Title: The City and the Sea
Author: Raj Kamal Jha
Publisher: Penguin Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 267 pages
Price: Rs 499
“What can’t be said can be written, because writing is a silent act…”, so said a minor character in Raj Kamal Jha’s fifth and latest novel, The City and The Sea. In fact, she said that not in the novel, but at a banquet to honour her, for having won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2009. Herta Müller, the German novelist, makes a Hitchcock-like cameo appearance in the novel as a hotel receptionist, does nothing remarkable other than handing over a map of the German town by the sea to the new boarders who have come to vacation. Müller grew up in Romania, under the evil gaze of Nicolae Ceausescu’s secret police, and, later, her life was under threat of certain death, when she refused to collaborate with the government.
The words from Müller’s Nobel acceptance speech, in a way, sums up Jha’s novel. It is about writing things that can’t be said. Rape is one such thing that is pushed under an iron shroud of silence. The R-word is unsaid in the novel. Our collective memory is triggered when Jha begins his novel, “My name I cannot tell.” Without names, we are helpless to comprehend the world. Sitting in a newsroom, a corny subeditor gave in to temptation and called her Nirbhaya. The 2012 Delhi rape case is the kernel of this novel. Actually not; not the kernel, but more of an irritant. The kind that makes its way into the oyster — the proverbial grain of sand. In defence, the organism uses a fluid to coat the intruding agent and finally, a pearl is born.
The creative process seems to be similar here. Jha covers the collective wound of a nation with layers upon layers of complex story-telling. It is about what can’t be said. The unspeakable. And when what can’t be said is written, you don’t speak about it, instead you cover it with… mostly with deceptive contradictions and inversions. The first of them is the protagonist, whom the reader would vaguely identify with Nirbhaya, is inverted to an implausible mother, vacationing on the Baltic coast of Germany. She has come out of a coma in a hospital and it is in her dream about the future that she is transported to a German city by the sea. While she abandons the city for the sea, in the city a boy is searching for his lost mother. One of the perpetrators of the crime, the juvenile, is also seen journeying through the labyrinthine city.
The city and the sea. One is landlocked, dense with people, a concrete jungle, as the adage goes. The unnamed Baltic city has a beach, which would be mostly empty, as Müller, the friendly receptionist, gratuitously informs the woman. She is probably in search of an escape from her reality. This is the stuff that dreams are made of, in classical Sigmund Freud mode: unconscious forces that construct a wish expressed by dreams, and the censorship within distorting the wish. The boy’s travels through the city, too, assume a dream-like quality. Characters at odds with reality. They conjure up images of long voyages for themselves, to unknown meridians. Through these peregrinations of the mind, Jha is, perhaps, trying to tell the reader that reality is horrible. So horrible that he seldom mentions it.
Jha’s book alternates between the city and the beach. Disjointed images are arrayed. the writer is relying on the gestalt, rather than vanilla storytelling. It is cinematic. “Freeze the frame.” says the writer at one place; his voice is stentorian, more like an auteur’s. In alchemising reality, the author sometimes resorts to magic realism: more Anthony Burgess than Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Colours are neon. The woman is feeling that the hotel building is crumpling down: “The carpet, its skin, twists and tears in a line of lightning that darts down its entire length.”
In the end, does the novel work? Metronomic iteration of chapters between the city and the sea feels inorganic in places, a cross that the author seems to have prefabricated to bear. The persistence of dreams sometimes evokes Dali, and like the painter’s images, sometimes they sag.
But when writing about a deep scar in the mind, a pestering irritant, the author seems to have chosen the impact over the event; impact not upon the collective psyche, but on discrete individuals’ fragile minds. All through the book, he has succeeded in conveying that he is writing about the unsaid: A novel about silences. As the woman feels, “She has never heard silence like this. So big and so deep that she hears sounds from within her.” Reality knocks at her door through sounds without — street sounds, the purr of the radiator inside the bathroom, they are so many. The city, the sea, the boy, the mother, the crowd, the loneliness, the sounds within and without — Jha takes us through a fascinating journey of binaries. In the end, the novel wins.
NS Madhavan is an acclaimed Malayalam author; Raj Kamal Jha is Chief Editor, The Indian Express