26 Jul / The Blue Bedspread by Raj Kamal Jha [in aOnline]
Raj Kamal Jha’s slim debut novel, The Blue Bedspread, is fabulous. It is perhaps the best book I’ve read this year – maybe even several years. It’s also a precious find, not the least of which because it took more than four requests (by both the book editors and myself, by fax, and email even!) to actually get a hold of a review copy. But certainly, it was worth the wait.
The story appears simple: a nameless older man – “it doesn’t matter in this city of twelve million names” – who repeatedly points out his “stomach [which] droops over the belt of [his] trousers” as a sign of his aging condition, sits up all night in his Calcutta apartment, writing pages and pages dedicated to the sleeping newborn daughter of his sister who died in childbirth. In the morning, the baby, slumbering in the next room on top of the eponymous blue bedspread of the narrator’s childhood, will leave forever with waiting adoptive parents. “I will tell you happy stories and I will tell you sad stories,” he promises. “And remember, my child, your truth lies somewhere in between,” he says prophetically.
The sentence exactly sums up the interlocking short pieces that unfold – and how much it reveals only becomes evident with the final piece, “Eight Words.” Avoid the temptation to jump ahead!
The tapestry young Jha weaves is complicated, intricate, deceptive, elaborate, and simple, all at the same time. The blue bedspread, replete with shining stars to match the night sky, is the leitmotif which holds together the tenuous string between the narrator and his absent older sister. As children, they create a makeshift tent with the blanket, shutting out the outside world where an abusive alcoholic father rants and raves, a loving mother is inexplicably missing, and a loyal servant futilely tries to protect her young charges. As the siblings grow older, the bedspread can no longer contain their growing bodies (and emotions), much less offer any protection.
The search for escape from such a stifling environment is inevitable. The sister, a beautiful, vibrant, spirited soul, runs away at age 19 with someone she loves, or so her brother can only hope. Ironically, the brother never leaves. He no longer needs to when the father dies and the loyal servant moves on. Instead, he guards the memories infused in the walls of the worn apartment, in the threads of his precious bedspread. He remains behind with the ghosts, and it is their stories he tells the slumbering babe. She, in turn, is a blank slate, a tabula rasa waiting to be filled with the details of her intricate past, her tragic heritage.
I made the mistake of taking the book along to a theater festival. And I ended up sitting through four plays thinking, I’d rather be reading this book. The plays never measured up – and there is little I love more than the theater. So you think you have something better to do? Think again. Stay home. Read The Blue Bedspread. You won’t be disappointed.