Raj Kamal Jha, the executive editor of Indian Express, has been preoccupied with the Gujarat riots of 2002 since he went to the state in their aftermath. He wrote a long piece on the topic in his newspaper after touring the riot-torn state. It has been long supposed that the material of his journey would result in a novel. Fireproof, the result of that effort, is Jha's third book.
The 2002 riots started after fifty-nine passengers, all Hindu, were killed when a train – the Sabarmati Express – was stopped and attacked near Godhra, a town about 150 km from Gujarat's capital city of Gandhinagar. Among those killed were several activists on their way back from Ayodhya where they had been campaigning to build a temple in the name of Lord Ram (this is the same site where the Babri mosque was demolished in 1992, leading to widespread rioting in the country). Against this backdrop, the killing of Hindu activists was looked upon as a blatant provocation. In the riots that followed, over a thousand men, women and children were killed, more than 70 per cent of them Muslim.
The novel begins with the narrator, Mr. Jay, discovering that his just born child is severely deformed. Ithim – that's the name the father gives his boy, a combination of it and him, for the child was barely human – is born prematurely, a child who has no limbs, nose, ears – only eyes. He has large expressive eyes, with perfect lashes and brows. As the book proceeds, Ithim's story becomes less and less important—its relationship to the central theme of the book is, at best, tenuous. Yet, Jha sends out a distinct signal in contrasting Jay's love for his deformed son against the willful murderousness of the riotous mobs. By speaking through a tired, broken man, Jha alerts the reader to the futility of violence and by showing this man's love for his abnormal son in a city of forced abnormality, lifts the tale to a higher plane.
The book comes through as a painstaking process of dwelling into the mind of a man who is at his wit's end figuring out how to look after his infant child in the midst of unforgiving violence. This is where the mysterious Ms Glass steps in. Hounding Jay over bafflingly anonymous phone calls, she invites Jay to a train journey "to set Ithim right". What follows is a hodgepodge of dream-like sequences with a surprising twist at the end.
An easy way to write such a book would have been to recreate the violence – restage the acts of grotesque brutality – which Jha does at one level. But what is noticeable about the violence is its banality. The Muslims who were killed were regular people – doctors, nurses, fruitsellers. Jha's use of the footnote to convey the agony of the dead is a way of showing the heart-wrenching banality of it all. In fact, the people who committed the murders weren't political activists at all. They too were ordinary folk, going about with their daily lives, until Godhra happened and they latched on to it to make a political statement. While Gujarat is one of India's more prosperous states, it is pertinent to question the extent to which economic background, unemployment and illiteracy play a part in the sort of marginalization that breeds antipathy for "the other".
Fireproof is an unusual book because Jha employs several different narrative devices to drive home his point. None of the dead victims seek retribution. All they are worried about is the fate of those who have survived. Jay, on the other hand, comes across as the one bearing the cross of a city, a state gone astray. Nightmares and dreams and mini-acts are Jha's way of seeking to repair the damage.
Jha has a penchant for emblems – acts of devious brutality come alive when newscasts about the killings are interrupted by advertorials for the upcoming Oscars or dead bodies rain from the sky. Scenes of violence couched as dreams jostle for space in this crowded narrative. But what jars is Jha's tendency to introduce rhyme to bring out the victims' suffering. Seeking to draw the menace that four random rioters A, B, C and D wreak, he pens this:
A wears glasses,
B, a striped shirt.
C ties his shoes
And D means to hurt.
A pulls her hair,
C gives a shout,
B just watches
As D lashes out.
So scheming is the violence to embellish which the poems are written, that Jha's efforts at rhyme not only come across as amateurish but also unsympathetic.
A book that deals with an issue as pertinent as religious violence should ideally explore what drives otherwise sane people to become casual murderers. What makes them reject "the other" and how this notion of otherness is played out during normal times. Given Jha's profession, it would have been interesting to see the media's role in all this. Does it sensationalize events to boost readership or does it promote genuine debate? How far is the media responsible for stoking passions? Do reporters for television news channels present things in a more vile way than they ought to? What are the pros and cons of excessive media intrusion? All of these questions would make for fascinating fiction. Jha's response to the tragedy is one of, deservedly so, immense shock, but his book fails to address these questions.