Raj Kamal Jha’s new novel, The City And The Sea, unfolds in that nebulous zone that stretches between fact and fiction, wakefulness and nightmare, life and death. Inspired by the horrific gang rape of a young woman in Delhi and her subsequent death, the contours of the story are now familiar to people across the world. But the incident remains especially unforgettable to those in this country who followed its grisly progression in the news media over the long December of 2012. For several days, in spite of the wintry chill, people in the Capital took to the streets to protest against the crime committed on “Nirbhaya”—the Fearless One—as she was christened by the media. As protesters clashed with the police, demands for capital punishment were raised. Eventually, laws were rewritten. Nirbhaya became not only a byword for gender justice in India but also part of the global lexicon of human rights, surpassing national boundaries and contexts.
Since then, her story has been told in documentaries, reimagined in texts, and recently depicted in the Netflix drama series Delhi Crime. Yet, in spite of being so well-rehearsed by now, with each iteration its power has only been amplified manifold. The case with Jha’s novel is no different, even though, like any self-respecting work of fiction, it follows a trajectory that is only tenuously affixed to what exactly happened in reality.
“I write fiction because I want to understand what facts may not tell,” Jha, chief editor of The Indian Express, has explained in an interview in The Wire about The City And The Sea. Implied in that seemingly innocuous remark is also the immense responsibility that comes from embracing such projects: the duty to be respectful of real-life tragedies while turning them into fodder for fiction; being mindful of the liberties that imagination may take to mine truths that are made of grey tones, instead of being sharply defined by black and white scenarios that the world learns from the news.
At the heart of Jha’s revisiting of the Nirbhaya incident is a mother and a child. The former, a woman who works in a newspaper in Delhi as a copy editor, is saddled with a husband incapable of finding employment. But in spite of their hard life and decrepit circumstances, she dreams of going away one day to a far-off land by the sea, checking herself into a hotel she has booked online, and looking through the window at flakes of snow descending from the sky.
One cold December day, this woman with high hopes leaves for work after sending her young son to school but does not return home. Her husband calls the police, but they leave after making perfunctory assurances. Dismayed, this man, weak and unable to look after his family but smarting with impotent rage, discovers a sudden fount of desperate courage in himself and goes off in search of his wife, leaving their little boy all alone at home. In his absence, a visitor comes calling, a man-boy called December with the wisp of a moustache, unkempt and broken. He promises the child that he will take him to his mother.
Jha’s narrative alternates between the child’s excursion into the city with December and his mother’s soliloquy, as she finds herself in the hotel of her long-cherished dream, in a strange German town on the Baltic Coast, run by a receptionist called “Herta Muller”—a nod to the German Nobel laureate, one of Jha’s influences. The unnamed boy soon discovers he is being led by December into “The Sea” his mother often spoke to him about: It is “the second city undercover and underground, mostly invisible…teeming with the lost and the forgotten, the dead and the missing”. During this purgatorial journey, he is given glimpses into the incidents of that fateful night when his mother disappeared, interspersed with the story of December’s life, his metamorphosis from a hapless village urchin into a bus conductor capable of monstrous crimes.
In spite of its parable-like structure and the fog of surreal half-truths that fills its pages, The City And The Sea is a deeply-felt work. Reminiscent, in parts, of the flatly allegorical mode of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Jha’s narrative tends to digress at times, unexpectedly shifting focus to victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in the US, for instance, or the plight of refugees headed to Europe in boats across perilous seas. Odd as these digressions are, they jolt us into questions shot through with moral dilemmas.
In the universe that Jha conjures up, there are no certainties, except for the fact that its outline is defined by a familiar and keen sense of the tragic. His ending, too, dissolves the boundaries between the reliable and the improbable. The reader remains bereft of consolation yet, curiously, not without hope.