Raj Kamal Jha’s first novel, The Blue Bedspread, is a highly original treatment of a familiar subject, the long-lasting effects of childhood abuse, and a familiar set of characters, an abusive father and the wife and children who are his victims. The novel is written in a form that has become increasingly popular, as a series of connected short stories. However, the unnamed narrator’s rationale for writing these stories may well be unique in contemporary fiction: He wishes to send them with his orphaned newborn niece when she is collected by her adoptive parents, perhaps as soon as the following morning.
By having his narrator explain these circumstances in the first few pages of the novel, ostensibly to the baby asleep on his bed, Jha generates the dramatic tension that will propel his readers through the book. Critics agree that The Blue Bedspread can be confusing. Jha permits his narrator to move back and forth in time without explanation; sometimes he has him surrender the narrative to another character, then take it back—an admission that what has been presented was the author’s own construct. In this way and in others, Jha often blurs the distinctions between fact and fiction, memory and imagination.
However, whenever the author seems about to lose control of his narrative, he pulls back to the apartment in Calcutta, to the baby on the blue bedspread, and to the man who is writing so feverishly, stopping only to check on his charge while she sleeps or to comfort her when she whimpers. By returning frequently to this scene, Jha keeps his novel focused; meanwhile, he also unifies it, and provides suspense as well, by having his narrator periodically stress the urgency of his authorial task, express increasing hesitancy about giving up the baby, and hint that he may eventually reveal a secret about her birth.
The Blue Bedspread is divided into thirty-one “stories,” many of them very short, which are grouped together into six sections, five of them with headings suggesting their subject matter. The chapter titles, too, are generally significant. Thus the book begins with “First Story,” in which the narrator describes himself and explains to the baby why the stories he is writing will someday mean so much to her. “Police Station” and “Cremation Ground” are primarily expository, but in “Still Life” the narrator notices how much the sleeping child resembles his sister when she, too, was sleeping, and he recalls her telling him about a recurring dream in which she could not move because her picture was being painted. Thus he introduces one of the major symbolic patterns in the book, that of confinement and flight. More immediately, however, when he identifies the baby with her mother, he seems to have begun bonding with his niece, and one suspects that he may find it impossible to relinquish the child to strangers.
In the following section, entitled “Father,” readers learn the reason why the narrator and his sister felt so trapped throughout their childhood: Their father beat them, as well as their mother, keeping his family in a constant state of terror. They could not leave; all they could do was find some way to endure. In “The Stammering Clinic,” readers see one of the results of abuse and one way in which the narrator learns to survive. When his father takes him to a specialist who may be able to cure his stuttering, the doctor urges the narrator to write down his thoughts whenever he cannot manage to put them into words. Though his father ends the clinic visits and confiscates the paper on which the child had experimented, the narrator has learned that by writing down his fears, his thoughts, and his memories, he can exert some control over his world. This is what he is presently doing. Moreover, by transmitting his knowledge of the world to the baby and by presenting her with a sense of her identity, he will enable her to fashion her own fate instead of merely being a victim.
The narrator and his sister also try to survive by hiding from the world. Their bed becomes their retreat. There they can cling together under the blue bedspread, safe from all the dangers that lurk outside. This haven becomes even more important to the narrator when, at ten, he is brutally raped by his father. That night he and his sister, who is now fourteen, consummate a relationship that has already become more than mere affection. For five years they continue to console each other in this way; then his sister elopes with a man she may love but will eventually come to hate. In later years, the narrator understands that his sister left in order to keep their love for each other from becoming a shameful memory. The section ends in the present, with the narrator looking at what he has become—a solitary, withdrawn...
(The entire section is 1955 words.)