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Exclusive | Interview: Raj Kamal Jha on 'The City and the Sea'

Indian Express editor Raj Kamal Jha sheds light on why he believes stories like Nirbhaya’s need to be told through fiction.

In 2012, the initial response to the gang rape of a physiotherapy student in Delhi was gut-driven, a tidal wave of pure outrage and protest. A documentary followed a few years later.

If the victim entered the realm of myth as Nirbhaya while she was still alive; in 2019, her story enters the realm of fiction.

While Delhi Crime, a Netflix series based on police action around the case, is the controversial flavour of the month, there are also pulpy fictional takes inspired by Nirbhaya, with titles like Nirbhaya: A Common Man’s Justice and An Eye for My Love: I Want to Live – not to mention short stories and poems.

This month, a more pedigreed literary offering inspired by the 2012 Delhi rape hits the shelves. Indian Express editor Raj Kamal Jha’s fifth novel, The City and the Sea, builds a narrative around a life disrupted by such an incident by delving into the past of one of the perpetrators (the juvenile), and the victim’s impossible future (as a mother).

Jha’s books are marked by a desire to flesh out stories of violence, but in sparse stream-of-consciousness prose. In The City and the Sea, he channels two voices in alternating strands (“The Sea” and “The City”). While a child searches for his missing mother, she awakens slowly in a hospital, out of a coma dream of holidaying on the Baltic Coast of Germany.

In an email interview, Jha sheds light on why he believes stories like Nirbhaya’s need to be told through fiction.

The City and the Sea
Raj Kamal Jha
Penguin, 2019

Throughout the book, you never use the word “rape” (at least not in English). What was your intention in omitting the word?  

No, that omission isn’t intentional, the word wasn’t used because maybe the novel didn’t need it.

At one place, though, it did lurk in the margins, almost crept onto the page. She’s about to step out of the hotel for a night walk. This is the first time she has seen snow and she wants to touch it, feel it fall. The street is empty, she hasn’t said a word to anyone since she arrived and, suddenly, she wants to speak a word out loud. That word is “rape”, but she lets it remain unsaid.  

Never does the word suggest itself again. It’s a bit like what, in a recent oped, Sohaila Abdulali (author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape) called getting back to the “non-rape-oriented life.” In the novel, rape touches each character, each thing; it’s there, as real and as big as day and night, but in the end, it’s the “non-rape-oriented life” that is bigger.

You were a writer-in-residence in Berlin but beyond your personal experience in Germany, was there any particular reason to set the mother’s holiday dream on the Baltic Coast? It seems like a fairly specific choice. 

It is very hard to explain why I wrote what I wrote. I have a few dots, maybe we can join them in a way. 

I was six months into my sabbatical in Berlin, had just finished my last novel, She Will Build Him A City, and was in that twilight limbo, waiting to hear from my agent. Then, two events. 

On December 1, 7.02 am, Saturday (photo has the date/time stamp), my six-year-old saw snow for the first time in his life. Fifteen days later, the rape in Delhi. 

The anger at India Gate, the campaign to toughen the law, to lower the juvenile age, the vigil for her life, I wished I was in the Express newsroom working with reporters and editors but, there I was, stuck, watching and hearing all this, the remove of about 6,000 km in a country that constantly lives and contests the ideas of culpability and complicity, accused and victim.

I wrote a few pages in response, a scene of snow and children playing, the ghosts of those killed in Sandy Hook – that happened around the same time. (All the children were in first-grade just like my child). A part of that writing made it to the book, another part took me to the Baltic Sea coast. 

There couldn’t have been a place farther from Munirka that you can imagine, this city so small I could walk across it in less than 15 minutes. Most days, there was no one on the beach except me. Gurgaon, where I had to return, was still a few months away, so I stayed on, and then one day the universe cracked open in a wormhole that linked this sea with the city. 

Photo Essay: A Look Back at a Mass Protest That Followed Jyoti Singh Gangrape

The Nobel Prize-winning author Herta Müller makes a cameo appearance in The City and the Sea. Her writing, like yours, is often diffuse, oneiric. What kind of an influence has her work had on yours in general, or on this novel in particular?

She is so spare in her prose it seems she is writing a manual – Müller, in fact, worked as a translator in a manufacturing plant. There is a line in her novel, The Hunger Angel, that captures the heartbeat of her work. “When I do allow myself a feeling,” says the protagonist, “I take the part that hurts and bandage it up with a story that doesn’t cry.” The idea of a story as a bandage to dress our wound, I think, is the perfect prescription for our healing. It’s what everyone does in The City and The Sea, using stories to ease the pain.

The mother’s outfit is almost a leitmotif of the novel. Could you talk a bit about why you keep returning to a description of her clothes the day she goes missing?

Yes, black jacket, cream-coloured shirt, black leggings, red scarf. 

A crucial aspect of the identity of the central character, and I wanted to underline this, is that she is a working woman because that, to me, was fundamental to the question of her safety. 

Let me zoom out a little here to frame the context. The more women there are who go to work, the stronger is the political and economic and social imperative to secure our public places. That’s why #MeToo is so important because it fights forces that push women out of work. We have more girls in schools than ever, we have more young women in colleges than ever and yet the share of women in our workforce is falling. Why or how is still not clear – maybe a lot of the new jobs in the services sector, taxi drivers, delivery persons, aren’t exactly women-friendly, at least not yet; there’s not much of a push from the family/culture for women to work.

That’s why the working woman is important, and the woman’s clothes, her wardrobe for work, acquires an almost talismanic power.

On a related note, I was thinking about your question last week when a story broke on the foreign wires: a mother of four sons writes to the University of Notre Dame newspaper asking women students to stop wearing leggings because boys and men get tempted. Clearly, the woman’s outfit is a universal leitmotif. 

One of the major (and often sympathetic) figures in the book is that of a juvenile rapist. In the Nirbhaya case, it was widely reported that he showed “no remorse”, but you create a different arc for the character. Why was it important to circle around to this sense of guilt, if not exactly redemption, for “December”? 

In the novel, December is guilty and breaks down in the end, he has to pay for what he has done. But art needs to ask the question that’s unasked: who is December? Is he the child of someone we know? Someone we work for? The brother, father, son, friend, colleague of someone we are acquainted with? What’s he being taught in school? Is he going to school? Who are the women in his life?

Instead, the discourse is: Hang him if you can, otherwise lock him up, throw the keys away. But where more than half a billion are men and women under 25, that can’t be The Solution.

There are too many of them and their paths are going to intersect. If we want to explore what needs to be done to ensure our women are safe, we need to talk about what needs to be done to keep our boys human.

Also read: ‘Innocent Humans Have Become the Target of Hate’

Though at times The City and the Sea complicates the idea of men as perpetrators and women as victims, the construct of masculinity is a largely toxic one in this book. Do you, in this book and in general, also imagine any possibility of rehabilitating Indian masculinity into something less violent?

I have a 12-year-old son and so I have to, not just imagine, but to deeply believe in the possibility of a masculinity that’s free of violence.

This may sound pontificatory, but we will need a little more humanity in our masculinity. We will need to give space to our boys to be caring and compassionate, erase the word “effeminate” from our emotional dictionary. Along with all its synonyms: sissy, wimp, etc. From the school playground to home and work, being male shouldn’t have to mean being masculine. It was only last year that our law allowed men to love men (and women to love women), so it’s going to take a while. 

It will need both mothers and fathers to work together and, of course, all these lines have to be redrawn amid the deep divisions of caste and class and in a politics where it’s mainly young, unemployed men who get served up as grist for the power mill.  

If the juvenile is himself a kind of victim, he’s not the only one. Victims of other types of crimes or of bad circumstances appear briefly – children from the Sandy Hook shooting, refugees in a boat on the Mediterranean. What does the implication – that there is an underlying solidarity in suffering – suggest about the path of justice, culpability, forgiveness and healing?

I like the phrase you use, the underlying solidarity of suffering.  I am not sure if it shows us the way to justice but maybe it helps in the healing. 

We talk of shared positive experiences, about how hope trumps fear. What we don’t talk about is how fear divides us but unites us as well. That’s why two videoclips from New Zealand, one of murder, the other of courage, both deeply affect us.

The last few months, I found myself in the cancer ward of a hospital, spending a lot of time in the waiting lounge. What struck me every time I was there was how this was a completely different city from the one outside. No hard elbows or cold shoulders.

Of course, the hospital ward is a world away from refugees fleeing war, children growing up abandoned, or parents of children shot in a school. But each one has missing pieces, the underlying solidarity of suffering makes each one of us more vulnerable. That’s what The Sea in the novel is about.

Also read: Review: Battling Hatred and Sectarianism for Indian Democracy

Is writing fiction a way to keep yourself from becoming inured to the violence and forgetting of “The Sea”, which in your job as a newspaper editor must constantly be cut down to column length? How do fact and fiction complement each other in your career?

My journalism and fiction, they complement, they supplement, they even implement each other. Writing fiction, searching for facts, working with my colleagues as they explain and investigate stories, that’s my process of understanding. I write fiction because I want to understand what facts may not tell. To discover stories that bandage our wounds and the wounds of others.

Men and women tend to occupy archetypal roles in your writing: for example Brother, Sister, Mother, Son. Can you expand a bit on this literary choice?

One book that’s travelled with me since college is Elias Cannetti’s Earwitness. It has portraits of 50 characters, each not more than a page and a half. There is The Earwitness, the one who eavesdrops, who registers everything that’s said and then slips away; there is The Tear-warmer, he goes to the movies each day, cries, then heads home unconcerned about anything. There’s The Tablecloth-Lunatic who’s obsessed with white linen.  

Essentially, characters distilled into their feelings. 

What’s important is not how they look or what their name is but what’s in their head and heart; how do they respond to that one moment in their life when the sky falls; the roles they are assigned, expected to play and yet the multiplicity of identities that each one has. 

So Mother in the novel is Ma, of course, she is also wife, child, friend, explorer, inventor, sailor and, in the end, a compass in the dark.   

While Nirbhaya shocked the country into a conversation on rape and women’s safety in 2012, in 2018, the conversation around sexual violence mainly centred around the perhaps subtler issues of workplace exploitation and harassment. I found it interesting that the woman in this book is a newspaper copy editor. Have you thought about tackling the Indian #MeToo movement in fiction at all and if so, how might you do so? 

The honest answer is I don’t know. What I do know is that it will be written. There were some incredible voices we heard as they shaped the #MeToo movement. I am sure one or more of them, or voices yet to be heard, are going to tell us what they didn’t on Twitter or Facebook – let’s wait.