Fireproof, By Raj Kamal Jha

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The Independent Culture

In February 2002, in the Indian state of Gujarat, an arson attack on a train left 59 Hindus dead. Mob violence erupted across the state. (Some people have committed an atrocious crime, so hound and torture and murder some other people who had nothing to do with it: how very fair and sensible.) Around 1,000died in the violence, most of them Muslims, many of them killed with grotesque cruelty.

It would seem almost impossible to make a work of literature out of such obscene events: isn't the enormity of the crimes sure to dwarf artistic considerations? Yet Raj Kamal Jha has succeeded in writing a novel that works brilliantly as literature, while documenting the brute fact of those atrocities, that really did happen, in our world, a mere six years ago.

The city of Ahmedabad is on fire. Men, women and children are being burnt alive. In the hospital, a baby with no limbs – or features, save a pair of beautiful eyes – is born. The father, Jay, names the baby Ithim (= It + him). Jay sees a woman's face at a window, the words "HELP ME" are traced on the glass, yet when he reaches the room there is nobody there... These events from the first few pages of Fireproof give a hint of the peculiar flavour of the novel that is to come: dark, disturbing, surreal; an evocation of unbearably tragic events, yet with a sense of mystery and wonder that keeps you turning the pages. Think Paul Auster crossed with Salman Rushdie.

The writing is subtle, intriguing, and employs the full range of modernist literary tricks. There are switches in narrator, changes from first- to third- person, a section in playscript form and photos. And through it all, the whispering voices of the dead. Parts are so harrowing you'd hardly dare to re-read them. But you should certainly read this book once.