Cuddle up to Jha''s ''Blue Bedspread''

BY LISA RAJT
Daily Arts Editor
Published May 28, 2001

The blue bedspread that inspired this novel"s title may not be one you want to cuddle up with on a cold, lonely winter"s night.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of Harcourt Books

The bedspread symbolizes many things to this novel"s nameless narrator: Comfort, security and love, to name a few. This bedspread is the fiber that holds him together, bonding him to his recently murdered sister. Yet the bedspread also contains within its worn-out folds deep, dark family secrets the kind that can unravel even the strongest family ties.

Penned by literary newcomer Raj Kamal Jha, The Blue Bedspread is written with the intent of swaddling a newborn orphan, the narrator"s niece, in the stories of her ancestors.

With frightening honesty, Jha slowly unwraps the lives of two siblings for a purpose that is intriguing in its sentimentality and commendable in its sincerity.

By recording his stories for the baby on the night before her placement with foster parents, the narrator hopes to provide his newest relative with a framework for her identity as an adult. She will know where she comes from, who her mother was, what her grandparents and uncle were like. She will receive a snapshot of her mother as a little girl, and she will come to understand the importance of the bedspread that she will never recollect lying upon. The novel is essentially a baby book or photo album in prose form.

The events of this single night in Calcutta, India, and the stories being recounted for posterity, are told seamlessly. Jha does a great job of making the book flow, though it is sometimes too difficult to discern where the borders are what is real and what is imagined in this book is as fuzzy as the texture and form of the old bedspread itself. We are never sure if the narrator"s memory is correct, or if the events are hallucinations borne of childhood fantasy.

The stories are unflinching and unapologetic in their recounting of details, real or imagined. Alcoholism, regular beatings and incest, the stuff of television talk shows, are all part of daily life for the narrator"s family while growing up in Calcutta.

One slight flaw of this novel is Jha"s excessive comma use, although it is possible that this technique served a larger purpose in the narrative: The commas loosely string ideas together, symbolizing the tenuous hold the narrator has on reality.

The prose of the book is disquieting in its restraint, which serves in stark contrast to the highly emotional issues the novel deals with. Jha is often compared to such realist American authors as Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver, and opposes the current trend of vivid, luxurious writing exemplified by modern Indian novelists such as Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie.