After the recent release of his third book Fireproof, set against the backdrop of the Gujarat riots, journalist and author Raj Kamal Jha speaks to Rishi Majumder about writing and newspapering
Photographer: Rana Chakraborty
Central characters in your novels serve as strong metaphors by their main being — such as Ithim in Fireproof, who can see and hear but do nothing else… like those who are dead. Or Paradise Park in the middle of the maidan in If you Are Afraid Of Heights. How are they conceived?
I don’t know where they come from, these metaphors as you call them. More like images, shards of scenes. At the same time, I don’t quite feel the need to know where they come from. The only thing I hope is that they keep coming from wherever they come from. I have always been intrigued by opposites and extremes. Paradise Park, therefore, was a building from where you could see the sea five hundred miles away. Ithim is a baby, incredibly grotesque but incredibly adorable as well.
The Blue Bedspread, If You Are Afraid Of Heights and Fireproof all have a child as crucial elements throughout the story. Now that you have pointed this out, bared the secret, I have to be careful the next time, I guess, lock all the doors and windows so that no kid enters the story! But a child has always struck me as a fascinating “character”. For a million reasons: she is yet to be formed, her baggage is light, she is naturally sensitive. For a kid, hope is natural, not something he or she needs to work on. For a kid, there is no almost dividing line between the head and the heart, between intellect and emotion. And, this is sometimes the troubling aspect, a child is usually at the mercy of adults. Which makes him or her more vulnerable. Which makes a child a wonderful character in a story.
Your work has drawn comparisons to Raymond Carver, Don DeLillo and Paul Aster. Have any of these authors influenced you more than any other? All the authors you name are those whose work I follow, admire, have learnt from. To say that they influence me is giving myself too much credit. But what I like about these authors is that their work represents not only craftsmanship of the finest order but a remarkable skill to make you see and feel things in a way you have never seen or felt. They give you lines, paragraphs, characters, scenes, stories that you carry within you as long as you live. They help you understand things you would never have otherwise.
Take Paul Auster. It’s amazing-the way he completely steps aside once you have entered his story. Not once does he remind you he is the one doing the writing. You meet him when you pick up the novel and then you meet him when the novel is over, when you have turned the last page.
I think in the end what influences your writing is what influences your living, all the people and the places you care for, all the memories and the hopes, the irritations and the disappointments.
In earlier interviews you’d mentioned you personally didn’t care much reporting, and that writing up interviews appealed more to you. On this note, former journalist Marquez had exhorted in an article that today’s media is overemphasizing ‘getting the news first’, rather than presenting it well, and ascertaining facts.
I have the greatest respect for reporting and good reporters. And with each passing day, that seems to be growing. Not just because I feel guilty sitting in my office cubicle while they are out getting the story, getting doors slammed in their face, phones hung up on them.
But also because, and this is what’s most important, getting a story is the key. Editing it, writing it, packaging it, critiquing it, doing what you want to do with it – all this is the easy part. Getting the story is the toughest.
Of course, there are good reporters and there are lousy reporters but I am referring to the good ones, the ones who let the story do the talking. They will always be in short supply because it’s difficult to come across great story-getters. Also, there always will be far more stories than there are reporters.
Having passed out of IIT Kharagpur, your books don’t deal with any scientific subject or issues except an occasional allegory. Do you see science contributing to your writing in an indirect way?
Whether science contributes to my writing is a question I’m not the best person to answer but one thing I know for sure: science contributes to my view of the world in a very strong way. The mathematical logic, the analytical tools, the need to get the equation balanced, the fact that everything has to have a verifiable explanation are things which, on the surface, may seem antithetical to fiction. But these are very much a part of the process of writing, I think.
The four years at IIT Kharagpur, though, affected me more at a personal level. I was lucky to make friends, meet people who were very talented and very modest, two qualities that now seem to work almost in opposition. And, of course, I wouldn’t have met my wife if I had not gone to IIT.
“Too much emphasis is laid on style,” you’d said during an interview. But your novels – from The Blue Bedspread and If You’re Afraid Of Heights to Fireproof — do have a very carefully selected form. From the footnotes of the dead in Fireproof, to the way the novel introduces Amir and Rima in If You Are Afraid… to the method of re-entering the past to tell a story in The Blue Bedspread.
Don’t get me wrong. When I said too much emphasis is laid on style, I wasn’t underestimating the value of form or style in story telling… I was responding to a question on whether there is a difference between journalism and fiction writing. I think in the end, there are some stories that you can do the best justice to only through journalism. And then there are those stories you can tell the most effectively only through fiction. The trick is in making that choice. And once you have made it, you just sit down and start piecing the story together hoping you made the right choice.
This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/bkqj