It is no mean feat that Sonora Jha’s debut novel Foreign concerns itself with the farmer suicides of Vidarbha, a tragedy ignored in mainstream fiction. Writing about deep anguish or the collective sorrow of a people can be tricky. You can either be clever about it and invent an allegory, or be prepared to plunge into the darkness. Jha, however, sits on the fence and commands a sweeping view. Through protagonist Katya Mishra, a reluctant insider, she trains the knowing lens of an anthropologist on the killing fields. Multiple worlds collide in a fairly credible fashion, leaving us with a gripping, if self-conscious, tale.
The novel has a commendable pace that turns breathless once in a while. From cold, contained Seattle, where Katya, a professor who longs to sever all ties with India, we move to Dhanpur, a village in Vidarbha where we enter the lives of Bajirao, a farmer, and his wife Gayatribai, when news arrives that Katya’s son Kabir is missing. He has disappeared in the cotton fields to look for his father, the poet-activist Ammar Chaudhry, the reason why Katya seeks and has tenuously found a home in a foreign land. The story unfurls with admirable precision. There is a lot of craft involved in weaving disparate individuals and destinies against a backdrop of extreme poverty. Suicide has always held us, the others, in perpetual fascination. It is considered to be a possibility within each of us. Nervous anticipation of impending suicide tightens a book’s plot and renders it a page-turner, if somewhat perversely.
Exacting statistics, a dwelling on state apathy, genetically modified seeds, painfully defined sources, excerpts in parentheses, blog posts, essays—a formidable crowd of information that is understandably hard to resist break the rhythm of an otherwise lush realism. The anxiety to cover every timbre of opposition, conflict, outrage of human dignity somewhat ruins the quality of empathy, which might, even in dystopian contexts, flourish if left au naturel, unconstructed. There are too many signposts, too many self-conscious assertions that coax the reader along on a moral tourism. The binaries of human condition are upheld constantly by observations that veer on the preachy, such as, “Watch what she is doing. She is not doing shoulder presses at the gym. She is sweating to get water.”
Foreign is at its best when the self-consciousness recedes, like in its lyrical depiction of Gayatri and Bajirao’s love or the portrayal of Dhanpur. Soprano moments aside, the narration is quicksilver, embodying the resilient spirit of those living amidst chronic tragedy.
Based on his review I just got the book yesterday. Two chapters into it and I am liking it very much. I can already see that the reviewer did justice to it. It appears to be one of thise novels hard to put down once you start reading.
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