Review: The City and the Sea by Raj Kamal Jha
The city and the sea have been variously portrayed in literature. They figure as delusory escape routes in Cavafy’s poem The City, capturing the universal modern human predicament of a no-exit situation in a prison of our own making. In the French Romantic poet Alfred de Vigny’s La bouteille à la mer, the bottle (city) represents man’s desire to transmit ideas, to give them permanence, the sea their mortal transience. HW Longfellow’s poem, also titled The City and the Sea, had depicted them as sustaining one another through a kind of osmosis. More recently, the choral composer Eric Whitaker turned five short poems by e. e. cummings into a composition titled The City and the Sea, in which the two became metaphors for an alternating canvas of human life and Nature. All these resonate in the novel under review which moves forward through sequences repeatedly captioned “The city” and “The sea”.
What happens when your mother fails to return home one night and the passing days bring no news of her? When your father provides little comfort or practical support, wandering aimlessly in and out of the front door? “The city” poses these troubling questions as a young boy sets out to find his missing mother, wandering through streets and by-lanes he has never seen on a relentless journey where the borderline between the real and the imagined is tenuous and flimsy. He understands what his mother had meant in describing the world outside the home as an intrusive sea, a terrain teeming with human beings, filth, drains and sewage. Meanwhile, in the alternating sequence “The sea”, a woman in a foreign country (Germany) tries making sense of the alien, deserted seascape she finds herself alone in, and of the conflicting images (snow, possibly abandoned children, even a recent Nobel Laureate) that dance in and out of her vision. The stream of consciousness mode dominates much of the novel, becoming not one voice but many, not always satisfactorily, even tedious at times, before surrendering to a surreal fantasy nearer the end when the two worlds collide in ways one partly anticipates, but with bizarre twists involving mother and son that somewhat redeem the two images and take them to another level.
Sexual violence and abuse, hinted at in the considerable “advance praise” for the novel, are implicit in the story and the spectre of rape dominates it from the opening lines of The Prologue: “My name I cannot tell. There is a law in my land to protect me, to ensure that I am not shamed…” The lines are a chilling reminder of the young woman gang-raped on a moving Delhi bus in December 2012, who was confined to anonymity as “Nirbhaya” or the fearless one till her mother decided there was no indignity in revealing her name. Significantly, the word rape remains unmentioned in the novel, a word the protagonist wants to “speak…out loud” but never does though Nirbhaya is a thinly-disguised but ubiquitous presence throughout, a peg on which the novel pretty much hangs.
The young stranger, hardly more than a boy himself though he has a “faint fuzz” on his upper lip, who inserts himself into the son’s story and accompanies him on his search, remains nameless (pretty much, ironically, like a rape victim). When he lowers his guard momentarily it is to say he could be called “December” – a month marked into our national calendar of shame and an unsubtle intimation of who or what he stands for. Crammed into his bag are crumpled pages of what read like a confession from which disturbingly familiar images spill out: a bus driver urging a group that included December to go on a joy ride and find a woman; a young woman and her male friend who were duped into boarding the bus; the iron rod with which they were attacked; and so on. The story steps out of the pages in magical realism mode as December ushers the boy through shanties and highways, landing up eventually in his village and his home. In a verbal catharsis he now admits what had been insinuated but left unsaid, and points the boy through a curtain as it were, into a region where the city and the sea merge in an unexpected finale.
Sharply detailed throughout, some of the particulars work more satisfactorily than others. Among those that work are the repeated references to what the boy’s missing mother wore on that fatal day: a cream-coloured shirt with black leggings, a black jacket and a red scarf. Taken together they create a certain image of contemporary Indian womanhood, one that continues to provoke adverse public reactions in those who would perpetuate a mythical stereotype of the Bharatiya Nari. They offer a rebuttal to this stereotype, subtly arguing for a woman’s freedom to dress how she wants and extending the canvas to a pan-Indian scenario in which women face physical assault daily, irrespective of what they wear. The fact that the mother was a newspaper reporter contains an added nuance, perhaps unintended here as the manuscript was most likely in press before sexual harassment in the media became breaking news.
Less convincing are the attempts to project December as repentant, and thereby a victim of circumstances – an argument some have put forward with respect to his real-life prototype. One may and should justifiably debate, censure, and condemn the social milieu in which boy-men like December are allowed to grow and how it impacts them but his fictional repentance and transformation, unsubstantiated in real life, calls for more than a willing suspension of disbelief and may need a different kind of book.
Vrinda Nabar is the author of “Caste as Woman” and a former Chair of English, Mumbai University.