A midnight phone call awakens a man to inform him that his sister has died in childbirth. He is told he must keep the orphaned baby girl overnight, until her new, adopting parents can collect her. Over the course of that hot night in Calcutta, the man hurriedly writes stories to the baby sleeping on a blue bedspread in the next room: stories of the family she was born into, stories of the mother she will never know. Painting half-remembered scenes, he flits between past and present, recounting tales of the shared childhood of a boy and his sister who muffled their fears in the blueness of that very same bedspread. As the hours pass, the man gradually divulges a layered and transfixing confession of the darkest of family secrets.
Described by John Fowles as "remarkable, almost a coming-of-age of the Indian novel," this powerful, penetrating debut by a young New Delhi journalist has already been recognized as an international literary event. In prose that is breathtaking and precise, Raj Kamal Jha discovers the hidden violence and twisted eroticism of an exotic, overcrowded old city. Unlike the India captured in the exotic prose of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, Jha writes in a spare, straightforward style that has prompted comparisons to American realists like Raymond Carver and Don DeLillo. The Blue Bedspread is a searingly honest story about the love and hope that can survive in the midst of family violence. It is a first novel of extraordinary power and humanity.
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June 19, 2012
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Excerpt from The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha
I could begin with my name, but forget it, why waste time, it doesn?t matter in this city of twelve million names. I could begin with the way I look, but what do I say, I am not a young man anymore, I wear glasses, my stomach droops over the belt of my trousers.
There?s something wrong with my trousers. The waist, where the loops for the belt are, folds over every time, so if you look at me carefully while I am walking by, on the street or at the bus stop, you will see a flash of white, the cloth they use as lining riding above my belt, peeping out.
There was a time when I would have got embarrassed, sucked in my stomach, breathed deep, held that breath. Or even shouted at the tailor, refused to pay the balance, bought a firmer belt, tightened it by piercing the leather with a few extra holes. But now, why bother?
All that matters is you, my little child, and all I want at this moment is some silence so that you can sleep undisturbed and I can get over with these stories.
I will have to work fast, there isn?t much time.
They are coming to take you soon, the man and the woman. They will give you everything you need; they will take you to the Alipore Zoo, to the Birla Planetarium, show you baby monkeys and mother monkeys; the tiny flashlight, shaped like an arrow, that flashes, darts across the huge, black hemispherical dome. They will make faces at the monkeys, you will laugh; they will tell you where Jupiter is, why we have evening and why we have night.
And then, after several summers and several winters, when the city has fattened, its sides spilled over into the villages where the railway tracks are, where the cycle-rickshaws ply, if you grow up into the fine woman I am sure you will, one day you will stop.
Something you will see or hear will remind you of something missing in your heart, perhaps a hole, the blood rushing through it, and then, like a machine that rumbles for a second just before it goes click, just before it begins to hum and move, you will stop and ask: ?Who am I??
They will then give you these stories.
The house where we are, the room in which you sleep, is on the second floor. From the veranda, you can look down on the tram wires; the streetlight, the yellow sodium vapor lamp, is a couple of feet above you. If you strain your eyes, you can see dead insects trapped in the Plexiglas cover. How they got in I don?t know.
Across the street, there?s an oil-refining mill that shut down after a workers? strike long ago. But its owner, I guess, had some of his heart still left, so he continued to pay an old man to look after the dozen pigeons he kept in a cage near the entrance. Half of them are white, the rest are gray, and at least twice every day I stand on the veranda, nothing to do, watching the birds in the cage fly around and around.
White and gray, white and gray, like tiny clouds blown across a patch of imprisoned sky.
We are on Main Circular Road, which connects the north to the south of the city, the airport to the station, and right through the day buses and trams, trucks and taxis keep passing by, making so much noise that it?s only now, well past midnight, that the ringing has stopped in my ears: the horns and the brakes, the angry passengers asking the driver to please slow down or stop, bus conductors coughing and spitting, jangling the bells, shouting their destinations in between.
Now it?s just the opposite, silence sits in one corner of the house; when I move my head to the right, when I move it to the left, I can hear the stubble on my chin graze my collar, I can hear my breath, even the crick in my neck, some muscle being pulled, perhaps some bone rubbing against some other bone. I am not a young man anymore.
I am not going to type, since the noise may wake you up, the paper being rolled in, my clumsy fingers pushing the keys, the bell that rings at the end of each line, the paper moving up, the page ready to be rolled out.
And somewhere in the middle, if I wish to erase a word or add a letter, fix a comma, I will have to use the All-Purpose Correction Fluid. This means more noise: I will have to shake the glass bottle, open its cap, pull out the brush, let the white drop fall and then blow it dry with my lips. What if the bottle slips, falls on the floor?
At this hour, every sound gets magnified, every ear gets sharper.
I have heard that there are some babies who sleep undisturbed, even during the fireworks festival, dreaming silently to the noise of Catherine wheels and chocolate bombs. And there are some babies who wake up at the slightest of sounds, whose ears are like little funnels made of something like gossamer, ready to tremble, to catch anything in the night. A dog barking a dozen houses away, the wind blowing through the garbage dump, the ceiling fan, the tap dripping in the bathroom, the man beating his wife in the upstairs flat.
So where do I begin?
With you, the baby in my bedroom, on the blue bedspread, no taller than my arm, your tiny fingers curled up, the night resting like a soft cloud on your body. I shall begin with the phone ringing late at night, the police officer telling me that you have come into this city, unseen and unheard.
And once I have told you this story, I shall tell you more, as and when they come. I shall retell some stories, the ones your mother told me, even those that she told not in words, but in gestures and glances. Like that of the black-and-
yellow Boroline Cream banners catching the wind on Durga Puja day; the dead pigeon, its stain carried all across the city; the albino cockroach hanging, upside down, from the bathroom drain.
Or that evening in the maternity ward, when she stood in the room, your mother, in the hospital?s oversize nightdress, looking out of the window at the streetlamps being switched on, one by one.
We shall visit all these places; I shall hold your hand, open all those rooms that need to be opened, word by word, sentence by sentence. I will keep some rooms closed until we are more ready, open others just a chink so that you can take a peek. And at times, without opening a door at all, we shall imagine what lies inside. Like the murder, the screaming, a red handkerchief floating down, just as in the movies.
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.