Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Same India but a Better Cover
South China Morning Post, July 1999

Like so many Indian writers in English, Raj Kamal Jha has chosen to write about the grim realities beloved of his genre: child abuse, incest, alcoholism and wife bashing. Unlike his mostly impoverished predecessors, though, the 32 year old Jha is set to rake in big money.

His slim debut novel, The Blue Bedspread has reportedly earned an estimated £250,000 (HK$3.1 million) in advances. It was snapped up by British-based publisher Picador on the strength of the first 20 pages and so far subsidiary rights have been sold in eight countries. Jha is already being hyped as the next Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy.

Is the book worth the hoopla? In a word, no. The Blue Bedspread centres on the tormented family lives of a nameless pair of siblings in Calcutta, referred to only as Sister and Brother. The book takes its title from the family bedspread the children play on, “imagining we were looking at the sky”. The bedspread is a refuge from their alcoholic father’s abuse, and later the backdrop to their incestuous coupling.

Regular readers of Indo-Anglian writing are likely to experience a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Jha’s hackneyed tales of incest, alcoholic husbands, suffering wives, arranged marriages and tyrannical mothers-in-law have been flogged to death. Besides, stories of dysfunctional Indian families have been done better by such Indian writers as Shashi Deshpande, Nisha Da Cunha, and Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee. These writers though, had the misfortune of writing before Indo-Anglian writing became the flavour of the month in literary circles.

More recently, Roy popularised surrealistic, melancholy sagas with her Booker prize winning bestseller The God Of Small Things, which also traced the troubled lives of a pair of twins in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Like Roy, Jha adopts a meandering jumpy narrative style, using a series of short stories to describe events taking place over several years. And like The God of Small Things, Jha’s novel is suffused with a gloomy, brooding atmosphere, with tragedy always around the corner.

What makes this book different from most Indo-Anglian fiction is Jha’s spare, Hemingway-esque prose, devoid of the usual allegories, prolonged dialogues and lush descriptions favoured by Indian writers from Rushdie to Roy. This should have been a welcome relief, but does not quite succeed in a novel that attempts to cover the gamut of India’s social maladies, especially one with no engaging plot or compelling characters to otherwise hold the reader.

Jha’s bald prose often seems unequal to the task of describing the colour, culture and incredible complexities of India. Even his description of Calcutta, a novelist’s dream, reads like a list of tram stops and street names. “I wended my way through Khanna market, turned left at Ultadanga.” Where, you want to ask, are the addas (teashops), the rickshaw pullers, the energy and bustle of Calcutta?

Jha’s minimalist approach falls especially flat when it comes to the two central characters. Roy’s novel, despite her sometimes overheated prose, worked because of her ability to create endearing characters and lilting, almost poetic dialogue. Jha’s brief two sentence dialogues and faintly outlined characters seem one-dimensional and unsympathetic and the reader is often left bemused by their actions and emotions.

In one particularly bizarre story, Brother writes about his love affair with a medical student who is fiercely guarded by a disapproving mother. Eventually, the lovers drug and blind the mother to escape her scrutiny and gain some privacy, leaving her extracted eyes “floating in a glass jar”. In another, Sister apparently beds her own mother-in-law. Both stories seem unconvincing and unnecessarily provocative.

If there is one thing that cannot be faulted, it is the packaging. This may seem a trivial matter, but Indian writers have too often been condemned to low-cost, low-quality paperbacks filled with typographical errors. The Blue Bedspread’s stunning jacket art and superior production values will probably lure more than a few readers. Even so, readers would be advised to opt for Seth or Rushdie’s new offerings.