Jha, Raj Kamal 1966–
Jha, Raj Kamal 1966–
PERSONAL: Born 1966, in Calcutta, West Bengal, India; father a college professor. Education: Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, degree in mechanical engineering; University of Southern California, M.A., 1990.
CAREER: In early career, worked for newspapers in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA; Statesman, Calcutta, India, assistant editor, beginning 1992; India Today, New Delhi, India, former senior associate editor; Indian Express, New Delhi, from deputy editor to executive editor, 1996–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Commonwealth Best First Book from Eurasia Region, 2000, for The Blue Bedspread.
The Blue Bedspread (novel), Picador (London, England), 1999, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
If You Are Afraid of Heights (novel), Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2003.
The Blue Bedspread has been translated into twelve languages.
SIDELIGHTS: Not only did Indian journalist and author Raj Kamal Jha's debut novel, The Blue Bedspread, earn immediate success in his homeland, it also attracted an international audience. On the longlist of twenty for the 1999 Booker Prize, The Blue Bedspread was shortlisted for the Guardian's 1999 first fiction prize and received the 2000 Commonwealth Prize for the best first book from the Eurasia region. Through a host of different characters, the novel examines life in the city of Calcutta. Much of the reason it has attracted so much attention is due to its realistic, and often brutal portrayal of everyday life in the overpopulated city. Among other things, Jha explicitly describes scenes of incest and sexual abuse of children, while creating a chaotic world that most of the characters yearn to escape. Because of its nature, the book incensed many readers in India, including some critics. However, foreign publishers realized Jha's talent, as well as the book's commercial potential, and the work was published in Germany, Italy, France, Denmark, Israel, Spain, and the United States.
Jha based much of the content of his book on his experiences covering the streets of Calcutta as a journalist, including serving as the senior editor for the newspaper Indian Express. "The only real character, I think, is Calcutta. I have tried to be faithful to it because the city is a very powerful backdrop for all the characters in the story," Jha told Sudip Mazumdar in an interview for Newsweek International. "They are essentially composites of people I know and people I think I know." Despite the success he has gained because of The Blue Bedspread, Jha has maintained his focus and told Mazumdar: "I work at a newspaper desk. I'm neck deep in hype the whole day and I've been trained to cut through it. So I see all this as a fleeting thing."
While The Blue Bedspread does have a main narrator, it is composed of many different segments that concentrate on various individuals in Calcutta. Each of the segments contains a story within itself. Very few of the characters are given names, in an effort to further minimize the sense of individuality. Many of the characters live in humble dwellings, apartments and the like, and seem obsessed with the notion of American luxury that they see in magazines and on television. In one chapter, Calcutta's American Center Library is portrayed as a sanctuary in the middle of the chaotic city. Clearly, the characters are unhappy with their surroundings, as if they were caged animals yearning for freedom. All the segments are loosely held together by the main narrator, an old man who sees himself as a kind of overseer of Calcutta. The book begins as the old man is writing a letter to his son. "I could begin with my name but forget it, why waste time, it shouldn't matter in this city of twelve million names," he says, setting the tone of smothered individuality. In the book's finale, the old man draws in a huge crowd and makes a confessional speech. Within the crowd, the characters that have inhabited earlier segments appear, one by one, and listen to the speech, giving the book a sense of closure. Literary critic Ophelia Field of the Times Literary Supplement called the work "a shocking novel," and felt the end-ing was "a brilliant finale of mock suspense." Mazumdar described the novel as "a tale of hope, violence and despair."
In his follow-up novel, If You Are Afraid of Heights, the author tells three separate but related stories. In one tale, a disparate couple meet after a traffic accident and one moves in with the other while recuperating from injuries. Another story focuses on the rape and murder of a small girl and the reporter who visits the town where it happened. The final narrative is about a young girl who is afraid that her parents are going to join in the rash of suicides in her local community. Deborah Donovan, writing in Booklist, observed that the stories are "bound by fragile ties of dreams and memories." In a Library Journal review, Rebecca Stuhr wrote that the various stories "feature complex characters set in vividly described surroundings." A Curled Up with a Good Book Web site contributor concluded: "With an omniscient eye, Raj Kamal Jha peers into the teeming mass of humanity, carefully positioning his characters to tell their stories, the complicated emotional layers of lives intersecting, merging and moving on."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Jha, Raj Kamal, The Blue Bedspread, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
Booklist, April 1, 2000, Grace Fill, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 1435; August, 2004, Deborah Donovan, review of If You Are Afraid of Heights, p. 1899.
Detroit Free Press, June 9, 2000, Niraj Warikoo, review of The Blue Bedspread.
Entertainment Weekly, April 14, 2000, Daneet Steffens, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 68.
Guardian (London, England), June 22, 1999, Baret Magarian, "A New Star of India," p. T13.
India Today, March 15, 1999, Ashok Malik, "India's Best Paid Debut Novelist since Arundhati"; December 13, 1999, Ashok Malik, "True Blue."
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2004, review of If You Are Afraid of Heights, p. 649.
Library Journal, April 1, 2000, Ann Irvine, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 130; September 15, 2004, Rebecca Stuhr, review of If You Are Afraid of Heights, p. 49.
New Statesman, June 7, 1999, Phil Whitaker, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 55.
Newsweek International, May 10, 1999, Sudip Mazumdar, "India's New Literary Star," p. 60.
New York Times, April 7, 2000, Richard Bernstein, "In India, Family Secrets of a Most Terrible Kind," p. B46; July 3, 2000, Mervyn Rothstein, "India's Post-Rushdie Generation; Young Writers Leave Magic Realism and Look at Reality," p. B1.
New York Times Book Review, April 9, 2000, Akash Kapur, "12 Million Strangers," p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, March 6, 2000, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 82.
Statesman, January 24, 2000, Anindya Rai, "Bestseller Lists."
Time, April 10, 2000, Andrea Sachs, "The Subcontinentals: Young, Internationally Savvy Indian Writers Are Making Splashy Literary Debuts," p. 130.
Times Literary Supplement, May 28, 1999, Ophelia Field, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 23.
USC Alumni Magazine, winter, 2000, Shashank Bengali, "Dreams of India," brief profile of Raj Kamal Jha.
World Literature Today, winter, 2001, Ramlal Agarwal, review of The Blue Bedspread, p. 105.
Curled Up with a Good Book, http://www.curledup.com/ (December 1, 2005), review of If You Are Afraid of Heights, and Luan Gaines, "An Interview with Raj Kamal Jha."
Emory University Department of English Web site, http://www.english.emory.edu/ (December 1, 2005), brief profile of Raj Kamal Jha.
Etcetera, http://www.etcetera.com/ (April 7, 1999), Deepanjali, "Raj Kamal Jha's Interview."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (April 11, 2000), Sudip Bose, review of The Blue Bedspread.
Spike Magazine Online, http://www.spikemagazine.com/ (December 1, 2005), Harpreet Singh Soorae, review of If You Are Afraid of Heights.