Jha, Raj Kamal

Biography

Raj Kamal Jha at the "Fireproof" book launch

Image by Georgia Popplewell/CC licensed

Raj Kamal Jha was born in 1966 in Calcutta, India. He grew up with his father and mother; his father is a college professor in Calcutta. After secondary school, Jha was accepted to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, to pursue a degree in engineering. One day, Jha observed a group of classmates passionately drawing diagrams, operating machinery, and performing experiments. He then realized his interest in engineering did not equal theirs. Jha began to question the path his life was taking. He had always felt drawn to the art of writing, but did not feel secure enough in his abilities to completely abandon engineering (Rediff interview).

Jha graduated from IIT with a degree in engineering, and decided to apply to journalism school.  The University of Southern California offered him a full scholarship to their journalism program.  He graduated from USC with a master’s degree in 1990.  During school, Jha began to explore various forms of writing.  He wrote for college literary magazines and after graduation did internships at The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.  With his confidence growing, Jha came to realize that he did not care for reporting.  Writing up the interviews appealed to him much more than calling people and taking notes (Rediff interview).

Four years after graduating, Jha returned to India to take a job with The Statesman, an English daily newspaper based in Calcutta. He also worked briefly for India Today, before accepting the job as deputy editor for Indian Express in 1996.  Based in New Delhi, Indian Express is one of India’s most well known English newspapers. Jha is now the managing editor.

Jha has been a visiting professor at the University of California Berkely and a fellow at the Yaddo residency. He was recently selected as Artist-in-Residence (Literature) in Berlin by the German Academic Exchange Service.

Jha’s writing style has been called very sparse, especially in comparison to other Indian writers. His writing is heavily influenced by the amount of time he spent in the United States, as well as by the works of twentieth-century American writers Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. Another unique aspect of Jha’s style is that he writes in English, unlike his Indian contemporaries. After reading Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, Jha began to see the English language as more than homework, and began using it as an aesthetic for his storytelling (Guardian interview).

The Blue Bedspread

The Blue Bedspread book cover

The Blue Bedspread, 1999

Jha wrote the chapters for his novel as separate units. He submitted his story to Civil Lines, an annual anthology based in New Delhi. This submission cemented his commitment to writing, and helped him to overcome his fear of rejection. Not long after the story’s publication, Jha received a fax from a London publishing house Weidenfield and Nicholson indicating that they would be interested in publishing his collection upon its completion. With the added incentive of possible publication, Jha began to work on his novel during the added hours of wakefulness provided by the insomnia that has plagued him since childhood.

A friend of Jha’s referred him to Pankaj Mishra, an Indian publisher. After reading a few chapters, Mishra signed him and gave him a deadline to finish the novel. A year later, The Blue Bedspread was finished. The book was bought by Peter Straus of Picador Publishing, then sold to most of the leading international publishing houses. Jha received the largest advance ($275,000) ever paid to a first-time Indian novelist. His novel is the second-fastest selling book in India, after Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things. Random House bought the American rights after an intense bidding war; rights to the novel have been sold in eight foreign languages.

The novel takes place over the course of one night, in Calcutta. A man is awakened by a late-night phone call. He is informed that his sister has died during childbirth, and he must come pick up the orphaned child until adoptive parents can be notified. While the baby sleeps in the next room, the man sets about writing down stories of his sister and their childhood. As memories are set down on the page, the man uncovers unsettling secrets of his past, and he seeks to come to terms with them, for his own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the sleeping infant.

Major Themes

The prevailing theme of The Blue Bedspread is that of family relationships. Jha denies that the novel should be read as a portrait of a typical family. He wants to emphasize that “the silence in families…becomes an accomplice in repression….the identity of the individual is always weighed down by his/her role in family, society” (Asia Source interview). The family secrets that the novel’s narrator reveals are also important aspects of the book. In divulging these secrets, the narrator prefers to use “happy memories to come to terms with the painful ones, rather than let himself be overwhelmed by bitterness and hate” (Asia Source interview). The central theme of the novel is family relationships, especially in relation to the way in which they shape the memories and stories told by the narrator. The Blue Bedspread is an example of metafiction, because of its self-reflexive nature.

The details and coincidences in the novel are important reflections of Jha’s personal philosophy on life. Because of that, he integrates them into his novel. He says, “…we really underestimate the power of mere coincidences and stupid little accidents. I think they play a much, much bigger role in life, than large forces…what I really feel I connect with, is not the scene [in the novel], is the small accidents, when he or she bends down to pick something up that has fallen, in that mental frame, or when you look at his shoulder and see where the shirt is crinkled at the collar, or that small speck at the knee, I find these things important. How I don’t know, but I feel that these accidents, these coincidences, matter” (Rediff interview).

Reception and Reviews

The Blue Bedspread has been much more accepted in the American press than the Indian press. Because of the frank, controversial depictions of incest and abuse within the family, it has been more widely accepted by American audiences (Asia Source interview).

Reviews:
“Something rather remarkable, almost of coming-of-age of the Indian novel.”  –John Fowles

“A ghostly, elliptical piece of prose of quite magical quality, which tells the story  of one man’s reconciliation with his past.  Spare and yet richly patterned…undeniably powerful.” — London Evening Standard

Other Publications

  •  If You are Afraid of Heights, London: Harcourt, 2003.
  • Fireproof, London: Macmillan UK, 2006.

Works Cited

  • Bengali, Shashank. “Alumni Profile:  Raj Kamal Jha, MA ’90″ (Winter 2000). USC Trojan Family Magazine. 26 Sept. 2001. Web. <http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/trojan_family/winter00/alumninews/AP_Jha.html>
  • Caswell, Michelle. “Q & A, AsiaSource Interview”. Asia Source. 27 Sept. 2001. Web. <http://www.asiasource.org/news/special_reports/Jhainterview.ctm>
  • Magarian, Baret. “A New Star of India”.  (22 June 1999). Guardian Unlimited. 27 Sept. 2001. Web. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/1999/jun/22/guardianfirstbookaward1999.guardianfirstbookaward>
  • Malik, Ashok. “Raj Kamal Jha, Night Writer”. (15 March 1999). India Today. 25 Sept.2001. Web. <http://www.india-today.com/itoday/15031999/books.html>
  • “Maps at Lycos”. Lycos. 07 Nov. 2001. Web. <http://maps.lycos.com/mapresults.aspAD2=&AD3=Calcutta&AD4=India&Get+Map=Get+map>
  • “Profile of a SAJA Guest Speaker:  Raj Kamal Jha, Author and Journalist”. SAJA. 21 Oct. 2001. Web. <http://www.saja.org/rajkamaljha.html>
  • “Raj Kamal Jha”. Random House. 27 Sept. 2001. Web. <http://www.randomhouse.com/atrandom/firstfiction/rkjha.html>
  • “Raj Kamal Jha”. Rediff. 01 Oct. 2001. No longer available online.

Related Links

Don DeLillo Society
http://www.ksu.edu/english/nelp/delillo 

USC Alumni Page
http://www.usc.edu/dept/pubrel/trojan_family/winter00/alumninews/AP_Jha.html

Antara Dev Sen’s Review of Fireproof
http://www.indianexpress.com/news/the-father-the-son-and-the-night/18732/

Berlin Artist-in-Residence Program 2012-2013
http://www.berliner-kuenstlerprogramm.de/en/gast.php?id=1204

 

Author: Gwyn Driskill, Fall 2001
Last edited: June 2012

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