It’s good that raj kamal jha’s name sells, because the jacket of his latest book would not. “Help me” it says in seeping soot on dirty blue. It seems to be a cry from the heart of the bookjacket — bereft of the name of the book and the author — to be saved from looking like a horror thriller. Thankfully, it has a spine, which refuses to give in to such experimentation in anonymity and declares boldly: “Fireproof/ Raj Kamal Jha/ Picador India”. Thereby ending this crisis of identity.
And setting the tone of the book. Fireproof plays with form and style, uses anonymity as a dominant motif, teases out layers of identity, skips between assorted narrators and various genres, stringing together a haunting book through fact, fiction, legal agreements, poetry, plays and photos. It marries unimaginable violence with great tenderness, weaves disgust, awe, fear, shame, guilt and love to create a world that hovers between reality and nightmare, a world we live in but refuse to see. We have had glimpses of this dark fantasy world in Jha’s earlier novels: The Blue Bedspread, which was good in parts, and the moving If You Are Afraid Of Heights. But this time, we feel completely at home in that unreal world — we are the nameless characters, the victims and the executioners, the dead and the undead. With Fireproof, Raj Kamal Jha has finally emerged as not just a master storyteller, but as one of the finest authors of today.
Which is a relief, since Jha is also the Executive Editor of this newspaper, and it would have been pretty awkward to trash him on his own territory. And the journalist is inseparable from the author here — the book is a creative take on the sectarian violence in Gujarat in 2002, brimming with facts, figures, emotions and images. More importantly, it is informed by ethics, social responsibility and a sense of justice. But it doesn’t harp on religion or politics, it transcends the inhumanity in Gujarat and becomes a story about the human condition. Fireproof moves us to think, to take responsibility, to act. To feel guilt, to promise to never let it happen again. Maybe it could have had less drama, less magic, less scatological imagery — but it doesn’t matter, because this treads the fine line between literature, journalism and activism, and it moves the reader to pledge a better world, at least for that moment.
The book unfolds in Gujarat the day after Godhra. Jay is handed his premature baby as his wife lies in a coma. The baby is so grotesquely deformed — just a tube with no arms or legs or ears or nose, a slit for a mouth and two perfectly formed eyes — that Jay calls him It/him. Neither man nor object. Ithim is a deaf-mute — a tiny, truncated human that can only watch and cry silently with his perfect eyes. With the city in flames, the hospital is brimming over with massacre victims and Jay has to take the newborn home. Meanwhile, he sees a woman at a burns ward window signalling for help. Thus begins this journey of hope and self-discovery of a new father desperate to set his son right, make him a complete human being, before it is too late.
The book is fascinating as much for the twists and turns it takes as for the levels of interpretation it opens itself to. For me, Ithim symbolises the silent majority who can see, weep, but do nothing. This limbless, voiceless mass is the eternal observer, who can be a victim but never an active agent for change. And we who have been watching the inhuman injustice are complicit in the violence. Our silence is consent, we share the guilt and are the father of this voiceless nation. The plastic paradise Ithim’s mother had created in the nursery becomes irrelevant.
Fireproof plugs into various layers of our consciousness, pulling out other images, other memories. It is a story of violence and alienation, of apathy that prevents us from even recognising vict-
ims. Like in Andre Gide’s Immoralist, we want to move on, forgetting the past so as to live the present moment to the fullest. So when the helpless young Shabnam, who has seen her parents slaughtered, runs through the flames, she promises to grow to ten times her size, pick up not just an AK-47, but an A-Z-47-trillion and seek revenge. While reminiscent of an infuriated Hanuman puffing up to gigantic proportions and setting Lanka on fire to avenge the abduction of Sita, this touching image of a desperate child’s vow to avenge underlines how we breed terrorism. The inhumanity is surreal, the violence meticulous and grotesque like Dali’s or Bunuel’s or Tarantino’s. But the book is not about violence. It’s about the self and the other. The self becomes so much other that it is not that different from inanimate objects, like a book or a towel or a watch, which bear witness to reconstruct this story. We create our torment in true Sartrean sense: “Hell is other people.” ©
—Antara Dev Sen is Editor, ‘The Little Magazine ‘
Raj Kamal Jha is Executive Editor of ‘The Indian Express’