Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Irrelevant detail in the fiction of Raj Kamal Jha

The good-ness or bad-ness of a work of fiction lies, among other things, in the choice of details that the writer chooses to present to us. And the test of those details is their relevance, the way in which each thing noted seems to become an essential part of a larger picture.

When a reader picks up a novel, he or she signs an implicit contract with the writer. Irrelevant detail in fiction is a breach of that contract: when description seems gratuitous or self-indulgent, we have a right to complain about why our time is being wasted. I thought of these things while reading - in some parts suffering - Raj Kamal Jha's new novel Fireproof, a book which somehow manages to be both tedious and profound.

Fireproof is a novel about the tragedy and the horror of Gujarat, 2002. A reasonable question to ask is what a novel can tell us about this cataclysm that all the newspaper reports, journal articles, and books on the subject have not. To this Jha's good answer is: nonfiction and reportage cannot present the voices of the dead, only fiction can. Of the many narrators in Fireproof, most speak to us from the afterlife, where they have "discovered gifts we never knew we had". Many of these voices speak for no more than the length of a page: they are admirably concise and powerful. The plot itself turns on the interventions made by the departed in the world of the living.

One of these interventions involves the protagonist, Mr.Jay, who, even as people are being massacred by the dozen, waits in the hospital for the birth of his first child - in this way Jha juxtaposes the "newborn" and the "newdead". The baby turns out to be grotesquely deformed; Jay is appalled, but is forced to take it home, and slowly he begins to feel for it what every parent feels for a child. Much of the novel is told from Jay's perspective. Like the narrator of Jha's first novel, The Blue Bedspread (whom we also find in the company of a newborn child), Jay has some guilty secrets which the action of the novel slowly reveals.

Jha's prose has many faults. In fact, if one were to go by Fireproof alone, he would appear a much worse writer than he actually is. He has a liking for lushness that is often not far off from cliché: "Outside, the sky was beginning to stain the colour of ink, the purple blue that forms when night begins to grow old, a colour that softens the edges of this hard city, washes the washed-out yellows and the whites and the greys of the houses" (my italics). Or, "He sees her mouth move, as if she were gulping the night down, chewing it, drinking it, as if she had been emptied and needs the darkness to fill her up once again."

Jha loves what his narrator in one place calls "adjectival neons". Some of his descriptions sound like he is preparing a chart of the universe for the colourblind, and his two favourite words are "soft" and "smooth": "This time I began peeling her skin off, pink skin, soft skin, smooth skin." Or, "I feel her hair against my hands, between my fingers, I can feel its soft, smooth rustle". This kind of detail sometimes borders on the pointless, and sometimes it clearly crosses that border: "There are always flies on the bananas. Buzzing, flying in circles, triangles, straight lines, ellipses." Jha's tendency to state, even belabour, the obvious, brought to my mind JK Stephen's very funny sonnet about Wordsworth, in which he chides the poet for that aspect of his work "Which bleats articulate monotony,/And indicates that two and one are three,/That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep".

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jha also likes the urgent sound, the sense of great significance, intimated by laconic one-sentence paragraphs. This is a perfectly legitimate way of working, but Jha employs this device without discretion. His work has many bits which go like this:
The telephone rang.


Ithim was with me now, his father.
Father and son.
He also likes - I think we can call this the Arundhati Roy effect in Indian fiction - another hokey move, which is to capitalize words and phrases in mid-sentence.

The Blue Bedspread had some of these faults, but at least it was an admirably spare book. Some of its sections are no more than a paragraph long, and by virtue of this discipline they move the story forward very swiftly. In Fireproof, by contrast, there are many parts where we are presented with a paragraph when only a sentence would do, and a page when a paragraph would serve just as well. Great swathes of Jay's narration are bogged down by the most excruciating point-by-point, sensation-by-sensation, moment-by-moment detail. An egregious instance appears at the close of one chapter, when at the end of a long day Jay receives a puzzling phone call from a woman he only seen once in mysterious circumstances.

But before I could think through what she had said and what I had heard, before I could try to look beyond those walls around her, I knew I was fighting another battle, this one more immediate: a battle with sleep that came like water rising, rushing upwards, in a wave. Beginning with my feet, rippling in and out between my toes, rising to my ankles, then to my chest, lapping against my shoulders, climbing over my jacket, gurgling as I breathed through my nose, reaching my eyes, filling them both.
I slept.
Do we need to be told all this in such depth? And even if we did, is this account even true to the experience of sleep that comes " came like water rising, rushing upwards, in a wave"? Does that kind of sleep not overwhelm conscious thought in an instant, and preclude exactly the kind of slow, hyperconcious tracking which the narrator presents us? Which reader can imagine what it is like to feel sleep "rippling in and out between my toes"? This account of sleep taking over the human body section by section reminded me of the unintentional comedy of a similar passage in Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier, in which we are told of how a cold wind blows around the protagonist Zia: "It tore at him, slipped inside his trouser legs, groped at his crotch, ferreted in his armpits and careened into his lungs." Such sentences are pure verbiage.

Indeed, the body is Jha's great subject: in general, he never passes up the chance to go over it in slow motion whenever he can. Here the narrator is watching over his mother, who has just suffered a scorpion bite:

Even the slighest wavering and Mother might die. For if I am not careful, the poison will spread from her wrist, run into her veins and her arteries, travel along her arms, her shoulders, her neck, then down again, to her heart and her stomach to her legs to her face to her head her fingers and her toes - the pus and the black blue yellow green.
Leaving the city with Ithim on the instructions of the mysterious woman, Jay is received at the station by a midget in outlandish attire. Jha begins to describe his shirt:

And what a shirt it was. A profusion of not only fabric, a fabric that shone like silk and velvet, but also of wild colour and twisted asymmetry: blue and red and green and yellow and white and black, stripes, checks, triangles, circles, swirls, ellipses, straight lines, curls.
Once again the narration trips teeters into excess, giving us such a welter of details that it actually becomes impossible to imagine the thing being described, which is not such an important thing in the first place. These are utterly pointless moves, serving only to drain the reader's interest and leave him or her indifferent to details of actual consequence.

Fireproof has an interesting storyline, and it builds up to a conclusion of genuine grace and moral force, in which we witness the workings of a justice that avoids the senseless path of "fire and hate". But it is also an unbearably prolix book, and this dulls its power. Jay may hold many secrets, but Jha's unpleasantly overwritten sentences mostly do not. They seem rather like a literary instance of disguised unemployment: present, countable, but doing no useful work.


Anonymous said...

That's a very pithy concluding remark, and you've provided enough examples to illustrate how egregious the writing can be.

But because you haven't given any instances of good writing, I'm assuming that the strengths of the book lie in ideas imperfectly executed than in the writing itself.

It's not easy writing fiction around events like riots. I wonder at the confidence with which writers try -- there was that awful book by Gita Hariharan, and the truly terrible film Parzania.

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece. I've read some of Jha and I agree with you. I would have liked it had you engaged with some of the ideas in the book though instead of simply criticising the narrative. (Though that is done carefully.)

Anonymous said...

First non-effusive review of this book :)

Anonymous said...

Do you really need to read a 'novel' or anything remotely literary? Because what you are saying is that you are happy with a precis or a brief of what the 'novel' is all about .. Kind of be happy with a general plot line as is written for episode guides of TV serials ..

Otherwise I don't get what the gripe is, about descriptions and words and and the ways in which they interact and create meanings and sensations and melodies .. I am guessing you think poetry is useless and so is prose that verges on poetry. The examples you chose are so so so poor in your trying to point out your 'problem' with the book ... It may not have appealed to your reader's mind .. But it certainly did to many .. especially that bit about sleep .. If you have never had the chance to feel the delicious tentacles of it envelope you .. too sad .. EACH one of those words resonate for anyone who has consciously registered what it is like being slowly pulled legfirst into sleep's tunnel of oblivion. Ofcourse if you drop like a brick unconscious .. everytime .. you would not be familiar with these sensations.

Even those objections about short sentences .. Cummon .. if you don't read to feel the rhythms .. the ups and downs of words .. and sounds it makes as the words clink and swim and sway and bonk about .. making noise and music .. well then I am afraid you are yet to try out various ways of enjoying reading ..

IMO reading and writing are highly personalized .. so you are free to express that it was not your cup of tea [hey it's your BLOG and that's what blogs are for :-)], that it's not the kind of writing that turns you on .. BUT ADMIT that as such .. instead of general bashing up and judging a book which works beautifully for exactly and precisely the reasons that you have objections too.

I guess you detest Dylan Thomas's prose and many many many author's who's mainstay is poetic, visual, graphic writing.

Very myopic and impoverished an article this.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - Initially I struggled to understand your comment, but all that changed soon as I took off my shoes. Then I could only gape as your comment sidled up my ankle, carefully went past my knee, shimmied past my left hip, advanced further, hopping and skipping all the way, onto my neck, and lingered for a moment on my earlobe before seeping into my brain and scampering wildly there amongst the neurons, loud and clear as a samba band.
I understood.

More seriously, if reading and writing are so very personal as you insist, and in saying the things I do I for some reason don't ADMIT to this essential fact, then what is the validity of your argument that I have written a very myopic and impoverished piece? In that case, perhaps it's just you who doesn't like my piece, just as it's just me who doesn't appreciate the beauty of Jha's style? There can be no genuine debate from a position of "That's just what you happen to think" - both parties can continue to shoot that at each other for ever.

I don't see how you can argue in any way from my remarks about *Fireproof* that I think "poetry is useless and so is prose that verges on poetry" - as if all works within these categories were equally good or bad.

And I have certainly never been pulled legfirst "into sleep's tunnel of oblivion" - incidentally, that's a good phrase you've thought up, as also "drop like a brick unconscious" - but maybe that too is just me.

But I enjoyed reading your comment, and if you actually liked the passages I cited, then good for you.

Chandrahas said...

Space Bar - You're correct in your guess, and right also in saying that in writing about large-scale violence and barbarism writers come up against the limits of representation. It becomes a further irony then that a book about the unspeakable should be so prolix.

Anirudh - That is a good distinction - you're among my sharpest readers. I have some reservations about the ideas and the plot construction of *Fireproof* as well, but voicing those would require another essay. I thought Harsh Mander's piece on the book in The Hindustan Times had some sage observations.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the review. Your sleep comment made me laugh loudly, joyfully, indulgently, the laugh bouncing across my walls, coming back to me, haunting me, loving me.

Godard makes the same point about Spielberg´s "Schindler´s list". A movie about the unspeakable should not re-create the unspeakable in a manner so "prolix".

Is a book linked to the Gujarat riots the right place for the author to write an indulgent para on sleep? And is it poetry? I thought the occam´s razor is much sharper for poetry than for prose.

Anonymous said...

CC, didn't expect the last one from you. I found Harsh Mander review drivel. He can be a "passionate" activist but that doesn't make him imaginative. I don't think he is moved by reading anything other than an affidavit. Every one has the right to write a review but to say that Jha has "unwittingly betrayed" my cause makes one puke. His review's only point -- why didn't Fireproof name Modi, the DGP, Togadia as villains of the piece? why did it blame one poor sod? Give me a break. That is Harsh Mander's book and he should write it.

I like Jha's work because of what you call "the irrelevant detail in his fiction." I love his irrelevant details, they are the most relevant things to me often more than the story. Maybe that's why I only read, can't critique.

I enjoy your postings, even some of the "prolix" ones, but this one too much like an undergrad term paper. Trying too hard to prove the hypothesis -- "Jha's prose has many faults" -- but to someone who has read the book, not adding anything to the reading experience. Maybe that wasn't your intention.

So, peace.

Chandrahas said...

Devil Detail - You are correct: it is possible to defend Jha's book against the line taken by Mander, who argues that the book only demonises the "anonymous foot soldiers of hate", not the Modis and the Togadias.

In fact that seems to be Jha's point - his book is an illustration of what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil. Many of the perpetrators of heinous crimes in Gujarat were people who would seem, were we to meet them in person, decent, law-abiding, ordinary people, not far from Laxman's "Common Man". Yet they casually indulged in, or extended their support to, the most indefensible actions. Jha's book invites us to consider: how could this be so? And do we perhaps cary the seeds of similar violence in ourselves?

But Mander's piece had a coherent point of view - if you wanted to read five or six different responses to *Fireproof*, you would want it to be one of them, even if you disagreed with it.

With regard to your other point, I don't feel quite so sympathetic. We can agree to disagree on that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Harsh Mander's piece does have some interesting points to make. I don't agree with 'devil detail' when he says that Mander wants Jha to blame only a few important political people. What he might have liked is for Jha to have had among the dead, a more informed voice, one which knew of the complicity of the State. The Gujarat carnage was not a hundred people going crazy all of a sudden. Of course, violent acts on a mass scale are never impulsive but this orchestration was much clearer than say, people beating up a man because of a road accident where the cause for their actions might be much more subtle. Jha has the right to ignore it - he is writing fiction - but Mander seems to be saying that the book would have been richer if he hadn't.

Anonymous said...


Great post. I am not too fond of Jha's writing, and have always felt he goes off on a tangent and gets sunk in details. The details may well reveal his creativity, but it distracts the reader from the equally imaginative plot he weaves. And once that happens, it really defeats the purpose of the book for me.

Raj is also among the most difficult writers to navigate in Indian fiction today. I recognise that readability is a subjective notion. But I also admit to holding somewhat simplistic notions about this- it is stuggle reading him at times and trying to understand what he is getting at. For some, there lies the charm of a good book- where you have to immerse yourself to make sense of the text. I don't want to be spoon-fed either but Raj's writing tests one's patience.

I liked the question that Jha posed in his interview with Jai as well as during the launch, which you allude to as well- what makes an ordinary, sane, amiable, caring person who loves his family and is a good neighbour/friend cross the threshold of intolerance and become violent in the most grotesque sense? It is an important question because often, many of us tend to paint people in black and white. And while there can be no correct answer, I think Raj leaves us with little to really ponder over on this aspect. And if he set out to answer that question, then that must rank as a major failure of the text.

I can understand where Mander (someone who was a part of the state structure and quit) is coming from. It is impossible to talk about Gujarat without referring, in some way, to the role of authorities and the manner in which they continue to deny rights to Muslims. Having said that, I would think that is not the big issue here- talking about the state's role would have meant incorporating a different dimension altogether, which Raj clearly did not want to get into.

The book is a major disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Another variety of sleep is experienced on treating a cold with Vicks Vaporub. You no longer perceive the existence of your legs and feel reduced to an oblong tunnel of minty fresh breath. Sleep usually follows and obliviates all that.

One could go out on rediscovered hind limb and say the Vicks effect would happen even without a cold, but over generalizations are problematic and out of body experiences continue to elude one.

Anonymous said...

Prashant: I agree Jha is perhaps on of the most difficult writers to navigate but I have found that navigating his writing is a treat. There are many treasures to find as in Fireproof, which BTW, is the "easiest" navigation-wise of his three novels. Of course, there are some tangents which irritate but that's made up by those that don't. Eg: The Swedish tourist's bodies found in the ice. I found it a great counter to the unknown bodies in the fire. In the mall scene, where he gives the list of shops and their billboards, you want to skip it but when you actually take the trouble of reading it, it adds to the entire story, the mall as this artifical, neutral space. As for the comment about Mander and the purpose of the novel, am not too hung up on that. Even if I didn't know what happened in Gujarat, Fireproof works as a great mystery story.

Anonymous said...

For someone who says goodness, badness and lushness, I am not not sure sure if you should be commenting on writing style. To say the least. Even if this is your blog.

Chandrahas said...

Anonymous - All the three words you mention are in my New Shorter OED, but I am charmed by the insistent tone of your "not not sure sure", each word double so as to communicate the intense depth of your skepticism. Come by to Noor Mohammadi for lunch lunch today, and we'll see if we can't sort out what disagreements we have in an amicable fashion over double roti and shammi kabab.

Anonymous said...

Well, seeing the space you have provided Jha, there seems to be certain amount of 'deciding dedication' that is impossible to miss.

Quite frankly, I haven't read 'Fireproof' or for that matter his earlier one that was shortlisted for the Hutch-Crossword award last year (or was it the year before last), but I am tempted now.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting the way you picked on the choice of details a writer chooses to present, and its relevance to the larger picture, primarily because of jha's day-job as an editor :) I wonder what he would have to say about that.

I agreed with your comments on his faulty prose. What I have a gripe against, however -- and I could be very, very wrong here -- is the manner in which your review is structured.

Don't get me wrong. You make some very valid points, but aren't you, in essence, using three paragraphs to just say: 'Less is more'?

If one were interested in gauging the novel's worth with regard to what jha is trying to say, obvious questions would be: Does he succeed? Is his narrative form appropriate for what he is trying to convey? Are there other works that manage to do this better? Is fiction really a better way of approaching this issue, than non-fiction?

feel free to yell at me :)

Chandrahas said...

Icecreamassassin - In my own way, taking into account a single but important aspect of the book - which is the experience of it sentence by sentence, page by page - I have tried to answer the questions you pose.

I tried to point out how, although the premise of the book shows how fiction (in appealing to the power of the imagination) can do some things that non-fiction (which feels always upon itself the pressure of facts) cannot, the experience of the book does not redeem that promise. In the passages I quoted I try to show why the writing is too facile, blurring the important and the inconsequential. It seems to take for granted the reader's indulgence, and leads finally to a breakdown of that trust without which no work of fiction, no matter how important or relevant its themes, can truly move or persuade.

Anonymous said...

Because I've heard the same thing said so many times in so many different places (not just about this book), I have initiated a discussion of "the Arundhati Roy effect in Indian fiction" here:


You might like to take a look, or comment.

Preeta Samarasan