Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1955
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 man who is always afraid.
“Mother” consists of only two stories and an interlude, for the narrator’s mother, who was also abused by his father, died young. He has only two clear memories of her. In one of these stories he recalls a time when she was bathing him in a white washbasin, and he saw her wave to a man who was not his father. In the other story the narrator remembers the day it snowed in Calcutta. He imagines his mother getting out warm clothes for the family so that they could sit together on the balcony. That was one of the few days his father showed any affection to his family, one of the few times that they were all happy.
Appropriately, the section entitled “Sister” contains a fourth of the stories in the novel. However, the sister is barely mentioned in “Dead Pigeon”; she is linked to the old man who is the central character only because in his tenderness toward his pigeons she recognizes the kind of nurturing love of which her own father is evidently incapable. Other stories in this section, however, are told through her eyes, as the narrator imagines her life after marriage, her insensitive husband, her domineering mother-in-law, her fantasies about murdering them so that she could be free, and the unhappiness that eventually caused her to leave him and her marriage.
In “Straight Line,” the narrator again returns to the apartment where he spent his childhood and which is now once again his home. The title of the story suggests its purpose: to connect some of the concrete objects that have been mentioned in the narrative, so that they are fused into a symbolic whole. However, this story, placed about three-fourths of the way through the novel, is also significant in that when the narrator speaks to the baby about some day guiding her from one of these objects to another, it is evident that he has begun to envision himself as a parent, keeping her not just tonight, but until she is grown. It is in this story, too, that readers begin to guess the secret about the baby’s father. Fifteen years after they parted, the narrator recalls, he and his sister met again, though just for a single day and half a night.
The following section, “Visitors,” begins with a story about Bhabani, who, after the death of the mother, becomes the nurturing presence in the children’s lives. Bhabani considers it her mission to protect the children as best she can, even though as a servant she has limited power. In the interlude called “Baby Food,” the narrator, too, begins to function as a nurturer. When he feeds the baby, he decides, he must somehow make her believe that she is at her mother’s breast.
It is appropriate that “Brother,” a section that focuses on the narrator, should begin with a story entitled “All Alone.” Though it and the next story describe his abortive love affair with “Princess,” it is evident that in reality the narrator has been alone since his sister left. Again, there is a reference to a brief meeting with her in which she relives an incident that haunted her throughout her marriage: the night she went with a family to throw their dead baby’s body into the river. The narrator now makes his decision: He will not allow this baby to be taken anywhere. Cradling her as his sister once cradled him, he imagines or dreams he is announcing to a huge assemblage that he is the father of his sister’s baby.
The Blue Bedspread is a work so dense with meaning that it invites a second reading, and perhaps even a third, if one is to appreciate all the structural subtleties of the novel and grasp the full implications of a wealth of images. For example, there is a connection between the brief stories, or interludes, that are set apart by their italicized titles and that appear either as the last work in a section or, on two occasions, as next to the last. All of them are set in the present and focus on the baby. Read in order, they trace the development of the narrator’s attachment to the child. In “Still Life” he sees her likeness to his sister; in “Street Crossing” he contemplates his own loneliness, periodically breaking off to check on his charge; in “Sarah Parker” he wishes a long-dead hypnotist would magically appear to stop the baby from crying. By the interlude that appears almost at the end of the “Sister” section, however, the narrator has begun to imagine himself as a parent, showing an older child the “Straight Line” that explains his own life and her mother’s as well. In “Baby Food,” the child’s needs have become paramount, and he resolves to act as a nurturing mother. “Second-to-Last Story,” which is the final interlude, ends with the narrator’s resolving to keep the baby.
There is even more art in Jha’s arrangement of imagery than in his structural patterns. For instance, whenever the narrator looks at his mother’s photograph, he sees two cockroaches under the frame; like her, they were unable to escape except into death. Another image of death is the pigeon that slips out of its cage (which, ironically in that case, is a place of safety), is run over, and then is dispersed throughout the city, body and blood. However, there are also images of happiness: the red bicycle that a loving grandfather gave to the narrator’s sister; the black hook where her father once hung the caged birds he had brought her; the red socks the narrator wore that day it snowed; the bedside lamp that made its own stars in the room where the children slept; and the blue bedspread that once provided a refuge for a desperate brother and sister.
At several points in the novel, the narrator imagines an alternative life in which the same characters behave differently. Instead of beating his mother, his father puts his arm around her; instead of brutalizing his children, he treats them with affection and kindness. Jha’s implication is that human beings have it in their power to decide between good and evil, and if so, even in a male-dominated hierarchical system, the abuse of women and children is not inevitable. For all its darkness, The Blue Bedspread is a book about redemption. At the end, the narrator knows enough about evil to avoid it and enough about love to cherish the baby who, in turn, will save him from a life of loneliness.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (April 1, 2000): 1435.
Library Journal 125 (April 1, 2000): 130.
New Statesman 128 (June 7, 1999): 55.
The New York Times, April 7, 2000, B46.
Publishers Weekly 247 (March 6, 2000): 82.
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