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Raj Kamal Jha: First-Time Novelist Takes On Family Secrets

Raj Kamal Jha (caribbeanfreephoto/Flickr)

Raj Kamal Jha (caribbeanfreephoto/Flickr)

July, 2001

Raj Kamal Jha is an internationally acclaimed novelist, journalist, and editor at The Indian Express. He is also the recipient of the largest advance ever paid to a first-time Indian novelist. Jha's first book, The Blue Bedspread, is a revealing story of incest, abuse, and secrecy in a Calcutta family with a surprise ending that's almost certain to shock. The Guardian calls it "an incantatory, audacious book, notable for moments of great poignancy." Asia Society spoke with Jha about abusive families, Indian identities, and the international interest in South Asian fiction.

One of the most striking themes of The Blue Bedspread is incest, both between sister and brother and parent and child. Why do you think it is important to give voice to this issue, particularly an Indian voice?

Yes, there is incest in the book, some real, some hinted at, but this isn't the central theme. What defines the narrator is the deafening silence that he has lived with all these years and his realization that he needs to break this silence, to admit his past if he has to survive, to embrace the future. The abuse and the violence are two elements of this painful that he needs to admit to himself. So that he can say, mainly to himself, that look, all this terrible stuff happened to me but I can look ahead, I will not let myself get damaged beyond repair.

Do you think The Blue Bedspread should be read as a portrait of a typical family?

As for the question whether this story is representative of Indian families, obviously the answer is No. This is the story of A family. But if there is a "larger" point (and I hate this word) being made in the novel, and I am not sure if there is, but let me take a risk, it is that the silence in families, at least the ones I know of, becomes an accomplice in repression. Maybe this has to do with the fact--and this is a personal opinion-- that Indian democracy doesn't accord the INDIVIDUAL the status that s/he gets in say a Western democracy. So the identity of the individual is always weighed down by his/her role in family, society. For example, a mother in an Indian family is expected to sacrifice everything and in many cases, even her identity as a woman. And this is seen as perfectly OK, there's no outrage, no discussion, no debate.

What audience did you have in mind when writing this?

I don't think this is a terribly original answer but the fact is that while writing the book, the only audience was myself and a few people I love and care for. Very, very narrow, very limited. And then you always believe, hope that there must be some people out there, total strangers, who will connect with the story or parts of it in much the same way that you did.

There have been phenomenal reviews in the American press; what reactions have you been receiving in India?

As for the reviews, yes, the US press has been more generous than the Indian press. Why? I am comfortable with the simple explanation: that some reviewers didn't like the book as much as some others elsewhere did.

Another major theme in your novel is secrecy, the unraveling of family myths and the immense family baggage we all inherit, even as newborn infants. Your book seems to suggest that even at the heart of abuse and baggage, there can be a core of love and gentleness. How can the contradictions of love and abuse coexist in your novel and in the world in general?

In no way does the narrator justify the abuse via love or "wait for love to win out." Circumstances were such that he couldn't run away (in fact his sister does). So all this roils inside and what perplexes him is the confusion: the same father who went out late at night to get them a pet was at other times so violent and scary. The point the narrator makes is that love and abuse (in whatever form) do coexist even in "normal" times. And what he ultimately does, therefore, is to use these happy memories to come to terms with the painful ones, rather than let himself be overwhelmed by bitterness and hate.

As a journalist, your job is to unravel secrets on a larger scale; how has your day job of being a journalist influenced your fiction?

I am not so sure how journalism influences my fiction. I think it's for others to answer that. But one thing I am aware of: that my job (essentially that of an editor) calls for sifting through stories, weeding out biases and slants as much as possible, being aware that every story has two sides, that things aren't black and white.

What do you make of the recent international interest in Indian fiction? How has your work been influenced by other Indian writers writing in English? Do you see yourself as part of a larger Indian literature movement or as a lone artist?

No, I don't see myself as "part of a movement." Neither as a lone artist. Just as someone who wants to write a few decent stories and I am lucky to be doing that during fascinating times in my country and society-- when you have a tiny minority rushing into the future coexisting with this huge 90-95 per cent that is still trapped in the past and nothing seems to trickle down. This leads to all kinds of tensions and contradictions. What is inspiring is that there are others as well who have stories to tell. But we all come from very different worlds and I think this is what makes it more fun.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell of The Asia Society.