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The Oscar winning movie The Shape of Water (2017), has a scene where a merman and his human paramour swim in a bathroom filled to the ceiling with water;  her hair streams like elegant seaweed and his fins expand in a glorious, orchestrated dance – a dreamscape that crashes to earth as water leaks through the barricaded door and gushes onto the street.

Raj Kamal Jha’s novel, The City and the Sea, attempts the same intertwining of two worlds – the fantastic and the functional, reality bleeding into the surreal, as it tries to make sense of the mindless horror that was the rape of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi in 2012.  Public reaction to the savagery of that crime became a national tipping point for activism against atrocities on women in India.

The novel approaches the fate of Nirbhaya (or ‘fearless’ as Jyoti Singh became known ), in an alternate universe – a twilight zone of vivid, intriguing imagery. Cross-connecting clues – the cream shirt, black jeans and red scarf – that Nirbhaya wore on the day she was killed, are sprinkled liberally throughout. 

The novel begins when a young boy’s mother disappears one day, after failing to return from her job as a newspaper copy editor. While his father launches a search for his wife and detectives proceed with the mundane task of investigation, the boy is sucked through a metaphysical portal into the fantastical realm of the invisible Sea that lurks in every corner and crevice of the city. Before she went missing, his mother had described this mystical Sea to the boy as a metaphor for all the darker forces that roamed beyond the safe cocoon of their lives. Like the physical sea, with its fascinating flotsam of debris and objects broken by crashing waves, the metaphysical Sea in Jha’s novel is filled with broken souls and bleeding bodies that become visible to the boy only after an otherworldly night creature called December (for the month in which Nirbhaya’s rape took place), climbs in through his bedroom window and takes him on a journey to find his mother. 

The story gets progressively darker as references to Nirbhaya and her ordeal are tossed into the narrative by December, who has become the boy’s guide in an alternate, twilight dimension of his universe.  

Scenes of the boy’s search for his mother alternate with an intriguing depiction of a woman arriving at a cold, empty, German seaside resort set in stark, bizarre surroundings, as if she’s been swallowed by a Dali painting. The two worlds collide eventually, in a sensational, fantasy-fuelled climax. 

The magical realism of The City and the Sea sucked me in with its compelling images and poetic prose, until the narrative fell clumsily to the ground, weighed down by contrivances and clichés like an overdressed window display – a repentant December sobbing in the mother’s lap, a lineup of missing persons with placards round their necks proclaiming their name and age, and a woman, Sonam, who appears and disappears on the same day as the missing mother.

In an attempt to soften the deranged nature of the crime, Jha, like a good newspaperman (he’s Editor of the Indian Express), tries to balance the narrative with “the other side of the story.” But it’s difficult to conceive of anything other than a hangman’s noose for a crime as horrific as the violent rape of an innocent girl whose intestines were ripped out with an iron rod. Jha’s musings about the perpetrator’s motivations are too simplistic and sentimental. The savage, sociopathic nature of the crime is swathed in facile, wordy prose, like a gift wrap that’s empty inside.

Jha’s novel, however, gives us a sense of something important being stirred. It is notable for its creative, poetic attempt to shine a light on an issue which should never be allowed to slip into darkness – the safety of women in India and the social evils of an aggressive, overweening patriarchy that constantly tries to show a woman her place.  

THE CITY AND THE SEA. By Raj Kamal Jha. Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2019. ₹397. 240 Pages. Hardcover

Longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2019 and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2019

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal

 

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