Harpreet Singh Soorae
Give yourself some time, he says, I will leave the pictures and the pieces of paper with you. Keep them carefully, whenever you are afraid, take them out, arrange them in whatever order you want and you will understand your parent’s stories.
What stories? I ask.
Of the dreams your father and your mother have, the worlds they travel to, with their eyes open and their eyes shut. It’s all there, in the pictures you saw and in the words you read and you heard, mixed up, jumbled, here and there, a bit of this, a bit of that. – If You Are Afraid Of Heights p290
The narrative of this novel takes you out of itself from the very beginning. Quite literally. The opening line is:
Look at the picture on the cover, there’s a child, a girl in a red dress; there’s a bird, a crow in a blue white sky. And then there are a few things you cannot see.
It then describes what we cannot see in the cover of the book, what lies behind and around the image. It is a jarring effect, to be thrown outwards from a novel at the very point of its instigation. It works less as a self-conscious meta-fictional device, though, than a taking into confidence of the reader, making us complicit in the narrator’s spooky art, his whispering observations and the suggestive voyeurism and hushed intimacies that mark the tone of the work.
The omniscient narrator is a figure who observes the city and characters from the back of a crow. It is one of the fantastical nuances that live without explanation in the novel. Three stories are told. In the first, a lonely post office worker is involved in an accident while traveling in a tram. He is rescued and cared for by a mysterious woman who lives in a luxurious apartment in a skyscraper at the centre of the city. They fall in love, create a world of their own in their bodies and spaces, and then she disappears as mysteriously as she entered his life. In the second story a reporter arrives in a small provincial town to investigate the rape and murder of a girl whose body was found in a canal. In the final section, a girl in a red dress tells of her fears when people in her neighbourhood start dying in an epidemic of suicide.
All of these tales are linked through recurring image, symbol, metaphor, space and story. At times the narrative collapses into dream; memory, suggestion, fabulist imagery intertwine with the grime of the city. The threat is that writing like this becomes abstruse, its symbolist method an easy pocket-book surrealism that suggests a depth of unease and disjunction which in reality is only effect, only a stance, a mode. When dealing with writing like this you must ask yourself, why this unease? Why this dark suggestiveness? If You Are Afraid Of Heights stays tethered to the tangible and avoids this emptiness, this disorientation and feinting. Sentences and connections between characters make us give an emotional investment in the narrative. The lonely post office worker sees his lover for the first time with pain’s rough tongue licking the deep cuts on his face.
Amidst their passion he worries that she will notice the stains on the toilet bowl in his flat. Details like this ground the writing, keep us close to the quotidian amidst the speculative privacy of the intimate fable and surrealism that evokes the world of the movies of David Lynch; the familiar disjointed, inchoate blackness of dread seeping between fault lines of consciousness and realism.
If You Are Afraid Of Heights seems to have germinated from a short story of the same name written by Jha in 2000. The crow is a persistent presence in the novel, visible from the corner of the characters’ eyes, describing, observing and facilitating the narration. It reminds you of the quasi-human trickster in Ted Hughes’s poetic cycle Crow: From the Life and Songs of Crow. Here, Crow is an anarchic observer of the human folly and game, weaving in and out of a surreal and inconsistent narrative. In an interview about his work, Hughes said:
The Crow is the most intelligent of birds. He lives in just about every piece of land on earth and there’s a great body of folk lore about crows, of course. No carrion will kill a crow. The crow is the indestructible bird who suffers everything, suffers nothing…
In Jha’s novel the crow, while repudiating the fierce cackle of Hughes’s creation, represents the omnipresent consciousness, blank and full, adaptable and collective, observant and participant. From the cramped claustrophobic spaces of the rooms and minds of the protagonists, ‘Crow’ presents flight, escape, the eye through which we can observe ourselves and others, just as we are asked, before starting the novel in truth, to take another look at the girl on the cover, who is crying, and looking at something in the distance, standing on the balcony of a building that,
from the street outside, looks like a crying face. Its windows are the eyes, half-closed by curtains, smudged and wrinkled. Rain, wind and sun of countless years have marked the wall, streaking it in several lines, two of which look like lines of tears, one falling below each window. The mouth is the balcony, curved down under the weight of iron railings, rusted and misshapen. Like the stained teeth of someone very sad.
It is an image and likening that recurs, and suggests sadness as weathered construct and a state as immanent as stone and dwelling. After finishing the novel my mind still tingled with speculation about what I had just read, about its contours, connections, and the boundaries within the narrative between dream and awakening, about what and who is imagined, and about who and what is real. When Mala, the reporter investigating the murder of the girl in the red dress, is overwhelmed by dampness, rain, flood, and water, we have some sense of the fluidity of her consciousness and memory:
This isn’t a road exactly, it’s not even a dirt-track beaten hard into shape by feet after feet; its more like a passageway created on its own. Half mud, half slush, meandering between two straggly rows of houses, marked in several places by pools of black water, which run from either side, water that’s been thrown out of houses after washing and bathing. Water mixed with the soap and grime of dishes and men.
The malleability of our tangible world is a reflection of the malleability of our intangible world; our sense of self, its fragility to auto-contemplation and invasion. Shouldn’t literature reflect on this malleability and the cold shiver of unease in a world that trembles with sadness, noise and mystery that lie just beyond our senses and explanation?
It should, and If You Are Afraid Of Heights does. It reads like a waking dream and fable, whose cryptic edges are shaved with nightmare and uncertainty, a novel that plies its spooky art in the margins of consciousness. It is a work of art that ultimately, I believe, suggests the need for flight and examination against the claustrophobia of lives enclosed by bonds of family and convention.