This is the unedited version of the one publicised originally in Hindustan Times.
Random House India
After having read years of journalistic prose about the searing, tragic epidemic that is farmer suicides, which has a relatively indifferent India in its grasp, it came as a thing of curiosity when Sonora Jha’s debut novel Foreign announced itself moored to the issue. The scope was vast, the data staggering and the numbers never ceasing. How then, I wondered, would this communication professor from Seattle handle this frighteningly large issue in her first attempt at fiction.
To answer that, first off, Jha does it with grace and earnest attention to varying points of view. The books begins with the point of view of Dr Katya Misra, an academic from Seattle, much like Jha, who hasn’t visited India in 14 years. Katya’s moment of academic celebrity is cut shot when she notices 17 missed calls on her phone from India, where her 14 year old son Kabir is on vacation with his maternal parents. Katya calls back to find out he has run away. Here starts her return from a self-imposed exile back to India where she left many things behind, including, as she sees it, much of her Indianness. Katya’s return is, in fact, a kind of coming full circle. When she lived in Mumbai, Katya wrote on issues that helped change government policies and was involved in journalism of truth. But when her relationship with her then lover Ammar Chaudhry ends, Katya is bitter and disillusioned, leaving her homeland for good. Her return to India brings her in contact with Ammar and Katya realizes it is time she stayed back and finished the work she started and gave herself to many years ago. At least for a while. This point of view is alternated with that of Bajirao Andhale and Gayatribai, a family that is a ticking suicide bomb. Katya’s return compels her to stay with the couple and it is from here, a dusty, rain-starved village named Dhanpur, that the stories told in Foreign are told.
Jha likes her stories neatly tied up with a perfect little bow at the end. From her chapter headings, which aren’t as obscure as they may be perceived, to the way she ends the book, the first-time author doesn’t leave anything to imagination or conjecture. Her academic past may have probably helped her in her research of the suicides in Vidarbha and about the lives of cotton farmers, but you’d be hard pressed to tell. For the most part, the petulant Katya gets in the way of telling the larger story, that of the suicides, with her NRI bitterness and her acute self-consciousness. Her contempt of India, her dread and anger at the past and her final reconciliation with the country and her yesterday form the backbone of the book, with the farmer suicide almost, but not quite, seeming incidental.
Of the many characters that Jha has focused intently on creating in detail, only two people actually emerge as rounded, progressing characters: Katya and Gayatribai. While Bajirao, Ammar and Kabir are all fairly amiable characters, they seem as serving a purpose of bringing these two women to their life’s mission, in a manner of speaking. Gayatribai goes from doggedly devoted village wife to a quiet, desperate “activist” who grabs the attention of the chief minister and media alike, in what seems like record time in the book. Katya herself makes peace and stays on because she knows this is what she has to do now, to save this family and if she can, other families that have been gripped by the suicide epidemic.
The ending is far too cosmetic for an angst-ridden reader like me with Gayatribai becoming the ray of hope, and Katya renewing her commitment to the cause. It asks no questions, it provides even fewer answers and arrives at a solution that fits in best with a hindi film ending. And this is why the book is deeply flawed. With journalism and academia in Jha’s repertoire, one would expect Foreign to strike a deep chord, to cut viscerally. But the book asks no questions at all, leave alone those that would make you search your soul. Your heart goes out to the poverty-ridden farmers but when you shut the book, none of the ghosts of their dead stay with you, a situation which a subject like this one would have a scope to create. Into a few pages, when you’ve formed certain impressions without actually thinking about them, Foreign surprises you with two things: touching prose in places and the rooted, confident portrayal of the relationship between Katya and Kabir. Nuance, dialogue, love and worry all emerge beautifully in this dynamic.