Raj Kamal Jha, the editor in chief of Indian Express who revels in the multifaceted world of fiction weaving through his reality of fact, has come forth with a refreshing narrative in his The City and The Sea. The book, with its dual narrative, criss-crosses the internal monologue of a woman in a deserted German town by the Baltic sea, with the mystery of her faded memory unravelling and a child in Delhi waiting for his lost mother as his imagination takes flight. Ergo, The City and The Sea.
In a conversation with Anil Dharker (Literature Live! Director), Jha speaks about why he felt the need to write this book. Elaborating, he shares how the Orwellian cubic centimetre (reference: 1984 by George Orwell, which says that nothing is your own except a few cubic centimetres inside your skull) is shrinking as with the day and age advancing the invasion of foreign and alien ideas, information, words, scenarios keep on drilling into that small space. And writing this book for him, was a search for this space, and an inward pull to expand it.
Alluding to the dual role that he plays being a newspaper editor and a fiction writer, the space between the said and the unsaid, fact and fiction, and the line between what happens in reality and what we tell ourselves, he begins by saying that maybe that line is more blurred than we would like to believe.
The book is loosely based on the Nirbhaya tragedy which had the country ablaze in justified rage.
It gives, more or less, a backstory to the rapists with a symbolic character called “December” in the book. However, one needs to ask whether giving a backstory to the perpetrators of such hideous crimes is sympathising with them or justifying their actions through some far-fetched Freudian analysis. To this, he candidly replies that by giving a backstory to the accused, or going back to their childhood to point out the alienation of their difficult days of stolen childhood, we are simply keeping ourselves from making an evil entity. “We should not objectify them, as they objectified the victim,” he asserts, “We should not do to them what they did to their victims.” Giving this Orwellian space to contemplate juvenilia, making an effort to see the grey between good and evil, what the book does is that it gives a perspective to the idea of this crime. What could have led them to such dehumanisation of the woman, to see her nothing more than a piece of meat to derive forced pleasure, the book asks. However, in no way is it parallel to Lolita (1955, Vladimir Nabokov) in making the crime or the pathology seem normal, or human.
“Each one who has raped, murdered, gets space in art to be human. Should we, and art too, rob them of their humanity like they dehumanized the woman?” says Jha, putting forth his point strongly even to those squirming to understand whether such sympathising is right.
Is respect for women, and basic propriety a matter of being raised right, away from the vagaries of the world, sheltered in the cocoon of a good home? Are the chances of a seven-year old who has seen the brutalities of the world, experienced it and in some ways, internalised it, more than the former to go forth to grow up an adult who will perpetrate these crimes? Nature vs Nurture?
“The sheer mathematics of population comes ahead to deliver that even if we grow at 10%, we will have the largest number of poor people by 2050,” he says. But is that a darkly perceptive omen for the crimes of similar nature soaring to dystopian levels in the future? It is, hence, important in some ways to look into the pasts of these perpetrators, not with some Freudian intent to uncover the very event in isolation which could have led to this in the future, but to know and to have a better power to bestow judgement in the light of this knowing.
Moving on to the literary part of his work, he talks of the sixth W of fiction: what if; and the tools to answer this lie only and only in the prowess of fiction. Beautifully using some specific literary devices like magic realism and internal monologue to add that element which leaves space for imagination, to be filled with one’s own contemplation and idiosyncrasies, what he does is something few writers can accomplish—the complete blurring of the lines between what is, what should be, and what could be.
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen calls it “a book you have to read”. In many ways it shocks the imagination and opens up shuttered windows which one could never imagine opening, but what it does nobly is, not dehumanising those who have dehumanised their victim. In art, the said Orwellian space of cubic centimetres is found and duly expanded.