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A scorching portrait

Raj Kamal Jha?s fictional account of the carnage in Gujarat does not demonise the real masterminds, says Harsh Mander

india Updated: Dec 18, 2006 17:51 IST

Raj Kamal Jha
Publisher: Picador
Pages: 388
Format: Paperback
Price: Rs 495

Gujarat burned for months in 2002, in the most gruesome communal carnage of independent India. Through television screens, newspaper reports and citizen investigations, images of intense and unbelievable brutality filtered briefly into the consciousness of a stunned nation. Of burnt children, of mass rape, of ravaged homes, of slaughter on the streets.

Among the stories of those traumatic months, one that most haunted the public conscience was of a foetus that was torn from Kauser Bano’s body and set aflame. I met the elderly father-in-law and other loved ones of Kauser Bano and, like many, felt broken and diminished by testimonies of this ultimate horror. This was a story that echoed through all the relief camps: it was chanted like a dirge and a war cry over and over again by the brutalised survivors. It became what one of the citizen investigation teams appropriately described as the meta-narrative of the entire massacre. It became the symbol for them of the ultimate cruelty that ordinary people, their own neighbours, were capable of.

It is this incident that forms the core of Raj Kamal Jha’s novel Fireproof, an audacious fictional reconstruction of the carnage. Yet Jha chooses to use an ambitious and extravagant, self-consciously strange mix of allegory, magic realism, grotesque metaphor interspersed with occasional snatches of conventional reportage, to evoke the odium but more so the moral collapse of the massacre. There is never doubt about his formidable talent with the craft of writing, or his fierce originality. There is frequent excess of the bizarre, of raining burnt bodies, of swimming through excreta, or real or imagined killings described in voyeuristic detail, of conversations of the dead.

Yet the novel falls short in its brave striving to mirror adequately the depth of the human and moral tragedy that unfolded in Gujarat in the spring of 2002, which in some way involved each of us, by our complicities of participation, secret or open applause, moral justifications, passive support or silences. Much of the ethical crisis explored in the novel is in the transformation of ordinary people into willing agents of spectacular and elaborate cruelty, the continuance of ordinary life in the rest of the city as if nothing was amiss, the same schizophrenic amnesia of active participants in the massacre who went back to ordinary lives as though none of this had happened and, above all, the stubborn absence of remorse.

A victim of the Gujarat riots holds on to his grandson in the charred remains of his house in Sasan Nava

Indeed, if one has the stamina and stomach to persevere to the last pages in the roller-coaster journey that Jha mercilessly drags the reader through, one is rewarded with a remarkably morally profound and genuinely startling denouncement of ultimate acknowledgement and remorse, not revenge, won through the intervention of the dead. In real life, too, belated remorse has been most unexpectedly encountered through events almost as strange. Last October, Bhawani, known as the butcher of Naroda and alleged to have led more than 40 people to their slaughter, including Kausar Bano, suddenly committed suicide and his body was found floating in a canal. The morning he allegedly took his life, he is said to have invited a local Muslim teacher and expressed regret for what he had done.

First Published: Dec 18, 2006 17:51 IST