on 10 March 2000
I was delighted to read that The Blue Bedspread has got the Commonwealth Eurasia Prize for Best First Book. One of the Australian reviewers has said that the best way to read The Blue Bedspread is at night with sad music playing in the background. He is right, this book is a symphony of words and a collection of searing images. More than a novel, it is like a tapestry. I have lived in Calcutta for some time and now have been away for years but this brought back memories from my own childhood. It's refined and raw at the same time, honest to the point of being disturbing. One gets the impression from this book that here is a writer who needs to write. At times there are sections which get confusing and one has to read them again but personally, I felt that these needed to be re-read since only then you get the connection. The narrator is a man I wouldn't feel comfortable with in the same room although deep down, I have a grudging admiration for his strength and courage of conviction. This is must reading for people who need to reconcile themselves to the ghosts of the past.
Raj Kamal Jha’s debut novel won the 1999 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book [Eurasia]. It involves incest, sodomy, murder, violence against women, alcoholism, suicide and isolation. As such it can be described as ‘bold’, an adjective that carries even more weight given that the author is Indian and is writing about India.
The book opens in Calcutta with the unnamed middle-aged narrator talking to a day-old baby girl, explaining that he is going to tell her a series of stories, more than thirty in all. The book presents these stories and, through them, we learn about the narrator’s life, his family and the family secrets. The man has received a call from the police who inform him that his sister has died giving birth and that his was the only name that she carried with her. The body has to be identified and then cremated. A childless couple has already been identified to receive the baby but he may have her for a day.
The stories, some more like cinematographic flashbacks, are being written as the man does not want to risk waking the baby by using a typewriter. Some involve his father, who is occasionally supportive but generally abusive and drunk, his mother, whom he can hardly remember, and his sister, four years the elder. The blue bedspread is a central memory from his childhood, a memory associated with security from the physical and mental threats from his father, and with the enjoyment and mutual pleasure of playing with his sister.
The author adopts a spare, pared-down style, allusion and recurrent imagery - the bedspread, an albino cockroach, pigeons – to create a complex, layered background story. The narrator is hesitant, through embarrassment and inexperience, in telling his stories, some of which are fragmentary in the extreme.
Over thirty stories in less that 230 pages means that the success of this book depends on these stories/fragments/flashbacks reinforcing one another synergistically and, for me, this was the problem. I imagine that the individual stories might have been separated and, with the exception of the first and last, re-read in any order. The reader has to decide whether the storyteller can be trusted to tell the truth from the differing perspectives of [as stated in the headings to the different sections] the Father, Mother, Sister, Visitors and Brother. We are told, early on, that the man has not seen his sister for years and then, in the final story, we are presented with a contradiction.
A particular frustration is that underneath this lack of unifying structure, the author demonstrates his ability to write beautifully. Describing his father trying to tune an old Philips radio to hear a commentary on Sunil Gavaskar’s double century against the West Indies, he writes that ‘the radio is making a noise, whines, beeps, crackle, some music, crackle again, high-pitched whistles, foreign voices, men and women. As if inside the Philips, there’s a huge cinema hall, packed for the matinée show, where men are whistling, clapping, shouting, talking to one another, the pre-show music is on, they are waiting for the lights to be switched off, for the curtain to rise.’
The result is that ‘The Blue Bedspread’ reads more like a patchwork quilt – full of interesting contrasts and colours with little in the way of an overall unifying and satisfying structure.
on 7 September 2003
"In short, I will tell you happy stories and I will tell you sad stories. And remember, my child, your truth lies somewhere in between."
Kamal Jha has written a superb novel with a shocking twist and a wonderfully fulfilling denouement.
on 12 October 1999
The Blue Bedspread is a compelling, touching novel and is a must read for every literature lover. RKJ's brilliant description of the city Calcutta is more than alive in this novel. He has effortlessly described the magnificient beauty and splendour of its boundless space yet within the beauty of it all lies its cruelty. One of the best adaptation to the meaning of Calcutta I have read. You can feel the city pouring out her generosity to the whole plot where eroticism fuses with painful emotions. We needn't need the colonial past to reveal the Calcutta most of us have grown fond of in the writings of other authors. What I have liked and treasured most is Jha's intricately woven story telling techniques delivered with simple vocabulary but the impact of it all is simply awesome. You feel as if you have been down that familiar road.....every man, woman and child has at some point in his/her life. Where names are not given any preferences yet the characters are so abundant and immense. The best word to describe Jha's debut work would simply be "beautiful and aritistic". The ravishing of both the brother and sister allows us to examine the depth of human bondage and its wonder, The prose of love and hope can be heard crying out from every corner of its pages and its written breathtakingly. Until recently, I thought Roy's "God of Small Things" was one of the most profound and concentrated writing from an Indian, well that was until I had my eyes and heart locked on to The Blue Bedspread. For some readers, the book may seem to have inconsistency in its story-line (as mentioned by another friend who read it) but I assure you herein lies the beauty of creative writing which crosses and interweaves borders of past, present and future and the complexities life has to offer. Jha also thrives to give a meaning to freedom in such a deadly and astounding manner in the chapter called "Dead Pigeon" (my favorite chapter). It almost made me cringe and had tears in my eyes. And the chapter "Straight Line", one would wonder the significance of the three points in a straight line and how that straight line manifests itself into a narrative tale. I must say only a brilliant writer such as Jha could have though of such an incredible and interesting plot. It somehow prompted me almost authomatically to study the surroundings of my own home and appreciate the life within each corner my home holds. I would categorise him (Jha) in the likes of French author Marguerite Duras (The Lover, War, No More - written in French etc) as both have allowed semantics to be the powerful medium of expression. Jha's writing is moving and it describes the humanity which most of us dread to even speak of daily. I would seriously recommed The Blue Bedspread as a must read of the year. It has a gravitational pull unlike many others.
on 2 April 2000
Time is a precious commodity these days. And so when I do get time to read a book, I pray and hope that it will not be a wasted effort. It is a fine balance; staying with trusted authors versus trying out new authors. Over the past few months I have been reading many Indian English authors and I am getting more and more convinced that more often than not I am wasting my time.
The Blue Bedspread is Raj Kamal Jha's first book, a collection of multiple stories, vignettes and personal essays strung together around the artificially created peg of his Sister's one-day old child, sleeping in the room next door, covered by a blue bedspread that had also been used by the protagonist, the Brother and his Sister, when they were young.
The book essentially deals with the lives of the Brother, his Sister and their Father with multiple characters flitting in and out at different intervals. Through these multiple "stories", we eventually learn about the Family, but it takes a hell of a time for us to get there. Most of these characters are expectedly morbid. They either drink or beat their wives or kill their husbands or fight or have horrible mothers-in-law and in general, live terrible lives. Many of the pieces, like "Cable Television" or the piece on the American Center Library, are just rants and personal "Times of India middle" essays, describing facets of life in modern day Calcutta. These only help to break the pace of the "story", if there could be said to be one in the first place.
As soon as I started reading the book, my immediate gut feeling was to stop and give the book away to some unsuspecting "bakra". When I told my wife about this, she smiled and patted me on my wrist; apparently I was her "bakra". I stuck on simply because I am the eternal optimist, hoping that the book would get better and the pretentiousness would disappear. It does become a little better in the middle and towards the end, when the characters are more fleshed out, but since Jha does everything possible to make sure that we do not get involved with his characters, it doesn't matter.
As seems to be the norm with many modern Indian English novels, the stories keep jumping in time randomly. This provided me with considerable mental and physical exercise; mental exercise while trying to figure out the time periods the author was referring to, and physical exercise for my page-turning fingers, as I had to go back and forth to understand what was happening. An entire piece titled "Durga Pooja", in the "Sister" section is so devious that I understood who was who and what was what, only another 20 pages down the line.
And the hang-loose parts. Incest between the Brother and Sister is introduced, but never really further explored. Pederasty between the Father and the Brother is talked about and then forgotten. Or maybe all these are just ways in which to pack in as many "hot topics" as possible to make the book interesting and saleable.
Why! Why was the book written! Was it because he wanted to write something, anything! There is no doubt that Jha writes well and has a flair for words. But just as the ability to rhyme well does not a poet make, a flair for words does not necessarily an author make ...
The problem with trying to read books like this is that unless you can get into the author's head there is no way to know what exactly he/she wants to say. I sometimes think it is better to stick with the Harry Potter books than to read modern Indian English novels that try to say a lot allegorically, hoping that the reader will make the jump between the words and the author's mind. What does Jha want to convey with the "Sarajevo woman"! Why the hell is she in the book! At least with the "old man who cleans the pigeons", he is trying to make a point about the way the city is moving. But the "man with the cable TV who beats his wife" falling in love with the "Sarajevo woman" makes no sense to me.
Or maybe I am biased, because I prefer a good beginning, a nice middle and understandable endings with a proper flow.
I am sure I will be told that I don't understand the fine nuances of this book. But I sometimes wonder who these books are written for, if not average "Joes" like me, who are not English literature students or professors, but literate individuals who have been reading books ever since they can remember; having started with Chandamama, Amar Chitra Katha, Indian and Arabic fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew then Chase, Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon and other "airline travel" books, with generous dollops of Shakespeare, Shaw and the classics along with sci-fi, noir, detective and God knows what other genres, including Indian authors such as Naipaul, Rushdie, Seth, Geeta Mehta, Anita Desai and the like. If I find the book difficult to understand, if I have a problem with its motivations, if I have to ask myself why it was written and why I bothered to read it, there has to be something wrong with the author and the book.
Or I guess with me!
on 8 December 1999
Read The Blue Bedspread as it may teach one how to write an autobiography. Jha might be talking about himself in the book, but the book loaded with real-life snippets, is an excellent anecdote. How can one be so candid? Incest, sister, father, mother, hospital nurse, bangles, birds, a crumpled bedspread and many more. One has to read between the lines to understand the theories of a changing life. Everyday you grow up, see yourself changing in the mirror. This book tells you how.
on 15 July 2001
I have to say that I couldn't describe my experience of this book as 'enjoyment'. I found it rather more dark and depressing than I would have liked. On the other hand, the author has a real talent for detailed and enchanting prose. I loved the opening paragraph, and insisted on reading it to 3 other people...
on 25 June 1999
God of Small Things, I thought two years ago, was the most beautiful novel by an Indian I would ever read. Early this summer, Raj Kamal Jha's The Blue Bedspread, changed all that. Jha's writing is, in one word, sensational. Always was, actually, for devoted readers of his newspaper columns over the last couple of years. In that sense, The Blue Bedspread had to happen, given Jha's magic with words. Jha's novel has done many things to me. First, it made me re-read it immediately after I reached the last leaf, in one stunned, sleepless night. Second, it made me go back to God of Small Things purely because of the incessant comparison of Jha's main characters to Roy's Rahel and Estha _ probably an easy thing for lazy book reviewers to do, really. And, if you insist on drawing parallels, then, yes, Jha's Calcutta is as intense as Roy's Ayemenem, only more clinical. The images he creates make you wonder if a filmmaker could ever have done it better on screen. Jha's prose makes you cringe, makes you smile, makes you cry, makes you want to scream when the young, white pigeon, "unsure what to do with its sudden freedom," hops around, looks this way and that, and sits on the tram wire, its little feet not feeling the clang of the No 12 tram from Esplanade to Galiff Strret, now just a few feet away.... Jha makes you see, probably the most difficult thing for a writer, any writer, to achieve. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is that nowhere in the book did I ever say to myself, "this is not necessary, this could have been shorter, why is he saying so much," and that's something rare, very rare. Jha doesn't bother with names, and the relationships he fleshes out could be anybody's story, any man and woman trapped in a sad world that someone else left them with. And he sees through the eyes of a woman with a sensitivity that is almost amazing. It's very difficult to pick out the best parts of the book, but if I had to pick my favourites would be, not necessarily in this order: Dead Pigeon, Girl Talk, Straight Line, Domestic help, All Alone, Garden Child, and, of course, Eight Words, which is practically all of it. Which is what makes The Blue Bedspread such a compelling read. I guess you couldn't sum it up better than what the front flap of the book says: In prose that is breathtaking and precise, Raj Kamal Jha discovers love and hope behind the hidden violence and twisted eroticism of an old city. The Blue Bedspread is a profoundly moving story of people who, through their imagination, find the escape they so desperately seek. It is a first novel of extraordinary power and rare humanity.
on 3 April 1999
The first thing that strikes you about The Blue Bedspread is the extraordinary originality of style, plot and theme. For too long have Indian authors in English stuck to the path shown by the magic realists and their India was always something from the past, never one that we, as readers from India, could relate to. This book changes all that. Its prose is so simple that it hits you with a greater force than anything you have read. It talks about things that we never talk about: broken relationships and family violence. The story of the man talking to the child is like all of us trying to tell our stories to the next generation.
Calcutta has been written about by several novelists including Amitav Ghosh, Amit Chaudhury and Upamanyu Chatterjee. But Jha's Calcutta is much more alive and real. It is also cruel but at the same time it is extremely loving. This is what the city is all about.
I liked the stunning images in the novel, they keep haunting me even after I am done with the book, like the Sarajevo woman and the narrator trying to kiss her on the screen, the two lines of dust that his lips mark out. The glass bird that falls in the wind and breaks its beak. My favourite is Straight Line which connects three points in the house which are so common points but there is such a powerful connection. It has made me think of things in my house differently. This is a great novel and I am sure many young writers will be influenced by it.
on 18 September 1999
I have just finished reading this book. I am moved to tell everyone I know --- and people I don't --- to read this magnificent, heartbreaking book immediately. The writing is poetic. Sometimes you wonder where the story line is or when the next bit of the puzzle will be tied together. And so you're driven on into an atmosphere that is rich with texture and smell and sound and, most of all, children's dreams and wishes. This is just stunning. READ IT.