Books

Raj Kamal Jha
She Will Build Him a City

Of the 20 million stories in Delhi, Raj Kamal Jha focuses mostly on three in his novel She Will Build Him a City. The Woman, who tells stories to her damaged adult daughter in an attempt at connection; the Man, whose life revolves around his plans for murder; and the Child, who is left at an orphanage as a newborn. 

This is not traditional storytelling, not even of the Indian variety. Jha gives us flashes from the lives of his characters and sometimes from the lives of characters only tangentially connected to them. There are distinct plots, yet the novel feels more like a series of photographs that capture the reality of life in Delhi. 

It’s violent and ugly, such as this description of beggars: “So many of them crawl out at night that he fears he will trip and fall right into them, into their mass, damp and dark. Like the basket of bait, fresh worms, grey and slimy, he sees at the fish market … they will let him do whatever he wants to do to them in return for money.”

It’s also beautiful, once you leave the city for the countryside. “Palm trees bend like thin sticks in the wind, children run, skip across the mud, to catch the mangoes as they fall. That evening, the girls return with three big raw green mangoes. They cut thin slices, rub burnt chilli paste and salt on each slice ... we sit, our mouths open, blowing air to cool our tongues on fire.” 

The ground is continually shifting under Jha’s characters’ feet, literally and metaphorically. He sees Delhi and its New City as a quagmire fuelled by cash and corruption, swallowing up farms and slums to build shopping centres, condominium developments and international hotels. His characters live in apartments with security guards and washer-dryers, in single rooms with leaking roofs and tarpaulins for doors. They live with drivers and nannies and maids and they die in ways that we would consider preventable. 

She Will Build Him a City is fragmented and sometimes difficult, and the juxtaposition between gritty reality and magic realism can be forced and a little tricky. It’s likely not for everyone despite it being conceptually daring and important beyond entertainment. But if the Indian economy is a tiger on the verge of roaring, the world should hear the stories of the people who have fed it with their blood.  LS

Bloomsbury, 352pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 14, 2015 as "Raj Kamal Jha, She Will Build Him a City". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: LS