Raj Kamal Jha
Photograph: Neeraj Priyadarshi

Raj Kamal Jha The City and The Sea

Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote in his magnum opus, Crime and Punishment, ‘A certain percentage, they tell us, must every year go to the devil so that the rest may remain chaste, and not be interfered with.’ Raj Kamal Jha uses these lines as one of the epitaphs to his new book, The City and The Sea, a novel that questions why this certain percentage of people must go to the devil and how our society is complicit in this injustice, with reference to crimes against women. 

Jha’s book is an unabashed exploration of darkness and deafness in the way our culture deals with violence against women, as he reiterates one of the most brutal cases of rape that shook not just the entire nation but the world, the Nirbhaya case. The narrative is evocative and heart wrenching, imbued with stunning imagery. It shines with the sheer brilliance of the parallel voices of its characters, the little boy and the woman, the city and the sea, respectively. As the novel progresses, it raises important questions about the toxicity that has seeped into masculinity today and leaves one questioning: What kind of men are our boys growing up to be? 

We connected with the author to know more about his new novel.

 

What is your first memory of writing?
Kindergarten entrance test, January 1971, St Joseph’s College, Calcutta, a school at the end of a lane. I recall sitting at a desk, writing the letter ‘S’ in cursive. 

“A scene about child ghosts playing on the beach, their toys half-buried in sand next to a very tranquil sea and a woman watching them from afar. In a way, that’s where The City and The Sea began.”

You're a journalist and a fiction writer. How does one affect the other?
Wholly, seamlessly. There is no strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, nothing as dramatic or sinister. My journalism and my fiction, I would like to believe, inform and shape each other. Both give me tools to tell stories – one informed by evidence that can be independently verified, the other by what exists only as imagined. 

What inspired The City and The Sea?
I am not sure what inspired it, certain events led to it. December 1, 2012 was when my child, between six and seven, saw snowfall for the first time. Two weeks later came Sandy Hook–20 kids, also between six and seven, shot dead in their school in the US; two days later, came the rape in New Delhi. And, there I was, 6000 km away from The Indian Express newsroom, just done with my last novel (She Will Build Him A City), cut off from the news cycle. In Berlin, a beautiful, silent city that wears its guilt on its cobblestones. I had to write and I did. A scene about child ghosts playing on the beach, their toys half-buried in sand next to a very tranquil sea and a woman watching them from afar. In a way, that’s where The City and The Sea began.

“In my writing, I like to go to places I haven’t been. I was aware that I was taking a very contested news event and trying to search for spaces in it, around it, where I could find stories and characters that went beyond the facts.”

The book is seeped in darkness and is an important exercise in the exploration of violence and suffering. Could you take us behind your writing process of this book and how challenging it was to explore such dark themes?
Your question is much more thoughtful than any answer I can come up with.  
This is my fifth novel and I try to go, in my writing, to places I haven’t been. I was aware that I was taking a very contested news event and trying to search for spaces in it, around it, where I could find stories and characters that went beyond the facts. Who spoke the unspeakable, who showed that kindness and brutality can, and do, live next to each other. As part of the writing process, I had to be a reporter too, meet people, ask questions. I am privileged and grateful that many, generously and selflessly, shared their stories. I also worked closely with my editors Meru Gokhale and Manasi Subramaniam. They brought to the story an eye and a heart that lit the way around all that darkness. 

The book begins with an epitaph from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Could you elucidate upon the significance of this epitaph?
Let’s write the epitaph again: ‘A certain percentage, they tell us, must every year go to the devil so that the rest may remain chaste, and not be interfered with.’
In the book, this is Raskolnikov walking the street on a scorching afternoon. He sees a girl, he feels protective about her, she is barely 15 or 16, she’s drunk, he is trying to shield her from an older man who is stalking her. A policeman steps in to help but the girl tells them to leave her alone. She walks away with the man following her, nothing has changed. It’s then that Raskolnikov tells himself maybe the girl belongs to that “percentage” that must go to the devil so that the rest remain unsullied.
This is anger and anguish and I found in it an echo of what we hear too often in our public discourse these days. Find someone terrible so that we look good in comparison. In a deeply unequal society as ours, it’s very tempting to demonise the accused, to blame everyone except ourselves for what goes wrong. So the chorus becomes: let’s toughen the law, lock up the perpetrator, throw the keys away, fast-forward the trial and the conviction, onward march to the gallows because then we can live happily ever after.  

“In a deeply unequal society as ours, it’s very tempting to demonise the accused, to blame everyone except ourselves for what goes wrong. So the chorus becomes: let’s toughen the law, lock up the perpetrator, throw the keys away, fast-forward the trial and the conviction, onward march to the gallows because then we can live happily ever after.”

What did you wish the readers would take away from this book as you wrote it?
Not for me to specify, that’s the reader’s world, it’s her right and I have no role to play. But as the book’s first reader, my takeaway was that each one of us has stories that need to be heard.  As one of Herta Muller’s characters says it, a story is a bandage that we dress our wounds with. I believe our stories also help heal these wounds.

Lastly, what are you working on next?
Some fact and some fiction: A user’s manual of sorts, on freedom of speech and the power of silence.

Text Nidhi Verma