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Dizzying Heights

December 2004
Dizzying Heights

By Poornima Apte

Review of Raj Kamal Jha's If You Are Afraid of Heights

A few months ago, Outlook India, the popular Indian glossy, ran a feature about celebrities who were insomniacs. Raj Kamal Jha occupied prime real estate in the feature along with Bollywood celebrities such as Shah Rukh Khan. Jha later brushed off the segment as just media hype. He wasn't so sure about being an insomniac but his day job as executive editor of the Indian Express meant that he could make time for fiction only in the wee hours of the morning. Indeed Jha's stories have a restless dream-like quality to them, a quality that was apparent even in his controversial debut, The Blue Bedspread.

If You Are Afraid of Heights includes three fairly independent stories, probably best described by the jacket blurb. "A man and a woman meet in a midnight road accident and fall in love. A reporter arrives in a small town to uncover the story of a child's rape and murder. A young girl, shaken by suicides in her neighborhood, begins to fear for her parents' lives." Never one to shy away from topics that are usually taboo in Indian society, Jha's latest revolves centrally around a cruel death of a young girl. While the details of the post mortem report are clinical and harsh, even more vivid are the dark shadows that lurk in the corners and that hint at episodes of abuse or neglect.

Jha mines familiar territory here around children and abuse and the nameless terrors that inhabit these areas. His stories are not easy reading but they have a way of staying with you, and even growing on you. Amongst Jha's many storytelling strengths is his keen sense of visual narrative?best brought out in the novel by a big black crow that takes both its rider and the reader on an imaginative flight. The first story in the book is in fact so rich with this imagery that it often drowns under the weight of it and might throw the reader off with its fantastical descriptions. Also Jha sometimes overuses metaphors, in this case applied to a machine that transports cars: "A giant made of metal lying on his side, smiling in the night, the cars his teeth, the crates his braces." Nevertheless the persistent reader will be richly rewarded by If You Are Afraid of Heights.

It is not without coincidence that a story's central figures are mirror images of each other, literally: there is Amir and Rima, the man and woman who fall in love after a train accident, and later, the child Mala, and her strange alter ego, Alam. Such juxtaposition of characters is a deliberate invitation to the realm of fantasy. In Jha's case the fantasy lends a bizarre, otherworldly quality to the novel.

In a recent interview, Jha has indicated that he likes to put his readers to work. "I like to see how much of a story I can get away with without telling," he said, "There are gaps, which readers have to fill in. They can fill these blanks the way they want to. Often, these gaps make the story." In If You Are Afraid of Heights, it is the gaps that create the surreal nature of the story. The sense of discovery the reader experiences when piecing the different stories together is followed by an unsettling disquiet and this eerie aftertaste is perhaps the book's most appealing quality.

Probably the most telling part of the book is when Amir is coaching a young girl in her school work and she is working on a story "about Robert Bruce, the brave king who took shelter in a cave in a far-off land after his enemies drove him away from the kingdom." The king watches a spider in its struggle to create a web and the girl has to answer a question: "Did the spider give up hope?" "No, she says, it did not have any, so how could he give it up. Don't write that," Amir says to his student, "just write that the spider didn't give up hope, he kept climbing back trying to reach the top." The paragraph describes what Jha is best at portraying?a child's measured sense of her world and an adult's impulse to topple and then build upon it.

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