IF YOU ARE AFRAID OF HEIGHTS by Raj Kamal Jha. Harcourt, 2004. Hardcover, 304 pages. $23.00.
Abandon all expectation of a linear narra-tive with all of the familiar signposts to lead you along. Think in terms of dreams and dreaming where a nod towards thinking in metaphors, not with reason, helps you to unlock meaning and you will be able to navigate Raj Kamal Jha’s new novel, If You Afraid of Heights, just fine. Jha writes with the same aura of mystery as in his first novel, The Blue Bedspread. He returns to themes of not only lives unsettled, but shameful, traumatic, and violent episodes that corrode and deteriorate individuals and the society they attempt to thrive in. Sometimes, too, a reader’s sense of the story can become corroded as well when there is too much “game” in the narrative, too much of trying to be something and just not telling a good story. Jha begins strong, with an allegorical first prologue, which, as an introduction would whet one’s whistle, but when the narrative continues right to the end in this same vein, one becomes tired of trying to decipher meaning, trying to see things that may or may not be there.
Three tales, which seem at the outset to be disconnected, turn out to be as connected as the delicate cord that connects us with life itself. A crying child, a tram accident, the rape and murder of a little girl and suicides in a neighborhood that causes a child to worry about the safety of her parents are the themes of this dystopic book. But one wonders, why another book exploring similar themes all over again? His treatment of the sickening crime of incest was artfully rendered in The Blue Bedspread and one can only imagine he did not purge himself of all he had to say the first time around on these and similar themes.
Jha is the executive editor of The Indian Express and a writer of immense talent. For some readers, this surreal journey into an unnamed and blighted city may jog the imagination to unseen heights. For some of us, the story may never get off the ground. The book begins with a prologue that is identical to the epilogue:
Look at the picture on the cover, there’s a child, a girl in a red dress; there’s a bird, a crow in a blue white sky. And then there are few things you cannot see.
And therein lies the problem. —Michelle Reale