After having read years of journalistic prose about farmer suicides, 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, 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. Katya hasn’t returned to India in 14 years and at the opening of the book, she’s celebrating an academic achievement. Her moment of celebrity is cut short when she notices 17 missed calls on her phone from India, where her 14 year-old-son Kabir is on vacation with his maternal grandparents. Katya calls back to find out he has run away. Here starts her return from a self-imposed exile back to India. When she lived in Mumbai, Katya, a committed reporter, was involved in journalism of truth. But when her relationship with her then lover Ammar Chaudhry ends, she is bitter and disillusioned, leaving her homeland for good. Her return brings her in contact with Ammar and Katya realises it is time she stayed back and finished the work she 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 in Foreign are told. Jha likes her stories neatly tied up with a perfect little bow at the end. 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, only two emerge as rounded: Katya and Gayatribai. Bajirao, Ammar and Kabir are all strong portrayals, but they seem as serving a purpose of bringing these two women to their life’s mission. Gayatribai goes from 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 to save this family and if she can, other families gripped by the suicide epidemic. The ending is too cosmetic. It asks no questions, provides even fewer answers and arrives at a solution that fits best with a Hindi film ending. This is why the book is deeply flawed. With journalism and academia in Jha’s repertoire, one would expect Foreign 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 poverty-ridden farmers but when you finish the book, none of the ghosts of their dead stay with you. Foreign surprises you with two things though: touching prose in places and the confident portrayal of the relationship between Katya and Kabir. Foreign loses a huge opportunity to take a stand, and eventually ask questions of readers who don’t go past headlines of these suicides. While gripping in its story telling, it is mostly reduced to Katya laying a few ghosts to rest, none of them belonging to Vidarbha.
Sandhya Menon is an independent journalist who lives in Bangalore