Wednesday, August 06, 2008

If You Are Afraid of Heights...

I picked a book, saw the cover and hoped that I would get something special to read. After having read this haunting novel, 'If You Are Afraid of Heights', I feel that this is a book that defies categorization. It expresses tales that are neither too concrete to be real, nor too fanciful to be surreal. The plots float somewhere between fantasy and reality.

Sounds a bit confusing, but that's the hallmark of Raj Kamal Jha, a Mechanical engineer from IIT Kharagpur, who didn’t dabble with the complex equations of thermodynamics and theory of machines after his graduation. Instead he applied for a program in the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Southern California where he received his M.A. in 1990. Since then his literary journey has crossed many stations.

'If You Are Afraid of Heights' is a book of layered visual panoramas, non-geometric as it builds up, threaded using simple language. There are three different tales which are cemented using recurrent images of doll(s), red dress, a white and blue umbrella, Park Street, man with a crow, Paradise Park, trams, show windows, a crying child at night, overflowing canal, unexpected rain, and so on.

The novel starts on an assuring note, the promise of a flight of fantasy riding a crow and the story of a couple introduced to one another through an unexpected tram accident. This is the incomplete story of Rima and Amir. Amir is a middle-class letter writer, and a part-time teacher who lives in a tiny dilapidated house with few amenities. Rima is the only occupant of a mysterious limitless apartment block in Paradise Park that seems to have suddenly come up in the open ground. It is to this place that she brings Amir after the accident and offers all the facilities including free medication, for him to recoup. After Amir fully recovers, Rima comes to live with Amir and be a part of his life and his lifestyle. Life goes on and one dark night, Rima suddenly abandons, Amir's world because she is unable to cope with the painful cries of an unseen child.

The crying child is constant variable to all three narratives.

The second part centers around a reporter, Mala who travels to a small town to investigate the gruesome rape and murder of an eleven-twelve-year-old girl. The flow of the plot is at its best in this segment, and paints the colors of reportage in desi-land, unlike reporting from NYSE sitting in chic offices. The portrayal of a reporter meandering through mud in knee-deep rain-watered streets, talking to an old man who performed the postmortem of the girl, collecting whatever facts that were possible is nifty. Flawless imagery. The end goal is to crack the mystery behind the death of the girl. Whodunit. In this segment again, the motifs, and the crying sounds of the child recur and these disturb Mala during her overnight trip on a rainy day. In a subtle way, Mala's somewhat troubled childhood starts to replay. I think, in the garb of the story of the abuse of a child, the author is trying to explore the other kinds of violence.
"It is very easy to tackle physical violence — the bruises are visible, the laws are in place, the next door neighbors can hear. What is more fascinating to me is the violence you can get away with — psychological violence. No court will convict someone who says 'there are no bruises, but he made me feel as if I was broken into a thousand pieces'."
The final section returns to the city where a particular neighborhood that has witnessed a series of unconnected suicides by men, women, boys, girls, old, and young. Lugubriousness is in the air. A young schoolgirl, who lives in the same colony, is worried that her parents might soon kill themselves. She discloses about all her fears and dark apprehensions to a friend, who promises to follow her father and mother to make sure that they are safe. This part of the narration touches one aspect in detail that I liked, apart from the plot progression. And you guessed it right, if that was photography.

Each of the three segments has its own prologue which reads like film scripts. The writing is so raw and fascinating that with minimal effort the author creates the backdrop for his plot. The atmosphere is one of those in which every desi can smell the day-to-day life, of crowds, of traffic, of kids playing cricket in the streets, of power failures, of plush high-rise apartments, of gutters and canals overflowing in rainy season, etc. All these and many more minute details of settings and surroundings eclipse the theme. The verbal visuality is magical.

The book ends with the following lines, "Look at the picture on the cover, there’s a child, a girl in red dress; there's a bird, a crow in a blue white sky. And then there are a few things you cannot see.". This is exactly what the cover page of the book shows.

But did you check that, see carefully before you dive reading it.

Keep reading and remain connected.

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