She will build him a City
Raj Kamal Jha, in his novel ‘She will build him a City’, is a master weaver, who does not shy away from narrating complex stories of common people and manages to create a sense of completion through fragmentation – a master narrator performing at his best through his skilled craftsmanship. Jha’s unapologetic handling of the intricate and layered narrative as a novelist stems from his innate desire as an investigative journalist, “to tell stories … that others do not tell … that do not want to be told … and if not told may never get told” (Mumbai Press Club). At the very onset, Jha sets the tone of the foreboding darkness of an intensely dense megacity of Delhi of the 21st century, while using quotes from Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ from the 19th century as the epigraph to his novel. Thus, ‘She will build him a City’ is a novel where the real and imaginary worlds merge, dreams and hopes look real, and reality looks fleeting, where a sense of déjà vu prevails, where timelines collapse into each other, memories get built upon losses, concepts of love and evil twists into ugly and delicate fragments, and where the main protagonist emerges as the city of Delhi itself; a city claiming lives with its own rage that is described through the stabbing painful summers, dark winters, and the secretive veils of the midnight.
Delhi in this novel exists as a living and breathing entity, playing amajor part in shaping the plot and the narrative. Peripheries in the city play their own special role in formulating how the characters interact within the city, or mimic the city, or even interact among themselves crossing paths in the city. Jha brings about this aspect through the representation of various city spaces forming their own metonymy: the metro which has various intestine-like curves and lines dividing the city into its poor and rich sections; the park for rich children where poor children are not allowed in; the school where hundreds apply to, but only a select few ‘lucky’ children receive admissions; the orphanage where children with special needs receive secondary preference; a hospital that is a viral battle ground for increasing impatience and protests; the highways that has cars running like blood through its veins; the new buildings that emerge on farmlands like cells in a muscle; the separate elevators that lurk in dark corners to be accessed only by ‘servants and pets’ to reach the affluent apartment complex filled with greenery; the swimming pool that’s built on the farm lands, where generations of farmers just live like cockroaches in nooks and crannies – unseen and unheard; the mall that has glass borders which only in the fantasy world can the underdogs of the city cross over; the darkness of the movie theatre that’s almost a mini version of the city in itself; the movie screen where at times reality merges with fantasy; and the ‘Opaar’ village that is represented as the unknown other side, apart and away from the city.
Such convolutions and the layered confusion, brought about by the deliberate polyphonic structure of the novel can be seen through some of the fleeting characters and spaces that emerge and then vanish off, not playing too major a role in the plot, but lending a slippery texture to the narrative. Through such a structure, Jha shows us an inkling of how people momentarily come together in this megacity, and how their conflation of voices represent disappointment, despair, neglect, fear, and hope. He quite deliberately ensures that the novel is read with a disturbing sense of awareness that stratified voices exist in the city: voices of the rich, the poor, the represented, the underrepresented, voices of the people living in those dark corners of the city where television cameras do not reach; where contradictory worlds live right across the street to each other and frequently step across each other’s periphery; flitting in and out at the physical, emotional, and psychological levels. Jha ensures he writes not to make his readers comfortable, but to shake them to the very core through thought-provoking details, gloomy metaphors, and dark satire. And this structure works brilliantly well to create an overall cohesive image of the Indian megacity of the postmodern era.
Though the core of the book deals with an orphan who steps into the unknown frightening world alone, the novel is essentially about memory; a memory that’s a product of loss, which is both foreboding and fascinating at the same time. In a modern megacity like Delhi where a huge part of the population is below the age of thirty, the novel begins where hope of the youth ends, where the characters cannot reclaim their lives anymore. Through his portrayal of characters, Jha asks the question of what does one do when the bubble of the megacity bursts and one can no more hold on to a solid foundation of a structure. Is one left with only lament and despair, or can one still keep living with new-formed hope? Thus, the dominant impulse of this novel is about people, how they build and rebuild hope by formulating an imaginary world for themselves; carrying their own versions of the city within themselves. Thus, this novel was named ‘She will build him a City’, ensuring perpetual hopefulness keeps building even while living in a dark world. This novel is a must-read for nuanced readers who would want to enjoy delicate scenes like a small baby riding a loving dog, or a fairy-like child dancing delicately among the stars in her after-life, side by side with foreboding scenes of rapes and murders, dirty politics and damages of a growing economy, happening in the most casual of manners alongside each other in a highly stratified social space.