There is an extraordinary beauty in the writing of Raj Kamal Jha. Chief editor of The Indian Express, he knows the power of words to enlighten the masses. And enlighten them he does with She Will Build Him a City.
While magical realism dominates the style of the novel, nonetheless the narrative is firmly grounded within a deep exploration of Jha’s modern-day India: a country struggling between extremes. Many of it’s people are still stuck in terrible slum-dwelling poverty, while others are embracing a life of high-rise apartments and disposable income.
Although many of the minor characters are named, the three narrators are mainly referred to simply as ‘Man’, ‘Woman’ and ‘Child’. Although their experiences brush against each other at times, each tells a very different story. ‘Man’ is both a disturbed and disturbing soul, recovering from a trauma that remains largely unspoken. We meet him riding the trains and dreaming of murder. Later in the novel, he invites a homeless girl and her mother home with him, encourages them to bathe and sleep and then takes them back to where he found them. The girl becomes a strange kind of spirit guide to him, but also represents his capacity and potential for violence – as he continually wonders if he did them a mischief. ‘Woman’ is a lonely mother seeking a connection with a child she has not been in contact with for many years. She ran away after her father’s death, haunted by his ghost, while her mother moved on. ‘Child’ is an orphan who eventually leaves his facility and takes refuge in the mall – another nod to the consumerism that some wealthy Indians are enslaved by. Child’s story is often told by the voices of others – including a dog who assumes a level of guardianship at one point.
A touching novel that will resonate with thoughtful readers. I love magical realism – and this novel just might help you love it too.