easily have collapsed into mellifluous fluff if Jha’s prose itself were not so muscular. He has been compared to Raymond Carver, but that is only partly correct. His individual clauses, packed with tactile detail, have something of Carver’s abrupt grittiness; but there is an elegiac quality to his sentences, which flow like a river from clause to clause, their meandering construction a reminder of the structure of the novel itself. This combination — of grit and elegy — is new in modern Indian writing. Jha combines the energy of a Salman Rushdie with the precise lyricism of an Amit Chaudhuri. He avoids the unruliness of the former and never strays into the phlegmatic — if beautiful — pensiveness of the latter.

”The Blue Bedspread” is suffused with this originality. Priests are not sanctimonious guardians of tradition but mercenaries who extort bribes at funerals; the funerals themselves are perfunctory, possessing none of the habitual ceremony and maudlin ritual so common in literature about India. Likewise, the urban world Jha concocts is neither a chutnified metropolis of satellite television and cosmopolitan middle classes nor a third world jungle of street kids and slum dwellers. Jha’s metropolis is the universal metropolis: lonely, jarring, crawling with life, yet shadowed by an existential aridity. This could be Hong Kong, New York or London. Jha’s cityscapes reminded me of the 21st-century Los Angeles in ”Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic, in which a grim urban setting is a backdrop for the hollowness in men’s souls.

The novel does have its flaws. Some of the stories barely hold together, the originality can seem overwrought and Jha’s prose occasionally degenerates into florid sentimentality. But it is a powerful novel, and I found myself haunted by it, returning again and again to individual moments. There is something wonderfully ineffable about the episodes that make up this book — like lonely New Year’s nights that I have spent in New York, they are swarming with event and a sense of momentous occasion yet enveloped in a crowded haze of color and music and celebration. They are moments without handles, moments whose passing leaves no mark save a moody nostalgia; they are, in Jha’s masterly formulation, like a ”memory, a fragment, more sound than image.”

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