Indian writer Raj Kamal Jha learned of his homeland’s contradictions at an early age. Born 1966 in Bihar, one the country’s poorest and most underdeveloped federal states, Jha spent the first eighteen years of his life in the cultural metropolis of Calcutta and completed his engineering studies at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, before enrolling at the University of Southern California to study journalism. In Kharagpur, he soon realized that he was less keen on studying engineering than his classmates were, and would rather write. At the same time, regarding English, the language his novels are written in, Jha makes one thing clear: “English isn’t wired into my double helix.” His mother tongue is Maithili, everyday colloquial Hindi, and he speaks to his wife in Bengali. But like many other Indian writers of his generation, he thanks literary icons like Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy for instilling the insight that English is more than a school subject. In California, the future writer and journalist wrote for collegiate literary magazines and delved into works by Philip Roth, Paul Auster, and other celebrated American writers. After acquiring his second degree, Jha volunteered at the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post. These positions served as the perfect preparation for the journalistic career he would pursue after returning to India. Initially on the staff of The Statesman in Calcutta, he became in 1996 editor and later Managing Editor of the Indian Express in New Delhi.
A journalist by day and a writer by night, Jha made use of the sleeplessness that plagued him in his childhood to attack his first novel, “The Blue Bedspread”. Its first chapter aroused so much attention among publishers in India and abroad that, prior to publication, he received not only a contract but also the highest advance ever granted an Indian novice. His first novel was translated into more than twelve different languages, including French, Hebrew, Turkish, and Greek – and due to its explosive contents was better received abroad than in India, dominated then like now by a conservative concept of family life in which a father’s authority is considered untouchable. The confessions of an unnamed narrator, written during a single, sweltering night in Calcutta confront dark secrets, violence, and incest but likewise love and self-assertion. After his sister died at delivery, he clutches to the family history for his newborn niece, asleep in the adjoining room, whom he must take to her adoptive parents the next morning. Not least of all, his fragmented memories revolve around the question of how strong familial ties shape an individual’s identity. The force of the breach of a taboo is realized with a prose as economical as nuanced. In Germany, writer and world traveller Ilija Trojanow especially praised the precision of the literary miniatures in the novel, “the minute, finely crafted pieces of jewellery that would bring honour to any Indian jeweller.”
Raj Kamal Jha thinks of himself as working on the borderline between the world of facts dictating his daily life as an editor, and the world of fiction to which he devotes his nights: “In my mind and in my heart, my novels live next door to my newspaper. My fact and fiction are neighbours, informing and imagining each other.” And it is true that his novels are as poetic and imaginative as they are worldly. The Indian reality of life is depicted in its entirety, with its mix of archaic traditions and ultramodern high technology. But also shifted into novelist’s focus is the occasionally explosive mix of ethic groups and religions, political strife, and the conflict between Muslims and Hindus. His third novel, “Fireproof”, focuses on the bloody riots of February and March in 2002 in the federal state of Gujarat. A few months later, Jha was on location in Ahmedabad und Gulbarga, where he nearly felt like a “riot tourist”. While discovering traces of the massacre wherever he looked, he registered, among other details, the burned out houses and remains of a schoolbook that would serve as material for the novel: Learning to communicate. Aside from his narrator Mr. Jay, Jha repeatedly has the dead – those fallen victim to arson – speak as well. During that February night which cost countless people their lives, Mr. Jay anxiously awaits the birth of his first child. A crippled and mutilated son is born, his body ravaged by burns, and whose eyes alone are “perfect […] as if drawn by an artist”. While the mother remains in the hospital and recovers, Mr. Jay and the severely deformed baby, his tenderly coddled child, embark on what is truly an odyssey that leads into the heart of the inferno. At the end of the novel, the baby allegorically symbolizes suppressed guilt, and Mr. Jay – representing all those who let the massacre occur – must face the accusations of the dead. The child’s “perfect eyes” are what make the discomforting truth so recognizable.
Raj Kamal Jha is a courageous writer. As a journalist and as a writer, he follows his sense of justice and gives a voice to the silenced and the oppressed. In his novels, he does this with impressive visual force, and proves just how powerful a work of literature can be.
Text: Patricia Klobusiczky
English Translation: Karl Edward Johnson