Fictional testimonies and real darkness

Fictional testimonies and real darkness

by Raj Kamal Jha
Picador India, 2006

In Raj Kamal Jha's first novel The Blue Bedspread, readers stood on a Calcutta balcony and watched the snow fall; in his second book If You Are Afraid of Heights, we climbed onto the back of a crow to float up towards the top of an impossibly tall building; in Fireproof, his third and most unsettling novel, we stand on a street and thud thud thud, a strange rain of bodies begins to fall around us.  

Jha's dreamlike, elliptical prose speaks directly to his readers. It compels us to go beyond his fantastic images and see what is only too real – to see not just the edifice rising endlessly towards the sky, but also the narrow service lane choked with garbage wrapped furtively in plastic bags, a dreary place where hardly anyone ever goes, and at the end of which we will discover the body of a child who has been raped, murdered, and thrown to the bottom of a canal.  

Not a pretty sight, and neither are the methods of Jha's prose pretty – one reason why his writing tends to attract extreme reactions. He won't just tell you that the baby has no arms or legs; he'll add, "None of the four, not one, neither left nor right." He'll play with words, use capital letters in the middle of sentences to drive a point home, draw us into the most ugly dreams. "An arm shoots up from within the toilet bowl, grabs me, pulls me down." No, not pretty.  

But how powerfully his novels work to force the reader's attention on to things easily ignored or forgotten – not only the violence in the world outside, but also the brutality within the human heart. Welcome to the Ahmedabad of Jha's Fireproof, a book whose front cover has on it neither the title nor the author's name, only the words HELP ME in reverse, in block capitals drawn darkly on the grainy blue of the book jacket, with parts of the word already fading out of existence and the E dripping inkily, desperately, down the page. Even before they appear in front of the central protagonist, the words challenge the reader with their sharp immediacy. Did people call out? Did we hear? Would we have…? – Already the uncomfortable questions are forming in our minds.  

The novel begins with an opening statement addressed to the reader. It is only in the sixth paragraph of this statement that we learn who is speaking. These are the voices of dead, those who were killed "beginning the morning of February 28, 2002… killed in ones and twos, sometimes in groups of three, four. Sometimes thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty. At one time, even ninety."

Chilling, but that's just the prologue. We then move into the novel itself, which is narrated by one of the living, a man waiting for his wife to deliver their first child. "In a hospital that night," as the dead have told us, "where we lay dead and dying in the city on fire." The hospital (which, don't forget, is located on a road named after Mahatma Gandhi) is already filling up with the victims of that night's violence. Chapter by painful chapter, the novel tells the story of a childbirth gone terribly wrong, the anguish of the father, the awkward kindness of hospital staff, and the silent tears of a not-quite baby. All the while, the voices of the murdered whisper from the footnotes.

 Early in the novel, the prose comes up chokingly against the horror of what happened: "That night it was that night," says the narrator. But the story comes breaking out of him like a torrent. Almost physically, he yanks out all adjectives "until there is glass dust on the floor, dust so fine it reflects nothing." And thus he begins his pages-long, cold, clinical, and nevertheless deeply anguished description of the not-quite baby whom he calls It-him.

Style has never really been Jha's strong point; his strength is substance, and in this novel he serves up great, raw, visceral chunks of it. We already know about the numbers who died, we remember the photographs – the face of someone pleading for his life, a hand holding up a sword. But in Jha's book we find individual stories that go beyond the images and the numbers to show us the heartbreakingly ordinary details of people's lives. The boy who went out to buy some flour, the old woman who swept the floors of people's houses, the doctor who wanted to do an MD but couldn't make it despite two attempts, and who earned a little extra money by running a private practice instead. Unflinchingly, the novel asks those infinitely difficult questions: what happened, exactly? How did it happen? To whom did it happen? What did they see? What did they hear? Where did they run? What did they say when they begged for their lives?

And how could it have happened at all?

These imagined testimonies form the blazing core of the novel. The perpetrators are not named – they are called A, B, C and D, all the way to Z – and this is one of the ways in which this fictional account of the violence marks its difference from non-fictional reports and analyses of the atrocities of that day. Nor are the dead named – the opening statement offers a set of binaries instead, such as "bird beast, black blue, Hindu Muslim, Muslim Hindu, fire ice…"

It is for non-fictional accounts to record the survivors' testimonies, list out the dead, identify the accused, frame charges and hand out convictions. What, then, is the role of fiction? In May 2002, Jha, a newspaper journalist himself, wrote a non-fictional account of his visit to Gujarat. It was structured as a show-and-tell description of things he discovered during his visit, including a child's textbook, an IIT research paper, and the empty gaze of four Muslim boys at the Shah Alam relief camp. The report appeared in the Indian Express on 13 May 2002, titled "I Went To Gujarat As A Riot Tourist And All I Got Was This." Already, within the crisp newspaper format of the report, one could sense the stories struggling to emerge, clamouring insistently to be heard – the uterus that marched for justice; the child's textbook, with what Jha calls its "first-owner-may-have-been-burnt-alive smell".

 Stories wanted to tell themselves, they wanted the open space through which to surge into the world, and that is what Fireproof is most powerfully about. It is fiction, after all, that can take us deepest into the heart of darkness; imagination that can give us a fleeting sense of what happened and how it must have felt. Fiction can redefine words and give new meanings – "Friendship," for example, now stands for the moment "when both of you watch the fire burn." Only fiction can make the human body fireproof. Within the democratic space of the novel, even the dead can speak – and they do speak to us, directly, in matter-of-fact tones, from the other side of the violence. They speak from the footnotes of every chapter, from under water, inside ice and across worlds; they challenge us from the empty pages of a schoolbook, from the blank face of a watch, and from the cover of this book itself, saying, demanding, "HELP ME."

Not least of all, if justice still remains to be done, perhaps it is fiction's turn to see what it can do. Not only to let the dead tell their own stories, but also to let them write a new story in which they can begin to set right the wrongs that have been done to them – and restore the moral fabric of our world so that corpses needn't rain down on the streets again. This is the important, audacious project at the heart of Fireproof.

~ Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the Indian Administrative Service and based in Bombay. Her writings can be found at

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