Burning Down Our House

March 2007 Book Review of Raj Kamal Jha's Novel Fireproof

On a chill, late February evening five years ago, a gang of marauders stopped and torched the Subarmati Express near Godhra, about 150 kms from Gujarat's capital city of Gandhinagar. The case filed later by the police claimed several Muslims conspired to burn the train and its passengers, but two subsequent court decisions were inconclusive. Either way, the deaths of 59 Hindu passengers – including several returning from Ayodhya, where they had been campaigning to build a temple in place of a mosque destroyed ten years prior – sparked an unprecedented communal conflagration across the state. The deliriously violent five-week spree of fire and rioting destroyed 25,000 shops and homes and resulted in over 1000 mostly Muslim deaths.

Award-winning novelist Raj Kamal Jha covered the carnage for Indian Express, where he is executive editor. Sifting through the detritus of Ahmedabad's Gulbarga Housing Complex, which had been torched with residents still inside, he came upon a child's workbook. The cover was singed but inside were several pages of exercises and a number of surprisingly mature poems. One stunningly relevant verse stopped the author in his tracks and inspired him to pen a fictional account of the tragedy, one that could encompass all of the horror and the guilt, the suffering, fear, and denial that pierced the heart of India in the late winter of 2002.

The result is "Fireproof," one Ahmedabad man's fantastical, fearsome hurtling through the anxiety-drenched first days of violence and a visceral fever dream of a book readers will find hard to put down and impossible to shake. Although occasionally stomach-churning, Mr. Jha's new novel is not only a crackling good read – a thrilling bullet train of mayhem, mystery, and magic realism – it is also a wake-up call.

The book opens with the protagonist, Mr. Jay, at the hospital. Due to a difficult delivery his wife is unconscious and his newborn son horribly deformed: wrapped in dark, burnt-looking skin; without arms and legs; and with a slit for a mouth, a two-holed bump for a nose, and a soft, lumpy head. Only the eyes are like other babies', allowing him to keep watch as events unfold. Flummoxed by his progeny, Mr. Jay dubs the baby Ithim, a mash-up of "it" and "him."

While waiting to see his child he spies a woman standing in a window across the hospital courtyard. She scribbles "HELP ME" on fogged-up glass then vanishes along with the words. That night, after Jay has taken Ithim home, he receives a call from the mysterious woman. Miss Glass tells him to meet her the following afternoon at an undisclosed location a few hours outside the city. She says she can fix Ithim. After some indecision Jay acquiesces, leading to a riveting journey through which he begins to fully appreciate the horrors that have gripped his city.

A Greek chorus of soon-to-be-killed bit players delivers a warning shot in the Prologue, making readers aware, right from the start, that this will be no walk in the park. And indeed, tongues are cut from mouths, women raped and killed in front of their children, and bodies rain from the sky. The brutality and gore are presented with such forthrightness the reader finds himself riveted even as the steady drumbeat of death appalls.

"Then they rape the daughter-in-law. They strangle her with a towel. They slit her throat. They wait for her to die. They slit her stomach, all the way down. From her breasts to her pubic bone. They take her baby out. They throw up, at the sight of unborn flesh. And, of course, the blood. They throw up on the kitchen countertop, over the vegetables she was peeling. Then they set the house on fire."

The above is from one of three lengthy eyewitness accounts attached to an email Miss Glass sends to Mr. Jay providing directions for his journey. In these tales the witnesses and victims have names but the perpetrators are simply called A, B, C, and D. And between each chapter a member of the chorus of the dead – Head Nurse, for instance, or Taxi Driver – recounts his or her fiery end at the hands of a similarly nameless, faceless gang. The acts of violence remain vivid but anonymous, for now.

And the gruesomeness of these literary body blows is intended. Gujarat was vile and indefensible – over a month of jaw-dropping communal murder on a vast canvas – and Jha is attempting to recreate the aura of shock and disgust, danger and fear that swallowed the state like darkest night. THIS REALLY HAPPENED, he is reminding us, and such matter-of-fact recounting of horrors – Jha keeps the prose mostly plain rather than purple – rings more of history than fiction.

In an audacious and hilarious set piece at the railway station, however, Jha looses his pen. Jay is awaiting his escort to Miss Glass when a dwarf named Bright Shirt appears. Waltzing through a puddle of trousers, shoelaces, and a lengthy black and white-checked scarf, the stubby one freezes Jay in bemused awe:

"He was running, on the spot, stomping and stamping in this puddle, his clothes flapping like giant tropical birds perched on his body. He was jumping up and down, his elbows and knees jerking back and forth, restless, impatient, like a player limbering up before a game. …
'Forgive my looks, for I am just a clown,
My job is to cheer you up, Whenever you are down.
You look very tired, sir, you look quite beat,
So let's sit down for a while, and get something to eat?'
Then he turned, with a flick of his heel, a stamp of his foot, like a soldier in a parade, and was off. He walked as if there was no crowd, barging right into people, banging against their suitcases and their bundles, almost knocking his head against their knees. This strategy of his seemed to work, though. For the crowd was parting for him, easily and spontaneously, and he was walking, running, jogging, as if this were a playground and he were a child."

The comic relief is short-lived and serves mainly as a bridge between the atrocities of the book's first two-thirds and the surreal fantasyland of the finale. Here we find dead families swimming in water-filled homes, books and towels doing stand up, and juggling, singing fire-wielders. With the last fifty pages Jha floats to heights of silly surreality and stoops to somewhat reductive social commentary. The clash with what has come before is jarring, yet in the cacophony a potent message rings true.

Even as Gujarat burns and hundreds die, this is a story about Jay. We never meet his wife, and in a way we never meet Ithim, either. And all of the lesser characters end up dead. There are clear echoes of Kensaburo Oe's piercing novel Bird, in which the titular deformed son reflects a physically and psychically scarred post-WWII Japan. But in Fireproof it is the protagonist, not his misshapen offspring, who stands in for a devastated Asian nation.

Once upon a time Gujarat was just one of 28 Indian states. A pleasant enough spot snug up against Pakistan and the Arabian Sea; unremarkable, perhaps, but with decent beaches and Asia's lone lion preserve it kept up appearances. Today the word describes not only India's stubby most-westerly appendage but also a time and place one would prefer to forget.

Five years later the violence has waned but tensions have yet to ease. Some 30,000 of the 200,000 Muslims made homeless by the pogrom still live as refugees in 81 relief camps across the state. Afraid of inciting violence, Gujarat's theatre owners regularly refuse to screen controversial films: last year Fanaa was banned because of Aamir Khan's controversial political stance and just last month it was Nasaruudeen Shah starrer Parzania, in which parents search for their young son, one of the countless lost in the madness. And it appears a lack of political will is as culpable as lingering communal animosity: as of June 2006 only 10 convictions had been made in over 4000 criminal cases originally filed by the police in connection with the carnage.
Gujarat, then, is the great national nightmare from which India has yet to awake. With Fireproof, Mr. Jha endeavors to ring the alarm.

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