Cover Charged: A Nameless Girl Haunts Jha’s Second Novel


If You Are Afraid of Heights is Raj Kamal Jha’s second novel, and like his first, The Blue Bedspread, it’s an elliptical story in which the refusal to distinguish fantasy from reality, dream from memory, and accident from pattern not only defines the style, but the means by which characters survive. If You Are Afraid of Heights takes place in Calcutta, where Jha grew up, but whereas his spare, incantatory debut avoids fanciful description, this book often indulges it. At one point, two characters play a game describing body parts that goes on for five pages.

Divided into three sections, each with its own prologue, If You Are Afraid of Heights centers around an 11-year-old girl. Jha opens and closes his story telling us to look at the picture of her on the cover of the book, where she stands on a balcony, her back to us, wearing a red dress. She doesn’t speak until the last section, and remains nameless throughout—silence and anonymity are Jha’s favored themes. But he evokes her story through the other characters, who mirror and shape her existence. They dream of her, watch her, teach her, and become her in an intentional confusion of identity, time, and place. Jha baits our desire to fit the pieces together, offering endless points of connection, even literal clues like the anagrammatic transposition of names—the post office clerk Amir and his lover Rima; the journalist Mala and her friend Alam—yet nothing resolves. What remains consistent is “the sound of a child crying,” the willingness to hear it, and the need to flee it, both actions that drive the characters and, as Jha reveals, ensure their survival.