When I first heard that Indian journalist and author Raj Kamal Jha, had written Fireproof, a historical novel set around the 2002 Gujarat riots, I was excited to read the final work. Jha, the managing editor of the New Indian Express, successfully made the transition from journalism to fiction with The Blue Bedspread (1999) and If You Are Afraid of Heights (2003).
Bedspread, in particular, is an amazing work – simplistic, yet full of deep emotion. At its beginning, the narrator tells his niece and infant charge, “I will tell you happy stories and I will tell you sad stories. And remember, my child, your truth lies somewhere in between.”
Unfortunately, there has been very little in the way of “happy stories” concerning the Indian state of Gujarat in the last decade. On 27 February 2002, following the deaths of 58, mostly-Hindu passengers aboard the Sabarmati Express train, the state government and police colluded with Hindu nationalist political parties to promote a program of genocide against Gujarat’s Muslim minority population. Over the next three days, more than 1,000 Muslims were killed; over 200,000 thousand were displaced; tens of millions of rupees worth of property was destroyed, looted or damaged; and many more were injured, abused or tortured.
The level of violence that occurred in the riots had its parallels in probably only two other contentious times in Indian history – the violence against Sikhs following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the several million dead following the Partition of India and Pakistan, before and after August 15th, 1947.
Gujarat became the scene of unimaginable atrocities. In Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy (ed. Siddharth Varadarajan), we read about parents being made to watch their children being dismembered; children asked to swallow kerosene before being torched and “blasted apart”; gang rapes; pregnant women eviscerated; and many people burned alive. Later in the anthology, Shail Mayaram writes, “The tragedy is that what happened involved the genocide not only of households, neighborhoods and communities, but also of the idea of Gujarat.”
With all of that said, I had extremely high expectations for an Indian novel that was set during this particularly disturbing period in India. Perhaps I should have remembered the famous adage about “not counting your chickens” because Jha’s Fireproof is one of the worst Indian novels I have ever read. Like Hari Kunzru and Upamanyu Chatterjee who both triumphed with The Impressionist and English, August respectively and bombed and failed with Transmission and The Mammaries of the Welfare State, respectively, Jha has done a 180 after the brilliance of his first two novels and tanked.
Don’t get me wrong – there are some bright moments in this book. Unfortunately, they end within the first 80 pages. The novel begins with the narrator, Jay, meeting his newborn son for the first time, the day riots began in earnest across Gujarat. Seeing that his son is severely deformed at birth, Jay decides to name the baby “Ithim” because it is both an object (“it”) and a person (“him”). As his wife lies recovering, Jay suddenly sees a woman in another room in the hospital and notices that she has drawn the words “HELP ME” in the condensation of her window. Curious about this woman and her message, Jay later tries to track her down, but without success.
Following the suggestion of the head nurse, conveniently named Head Nurse, Jay decides to take Ithim home for the first time and return to the hospital the next day to see his wife. While driving home in a taxi, Jay barely realizes that city is on fire from violence and we only find out in the next chapter, that this taxi driver will lose his life before the night is over. Once home, Jay is watching TV and checking up on his son, when the phone rings and the woman from the hospital – yes, that woman – calls him up and invites him on a journey to meet her and find a cure for his son’s physical problems. So far so good, right? Well, that’s about it for the part of the novel that makes sense.
What starts out with a strong premise slowly devolves into a stream of conscious mess and several confusing passages, which I have labeled ‘WTF?’ moments. There’s Jay’s dream about looking for a lost cricket ball in a bathroom and actually being pulled into the toilet and swimming through sewage a la Trainspotting. WTF? There’s Jay calculating his body’s surface area to determine how many flies it would take to cover him completely. WTF? There’s another daydream where Jay, in the role of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, imagines eviscerating and butchering a boy and girl who mock him and his son at a movie theater. WTF? And lastly, there’s his meeting with Bright Shirt, a “vertically challenged” individual – part Hobbit, part R2D2 - who recites limericks like an Oompa Loompa and dresses like a clown. Are you kidding me? WTF?
There are so many gimmicks and ideas stolen from other novelists and directors, the novel reeks of popular culture legerdemain. For example, the introduction is purportedly written by the victims and outlines a list of directions with which to read the book. This suspiciously reminds one of Dave Eggers’ original idea in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Also, every chapter begins with the death of a different victim to mob violence. Unfortunately, it reminded me too much of a similar theme in Alan Ball’s HBO series, Six Feet Under, when every episode began with a death, as well.
Reading Fireproof was a challenge for me. I wanted to give up several times, but kept thinking to myself, “Give it a few more pages. It will probably get better.” Well, it never did. I was left with a headache and feeling furious at myself for giving into the promise of a good book. Like “What You Want” by The Roots, the book was, “Pushing me close to madness/ Head heavy like I’m trippin’ on acid tablets.”
Writers have an enormous responsibility, especially when they are reporting in countries where basic rights are oppressed or when their subject matter is highly controversial. Jha has failed not just to write a good book, but also because he had the opportunity to make a great contribution on this subject and instead threw it all away.
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