This book begins to narrate its story, or stories, with the picture on the jacket; the story has begun, then, even before we’ve reached the first page. After a dedication to the author’s parents, we encounter a quotation from Paul Auster’s Mr Vertigo, which expresses, deadpan, the following view on flying, or weightlessness, or ‘hovering in the air’: ‘Deep down, I don’t believe it takes any special talent for a person to lift himself off the ground and hover in the air. We all have it in us – every man, woman, and child.’ Then we arrive at page one, whose opening sentences calmly exhort us: ‘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 a few things you cannot see.’ We look, and there is indeed a picture of a girl in a red dress, an anklet around her left ankle, hair coming down below her shoulders, standing very straight and looking out from a balcony, while a bird flies to her right.
In If You Are Afraid of Heights, his second novel, Raj Kamal Jha seems to be trying to make the book, in its material incarnation, a part of the narrative experience; to bring to it life and motion, not in a magical or anthropomorphic sense, but in a way that’s nonetheless unexpected and strains at the limits of possibility. This impulse to involve the inanimate or the non-human in the story, to give it agency, is evident again in the description of a building on the first page. Having told us to ‘Look at the picture on the cover,’ the narrator goes on to discuss ‘a few things you cannot see’ on it; for instance, the building on whose balcony the girl in the red dress is standing:
a building that, from the street outside, looks like a crying face. Its windows are the eyes, half-closed by curtains, smudged and wrinkled. Rain, wind and sun of countless years have marked the wall, streaking it in several lines, two of which look like lines of tears, one falling below each window. The mouth is the balcony, curved down under the weight of iron railings, rusted and misshapen. Like the stained teeth of someone very sad. And someone very old.
Jha isn’t interested here in personification or allegory, or in exhuming the discredited pathetic fallacy. As you read the novel, you discover that, though the three stories that comprise it have human characters and a mystery or quest at their centre, it’s the casual but persistent non-human or disembodied elements in each tale – a child’s cry, trams, an antique shop, a crow – that both withhold meaning from, and confer it on, the characters, and the readers. The characters themselves – with the exception of some in the second story – are deliberately emptied of psychological inwardness, and have the odd plangency of figures in a primer (indeed, in the last story, the connection between the novel’s characters and those in a child’s English primer is made more explicit). The world of insensate things – of machines, rooms and objects – and of animals has an eerie unpredictability, a suggestion of menace and a capacity to astonish. What you get in this novel is not a cute anthropomorphism – although a man flying above the city on a crow is central to it – or a magic realist addiction to the miraculous and to allegories of national history. I was reminded more of Dalí: ‘After Freud it is the outer world, the world of physics, which will have to be eroticised and quantified.’ It is with the eroticisation of ‘the outer world’, beginning with the cover of the book and the exhortation to study it, that Jha’s novel is concerned, and it’s a project that few other novels in the English language – although there are notable lineages in European art and cinema – have undertaken with comparable seriousness and imagination.
The first story begins with a paragraph that briefly summarises what it’s about:
Once upon a time in the city, there lived a woman called Rima and a man called Amir and late one night, they met in an accident, face to face, she picked out the shards of broken glass from his face, they fell in love and just when it seemed they were settling down to live happily ever after, a strange little thing happened one night: Rima woke up hearing a child cry.
The rest of the story fills out what happened until the night ‘Rima woke up hearing a child cry.’ Amir works in a post office in ‘this dying city’, which the narrator never names, but which, to judge by the landmarks, descriptions and some of the street names, is Calcutta. He is an ‘Extra Departmental Agent’ – someone who has ‘a government job’ which ‘isn’t a permanent one’. He lives in the building that, ‘from the street outside, looks like a crying face’. Inside his flat, things aren’t much better: his ‘toilet bowl is white, cracked in several places where his shit gets stuck so that even though he pours in half a bottle of acid every other morning, the stains don’t go away’. Amir is of ‘medium height, medium age, medium weight . . . everything medium. Even in colour, he’s medium brown.’
In a way, Amir is reminiscent of Auden’s ‘unknown citizen’ who ‘was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be/One against whom there was no official complaint’ and ‘worked in a factory and never got fired/ But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.’ However: ‘Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.’ There are differences between the ironic martyrdom Auden confers on his ‘unknown citizen’, and Jha’s sense of the social injustice faced by Amir, which – although the narrator tells us there are 16 million others like him in the city – is compounded by a sense of mystery and even desire. Auden calls his unknown person a ‘saint’, ‘in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word’; Jha places his protagonist in a deliberately implausible and abortive relationship with Rima. The novel’s eroticism is emphasised by its silences: the narrator doesn’t point out that Amir is a Muslim name, Rima a Hindu one; the names’ mirror images, their concordances and dislocations, nudge our subconscious, as the word ‘ambulance’ does when its letters are seen the wrong way round – distress and terror are momentarily subsumed by confusion, mystery and comedy.
One afternoon, after finishing work at the post office, Amir takes a desultory walk down Park Street, peering into, and being rebuffed at, one of its antique shops, and later strolls down Free School Street to pay his customary visit to a prostitute. Later still, presumably close to midnight, he takes a tram to Esplanade, and is knocked unconscious in a freak collision with another tram: the first collision of its kind, the papers report the next day, to have taken place in the city. Amir wakes up to find himself in an impossibly luxurious apartment at a great height, being looked after by Rima, who apparently picked him up at the site of the accident. It gradually dawns on him that he’s in Paradise Park, an extraordinary new building of mythical height and stature which he’s heard of but never been inside. As he recovers, he rediscovers the city from one of the windows in his room, toy-like and transformed, its furthest, most hidden corners now suddenly visible. He begins a relationship with Rima; they start to go out for secret walks. On one of these excursions, they go to Amir’s old flat, the flat in the house with ‘a crying face’, with its cracked and stained toilet bowl and its badly lit rooms. Here, tending to an injured bird they pick up off the street, they begin to lead a proxy life, the man still not going to work, the woman absent from her home; they lead this life, that is, till the woman repeatedly hears a child’s cry – the moment at which the narrative began. Going out one night to find where the cry was coming from, she vanishes; Amir can’t find her.
Jha was born and grew up in Calcutta, and as this novel and his first, more tentative work, The Blue Bedspread, show, it’s crucial to his imagination; it’s equally clear that Jha doesn’t want to write a novel of place – that, in some senses, he’s mysteriously fascinated with unravelling such a novel. In this book, there is a feeling that a story and locale have been composed, arrived on the brink of recognisability, and then have gently been taken apart. This gives the reader the mixture of freedom, participation and abnegation from volition that people have when they’re dreaming – the sense, at once, of helplessness and agency. Real streets and roads in Calcutta are combined with sites and structures that are both fantastic and imaginary, like Paradise Park. (It’s true, however, that more and more walled cities for the rich are being built in Calcutta, and often have similarly mawkish names: Sherwood, Highland Park etc.) Everyday details or the flotsam of the contemporary world – a sign at a beauty parlour, a poster for Indecent Proposal – coexist with a man on a crow, flying above the city and looking into people’s lives.
These disjunctions aren’t undertaken with magic realist euphoria, however, but have a compelling ordinariness. The phrase that J.G. Ballard uses to distinguish Dalí’s work from that of other Surrealist painters – ‘hallucinatory naturalism’ – is also apposite to Jha’s writing in this book. ‘For the most part,’ Ballard says, ‘the landscapes of Ernst, Tanguy and Magritte describe impossible or symbolic worlds – the events within them have “occurred”, but in a metaphorical sense. The events in Dalí’s paintings are not far from our ordinary reality.’ While the ‘symbolic world’ of Ballard’s Surrealists allegorises the subconscious, the magic realists allegorise history. Here, too, Jha is singular in the way he relinquishes any straightforward relationship to national history, while situating his fantasy imperceptibly but firmly in the tumult of a globalising India. This sentence from Ballard’s essay on Dalí’s art describes Jha’s work, at first glance, even better than it does Dalí’s: ‘Elements from the margins of one’s mind – the gestures of minor domestic traffic, movements through doors, a glance across a balcony – become transformed into the materials of a bizarre and overlit drama.’ I’d only replace ‘overlit’, which is apposite to Dalí, with ‘underlit’: there’s a strong sense in the preponderantly nocturnal landscape of Jha’s novel of poorly lit rooms and streets.
The subject of the second narrative is hinted at in the first one, in a newspaper headline Amir notices casually as he’s having sex with the prostitute: ‘He moves inside her, his faces inches above hers, she moves, her hair brushes against his eyes, he brushes it away, he can see yesterday’s newspaper stuck to the window frame, Girl Found Dead in Small Town, he reads.’ The 11-year-old found raped and possibly murdered next to a canal in a small town outside the city may or not be the girl in the newspaper in the prostitute’s room; according to the post-mortem report, she was wearing a red frock at the time of her death, like the girl on the cover. What do these connections add up to? As if to uncover their significance, a reporter from the city, a woman called Mala, arrives at the small town on a day of rains and waterlogging, and interviews the ‘Post-Mortem Man’, who works in a ‘small building, red in colour with an asbestos roof that gleams in the half-light of this half-afternoon’; she also interviews the girl’s mother, one of the many part-time workers who live in the town, who responds in detail to Mala’s questions about the girl’s red frock, an object of desire in a shop window that had been bought recently; she interviews, too, after a journey through the waterlogged streets, a police officer. She finds out nothing. The only help she gets, which doesn’t amount to very much, is from a mysterious intruder in her room, a man called Alam. Again, Alam’s name is a mirror-image of Mala’s; that the first is a Muslim name and the second a Hindu one is, once more, not remarked on.
The last, and shortest, section is narrated by a girl who lives with her parents in the house with ‘a crying face’. There’s been an epidemic of suicides in the city lately, and the girl is seized by a terror that her parents might be the next to die. One night she finds a ‘friend’ underneath her bed, a man who calls himself the ‘Champion of Hide and Seek’, a man you can’t ordinarily see, who reassures the girl that her parents will be all right. He has been keeping an eye on the mother and father – simultaneously – and taking photographs of the father’s day. He shows her the photographs: they are hypnotically unremarkable – what comes to mind is again Ballard’s phrase, ‘hallucinatory naturalism’. Father at a bus stop; Father in his office; Father looking at a poster in a shop window; Father – and this picture was apparently the most difficult to take – by a window inside a tram. Now the man’s task is over; as he leaves, he does something extraordinary: he gets onto the back of a crow and, as the girl watches from the balcony, flies away. We are being asked not only to partake of the truth of a childish fantasy, but to return to the picture on the cover and study it, to participate in Dalí’s ‘eroticisation of the outer world’.
One reason If You Are Afraid of Heights is sui generis is that its provenance is not literary at all, but lies in film, in what’s misleadingly called ‘world cinema’ (as if Hollywood weren’t part of the world, or the world were an obscure suburb of Hollywood). Tarkovsky, with his obsessions with time, space and the supernatural; Buñuel and Almodóvar, with their peculiar, tragicomic transitions – these films are destined to remain foreign, even to those who speak the language they’re made in, because foreignness is their impulse and topos: in spite of their Russian or Spanish temperament, they speak another language. One might say the same of Jha’s remarkable novel.