In a crumbling neighbourhood in New Delhi, a child waits for a mother to return home from work. And, in parallel, in a snow-swept town in Germany on the Baltic Sea coast a woman, her memory fading, shows up at a deserted hotel. Worlds apart, both embark, in the course of that night, on harrowing journeys through the lost and the missing, the living and the dead, until they meet in an ending that breaks the heart – and holds the promise of putting it back together again.
Here is an excerpt of Raj Kamal Jha’s book The City and the Sea
“Like all children, I have a father.
We shall meet him in just a little while.
An odd character, my father. Sometimes, it seems, I am the one who is the adult and my father is the child. But then that’s the way Papa is. I cannot do much about it, Ma told me about Papa, I love him but I am no longer sure how much. If you ask me, I would tell you that I think Ma deserves someone better. I know that’s a hurtful thing to say but I will say this behind Papa’s back, he won’t know because there’s no way he’s ever going to read any of this.
That, I am absolutely sure of.
As was her routine Monday to Friday and one working Sunday a month—which was that day—Ma should have been home latest by 4 p.m. from the newspaper where she worked on the copy desk, most of the time on the morning shift. It began at 8 a.m. and ended at 3 p.m., during which she edited stories and made pages. She had to send out at least two or three inside pages to bed, to the press, ready for plating and printing before the night shift came in and began work on the front page and the national pages.
If I sound as if I know quite a bit about Ma’s work it’s because Ma often talked to me about it, once she took me to office when there was no one there. She showed me how she made a page on QuarkExpress, how she drew text boxes into which she flowed the text, picture boxes into which she placed the pictures. She showed me how she typed in the headline, chose its size and font from the style sheet that popped up on the right-hand side when you hit F9 on the keyboard. Many of these stories and pictures that I edit are from The Sea, she said, about people who live there, things that happen to them. If we don’t put these stories out, no one will get to know what’s happening in The Sea.
Why is that important, I asked, why do we need to know about The Sea?
What kind of a question is that, Ma said, if you want to live in this city, you can never run away from The Sea so why not get to know what’s happening there? That way, you will always be prepared.
Prepared for what? I asked.
When someone from The Sea comes visiting, she said.
I didn’t understand what she meant, it was 3 p.m., her shift was over, it was time to go home.
That evening, however, 4 p.m. became 5 p.m. became 6 p.m. and it was shortly before 7 p.m., more than three hours after I had returned from school, had lunch, washed, even changed into my night clothes, when Papa walked up to me and said—he was speaking to me for the first time that day—your mother still hasn’t come home, did Ma tell you anything this morning about coming home late?
No, I said, she didn’t tell me anything like that.
You aren’t going to hear much about Papa, I will tell you that up front, because he is here, he is not here, he comes and he goes. He is at home most of the time when Ma is at work and I am at school. Or, he wanders around the city all by himself because he lost his job a year ago. When we are home, all three of us, most of the time Papa rarely gets in our way, he lives and moves in spaces in our house constantly draped in shadow. Maybe a bit of The Sea has slipped into your Papa, mixed with a little of his blood and that’s what has made him seem lost all the time, as if he’s missing a vital piece, Ma whispered to me once, and I think she felt sorry for saying this because she tried to be nice to him the rest of the day even though he remained, as ever, cold and distant.
One night, when they thought I was asleep, Papa and Ma were in my room talking and Ma told him to keep meeting people, keep going for job interviews but he said there was no point, no one wanted him, they would like to get the same work done for half his salary to which Ma said forget the salary, take anything they give you, you need to be out of this house working, you need to be with other people, forget about us, you need to feel safe and secure, I can’t be the only one dreaming around here. I would love to take a vacation with all of us, I would love to walk on a beach, I would love to go abroad, to watch the snow fall, how is all this going to happen, how is any of this going to happen?
The way she said all of this, angry and defiant, set Papa off. He shouted back at her, don’t tell me about your dreams, he struck his palm hard on the dresser table, making things fly away, do you think I should work as a security guard? As Santa Claus? I should beg at the streetlight, scrub the toilet floor at the mall? That, too, is a job, isn’t it, he said, and he walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Ma followed him a few minutes later.
She was crying.
I heard all this, I saw all this with my eyes open just a chink.
I am very good at watching with my eyes closed, at making people believe I am sleeping, that I am not listening when I am, actually, wide awake, fully alert.”
This is a book about masculinity – damaging and toxic and yet enduring and entrenched – that begs the question: What kind of men are our boys growing up to be?