A Review of Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and Sea.
I first listened to Raj Kamal Jha’s The City and the Sea on Audible. The narrator’s voice displayed a rich, pronounced Indian accent and made an already eerie narrative more compelling. With its tentativeness and simplicity, this voice ferries the reader across the shores of reality to an interstitial space between reality and fantasy, between what is real and what is imagined. Like several postcolonial realities, the historical antecedent to this narrative is a case of human’s inhumanity to humans.
The novel centers on the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case that involved a rape and fatal assault on 16 December 2012 in Munirka, a neighborhood in South Delhi. The incident took place when Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy intern, was beaten, gang-raped, and tortured in a private bus in which she was traveling with her male friend. There were six others on the bus, including the driver, who raped the woman and beat her friend. Eleven days after the assault, she was transferred to a hospital in Singapore for emergency treatment but died two days later. The whole of the country erupted in anger as people condemned the event in widespread protests. After the event, the victim’s name could not be named because an Indian Law forbids naming the victim to avoid the shame associated with rape.
Jha’s novel alludes to this event from the first page presented in the voice of Murinka: “My name I cannot tell. There is a law in my land to protect me, to ensure that I am not shamed…” (1). This opening is ironic as rape already tells a story of shame. But her real name means fearless. The symbolic representation of “Fearless” is the fearless tale that is so brilliantly retold in this narrative that it explores impossible possibilities. Jha’s creativity comes to play as he explores the idea of fearlessness beyond the realm of the living. At the end of the narrative, the unnamed woman narrator, described as a mother and Ma by her phantom child, becomes a guide for other dead people, Africans traveling across the Atlantic, and who came killed on arrival. Her fearlessness becomes a model for people in similar situations, just as Jyoti Singh’s (also known as Nirbhaya) struggle and death became a symbol of women’s resistance to rape worldwide. Like Munirka, this female character was also raped on a bus by December, a poor Indian bus conductor, his bus driver, and December’s cousins. December is recognizable as the juvenile – Mohammed Afroz – who was convicted of rape and murder and given the maximum sentence of three years imprisonment in a reform facility, as per the Juvenile Justice Act. Raj’s story, thus, explores the possibilities that could have been her life: a child (the phantom narrator), a husband, and a holiday on a German Island.
After reading this novel, I considered the possibilities that die with humans more deeply, most especially unrealized dreams. I also reflected on the victimizer as a victim. December is sympathetically depicted so that we see him as a helpless teenager trying to make sense of his existence rather than as a villainous person bent on destroying another. I have not read much of Jha, but this novel makes me want to read more.