A child’s English workbook: Learning to Communicate, by S K Ram and J A Mason (Oxford University Press, 124 pages).
This book was on the balcony of an empty house in Gulbarg Society (38 burnt alive, 12 missing), for over 60 days, first touched by the fire, then by the 45-degree sun. The stain of a damp patch in the top left-hand corner has seeped into every page. The Fire Brigade came here to wash the dead, it must have been water from their hoses.
From the child’s handwriting in the book, I can’t make out if it’s a boy or a girl. There’s no name on the book, just a phone number on the inside cover, again in the child’s handwriting. I call.
‘‘Hello,’’ says a woman.
I wanted a slit uterus as a souvenir but it had grown two little feet, marched to the Rashtrapati with Sahmat activists. From there, perhaps, to George’s to tell him it wasn’t as old as 1984. So all I got were some books in the ashes. Unlike humans, books don’t burn so easily
‘‘I’m looking for a student,’’ I take a shot in the dark.
‘‘No, this is The School Post,’’ she says. ‘‘It’s a monthly newspaper for schoolchildren that we bring out.’’
Maybe the child sent in a poem, a sketch, so I ask if she has heard of any contributors missing?
‘‘This is the summer vacation,’’ she says, ‘‘I’m sorry, all schools are closed.’’
The child’s writing ends on Page 84. After that, the book is unread, the blanks unfilled.
On Page 43, there’s a lesson called Fire In a Hotel about a blind man called John Brown and his dog Chum who are trapped in a hotel fire. ‘‘I smelt smoke! A fire! I felt the door of my room. It was hot so I didn’t open it. I wet some towels and put them along the bottom of the door. (The child has underlined this sentence). I felt my way to the window and opened it. But because I can’t see, I could not climb out.’’
I can see, so I look up at the child’s window, there’s nothing there, just a black rectangle.
The child has marked a poem: There is smoke everywhere I go. There is only one thing that I love, and that is the sky far above. There is plenty of room in the blue, for castles of clouds and me, too. Maybe the Poet-PM could weave this in his next musings from Manali or wherever.
The publisher’s note about Jha’s forthcoming book makes you instantly aware that the novel takes as its point of entry what the writer had witnessed and recorded in Gujarat. Although I cannot, alas, take credit for Jha’s new novel, I want to draw the attention of this blog’s readers to what I had said about Jha’s Gujarat report in my review of his previous book If You Are Afraid of Heights in Outlook:
Among all the articles that were written by journalists who visited Gujarat after the riots, the most original and moving piece had been Jha’s. His essay recounted the experience of opening the pages of a partially-charred children’s textbook. The writer had picked up the book from Gulbarg Society where 38 people had been burnt alive. “On Page 43, there’s a lesson called ‘Fire In a Hotel’ about a blind man called John Brown and his dog Chum who are trapped in a hotel fire. ‘I smelt smoke! A fire! I felt the door of my room. It was hot so I didn’t open it. I wet some towels and put them along the bottom of the door…I felt my way to the window and opened it. But because I can’t see, I could not climb out’.”
It is impossible not to think of Jha’s reportage from Gujarat when reading If You Are Afraid of Heights. The pages are haunted by the sound of a child crying. In his writing about the little girl’s rape, Jha demonstrates both rage and finesse. More than once, he shows us a child working through her English lesson. In one scene, a girl reads about a deposed king, Robert Bruce, who, hiding in a cave, watches a spider fail and then succeed at spinning a cobweb. We are in touch with a young imagination struggling with a world of adult rules and expectations. The scene, exemplifying an attitude, offers what I think of as a real Jha moment, when we see tenderness glowing like a firefly in the dark.