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Foreign: By Sonora Jha, Random House India, 304 pages, Rs 399
Foreign: By Sonora Jha, Random House India, 304 pages, Rs 399

Quick Lit | Foreign

An exercise in well-meaning but empty charity

Quick Lit | Foreign affairs

Katya Misra is a tenure-track professor in Seattle, US, with a white cop fiancé who finds out that her 14-year-old son Kabir has run away to rural India in search of his biological father. This propels Katyayani to return after a decade to a country she feels “has a way of shrinking you, snuffing out your spirit".

The man she had a child with is Ammar Chaudhry, a social worker who rejected marriage to devote himself to the farmers in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. The scene then is set: Katya needs to learn to stop being a supercilious NRI and get her groove back, Ammar needs to be softened with some feminism, and the innocent child will provide a touching commentary on a great social ill; namely, farmer suicides.

Today India is witnessing a horrific agricultural injustice perpetrated by the exploitative policies of colonialism, corporate and foreign capitalism, and selfish misgovernance. This tragedy has been documented by writers like A.R. Vasavi, Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy and P. Sainath in non-fiction, but their fictional counterparts remain rare. To Sonora Jha’s credit, Foreign is armed with enough good intentions to attempt to complicate the narrative and provide a more nuanced perspective than those that plague stories with “bridge characters" where People Like Us go off into “the Wild" and discover valuable life lessons and a sense of social justice.

To counter Katya and Kabir’s NRI identity, she switches points of view with Gayatribai and Bajirao—a farmer couple deep in debt and just as deeply in love with each other. Theirs are the strongest sections of the book, with some moments of genuine tenderness and warmth. Although Jha’s attempts to transcend her own cosmopolitanism are so-so, her earnest conviction that the elderly, uneducated, traditional, agrarian couple can experience and communicate as sophisticated a dialect of romantic affection as any Hollywood romcom, creates an Ashutosh Gowariker film sort of sweetness.

Jha has worked very hard to give her farmers dignity and agency, and to temper her feminism with the intersectional claims of caste and class. She has clearly written her heart out trying to be fair to contradictory perspectives, and to be thoughtful about issues of identity and social justice. Unfortunately, the strenuous effort only translates into a novel heaving and gasping in its attempts to engage with reality, like a camera focusing on the panting bosom of the hero’s sister during the (inevitable) rape scene. Katya’s petulant attempts to take charge create a series of increasingly ludicrous situations that turn a tragedy into a soap opera, culminating in a ludicrous finale for Kabir. Disappointingly, these clichés include the woman who lies about her sexual desire for ulterior motives, and the rape which happens to further the journey of the non-raped privileged NRI protagonists.

One of the worst appropriations for a writer is to turn a real-world event into window-dressing for the private angst of fictional protagonists. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, one farmer kills himself every 37 minutes in India. These suicides deserve ownership of their story as much as any eponymous Othello or Anna Karenina. In its very title, Foreign attempts to mitigate its slant towards disaster tourism by addressing how the causes of farmer suicides stem from global economic practices; the imported BT cotton seeds having proven a deadly crop to be indebted to.

But the mediocre writing, coupled with a perpetual return to the petty travails of Katya and Ammar, marginalize the people whose story should be front and centre. Sadly, Jha’s book remains an exercise in well-meaning, empty charity, on a par with pink M&Ms raising awareness for breast cancer.

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