A man and a woman meet in a midnight road accident and fall in love. A reporter arrives in a small town to uncover the story of a child's rape and murder. A young girl, shaken by suicides in her neighborhood, begins to fear for her parents' lives. These three tales, written by the author of the debut sensation The Blue Bedspread, come together in the looking-glass world of this magical novel, where nothing is quite what it seems, yet all is strangely familiar.
Drawing the reader deep into the uncharted zone between fantasy and reality and following the neglected souls of a vast country, If You Are Afraid of Heights is a breathtaking odyssey across the landscape of a changing urban India.
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Raj Kamal Jha's first novel, The Blue Bedspread, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Jha lives in New Delhi, where he is executive editor of the Indian Express.
Once upon a time in the city
Once upona timein the city, there lived a woman called Rima and a man named Amir and late one night, they met in an accident, face to face, she picked out the shards of broken glass from his face, they fell in love and just when it seemed they were settling down to live happily ever after, a strange little thing happened one night: Rima woke up hearing a child cry.
She couldn't make out if it was a boy or a girl because it was a wail, rising and falling, loud and soft, sometimes high-pitched, sometimes low, broken here and there by small hiccups from what could only have been a small chest. She got up from the bed, her pillow slipped to the floor, its thud too soft to wake Amir; she drew the drapes aside and looked this way and that, right and left, but saw nothing. Except, of course, the black night, the black street. And a dog.
Brown. She could make out two white patches on its neck where something had chewed at its fur. Its tail was little more than a stump. It must have fallen asleep under a parked taxi right in front of its rear wheels and the driver must have reversed without looking, shearing a bit off the tail.
Such accidents happen every day in this city.
Rima watched the dog lap at the black water in the drain, sniff and sift whatever floated by, sit down, scratch an itch. There was no traffic at that hour so the dog curled up in the middle of the road itself and lowered its head between its paws. By the time it closed its eyes, the child's crying had stopped.
Rima went back to bed, Amir still fast asleep.
When she woke up the next morning, she had forgotten the crying. Only once or twice during the afternoon, when she dropped something small, insignificant, maybe a hairpin, perhaps a rubber band, and then bent down to pick it up, did the crying return. Then she noticed it: the crying returned when Amir was in the room; when he walked away from her, it was as if the crying would fade, get softer and softer with each step he took. So that when he left the room, the crying became a strain of sound from some place far, far away, carried by a wind so light she could hardly feel it. It stayed in her ears for such a fleeting moment that it scarcely registered, neither in thought nor in feeling.
But that night, with Amir next to her in bed, the whole sequence of the previous day repeated itself. The crying began, she found herself walking to the window and looking out. Once again, there was nothing except the wail and the dog, the same dog, but this time running after something imaginary, stopping, turning back, running again before it sat down and went to sleep.
Again the crying stopped, again she returned to bed.
From the second morning, however, Amir stayed at home right through and there was no escaping the crying. She woke up with the sound as if sometime during the night, after she had gone back to sleep, the child had crawled into her ear to sit deep inside, curled up, like some stubborn foetus, fully formed but refusing to leave, clutching tight her nerves and her bones, clawing, scraping her eardrum with its fingers, muffling all other sounds in the house.
It's my fault, Rima told herself, it's got nothing to do with Amir being here. This is just like when water enters the ear, when I am in the shower or in the rain, no more, no less. So what do I need to do? I need to give my head a good, hard jerk, maybe hop on one leg, tilt my head, yes I'll look funny, who cares?
But that didn't help.
Forget it, she said. I'll get used to it, sooner rather than later the crying will dribble out into other sounds: Amir pouring water into a glass, the TV from the house upstairs, the boy playing cricket with his maid in the yard below.
That didn't help either.
For six full days, she heard it in her head. And for the next six nights, she woke up to hear the crying from the street outside. On the seventh morning, she thought: let me tell Amir, see what he says.
He didn't say much. Tell me when you hear it, he said. Wake me up, I'll listen too.
So that night, she woke him up even before the crying had begun and they both stood by the window, Amir and Rima, his hand on her right shoulder. He could see and feel the goosebumps on her neck, smell the shampoo in her hair against his chin. Her hair fell to her shoulders in one smooth wave, but one strand, or two, had broken free in her sleep. This was distracting since it tickled his chin, making him move back a bit, a fraction of an inch, and gently blow at the hair.
She didn't feel a thing and, thus settled, they watched and waited.
A City Transport Corporation bus passed, red, its colour running, the No Standing sign glowing on its sides. A truck trundled by, a foreign-made truck, as long as a block of houses, with brand new Korean cars in wooden crates stacked in two rows of almost a dozen each. A giant made of metal lying on his side, smiling in the night, the cars his teeth, the crates his braces. Two men walked by, talking, one coughed, the other laughed, the one who coughed was drunk since his feet walked in a direction he didn't want to go, the laughing man kept nudging him back, they both turned round the corner. And then the crying began.
Listen, Rima whispered with a shiver. It's the same sound, the same rise and fall, the same breaths. Like someone's recorded it on a sophisticated tape, the kind they use in radio stations, and is now hiding in the shadows, playing the cassette. Trying to scare me.
Don't worry, said Amir. There are a thousand and one reasons in this city for children to cry. Why don't we talk about this in the morning, why don't we go back to sleep?
Rima said no, I need to find out who this child is, why does it cry, I don't want to wake up every night like this and I don't want this sound in my ear during the day.
What she didn't tell him, because she didn't wish to, was that she wanted to find out if the crying stopped when she left Amir.
So what do you want to do? he asked.
I'll go check the street below, walk a few steps up and down and then come back. The child can't be far away.
You want me to come with you? Amir said.
No, don't worry, she said, I'll be back in a few minutes.
OK, take an umbrella, it was raining the whole day today. Be careful, he said.
I will, she said.
He heard her walk to the other room, open the steel cupboard, he heard the noise of the aluminium hangers bumping into each other, the rustle of her dresses as she searched for something to wear.
He heard the cupboard door close, the click, the latch fall into place; the sound of her fingers against her face as she applied some cream; he heard the plastic bottle being put down on the dressing table; the main door open and close; the sound of her footsteps as she walked down the two flights of dark stairs to the street below. And all this while, Amir waited in bed, the window still open, thinking things entirely unconnected to what was happening around him.
Like how Rima looked when she bent down to open the fridge and take out a bottle of water, how its green light lit her face and her neck.
Or, how every once in a while, her hands strayed, on their own, towards her face, to tuck the hair behind her right ear. And the waffle pattern on her cheeks when she fell asleep on the chair, her face pressed against the cane lattice of its backrest.
Thinking such things, Amir began to slide back into sleep unaware that, in the blink of an eye, it would all be over. The city, this part of the earth, would turn, would begin to leave the moon and meet the sun. Unaware that Rima had left, never to return.
Leaving him behind, alone, and for company, the sound of a child crying.
This is the story, in brief.
But it needs to be told in full, if only to understand how, out of all the men, women and children in this city, sixteen million at last count, it had to be Amir and Rima, two people whose names are mirror reflections of each other, who met in the accident, face to face, amid shards of broken glass.
So we need to, as the story takes its course, pick up details strewn along the way. Often the obvious, sometimes the obscure. Like a power cut in the neighbourhood and Amir's kerosene lamp. Or his job at the post office, the stains in his cracked toilet. Or how, trying to remove them with acid one day, he splashed some on his hand, peeling off a thin layer of skin that left permanent white blotches on two of his fingers.
What does all this have to do with Rima? Or with the morning, afternoon, evening and, finally, the night of that fateful accident? For an answer, we should begin before Rima and Amir ever met.
Copyright © Raj Kamal Jha 2003
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Book Description Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0151011095
Book Description Harcourt, Inc., Orlando, 2003. Softcover. Book Condition: New. Uncorrected Proof.. 294 pages. Softcover. Brand new, uncorrected proof copy. FICTION. A breathtaking odyssey across the landscape of a changing urban India, from the author of THE BLUE BEDSPREAD. (Key Words: Fiction, Jha, Raj Kamal, India, Blue Bedspread). book. Bookseller Inventory # 15010X1
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