Foreign: An urgent fiction

FOREIGN: fiction’s dark underbelly

Foreign by definition means alien/not native, but in Hindi it also refers to immediacy, an urgency that is this novel (Random House India 2013)

Foreign by definition means alien/not native, but in Hindi it also refers to immediacy, an urgency that is this novel (Random House India 2013)

Some contemporary books might call attention to being post-Obama literature, wherein a set of references to the milestone American black president becomes either the backdrop or a defining moment for characters within a novel. President Obama is barely referenced in the opening pages of Foreign as the subject of our protagonist’s latest book to demonstrate her own ease with the politics and identity of her adopted homeland, the place of her karma and terra firma, Dr. Katya (Katyaini) Misra.  Her American teenager perhaps takes after her in his own quest for identity and calling, as he breaks an ordinary vacation at his grandparents’ place in Mumbai, to set off in search of his long lost father, an activist in the hinterlands of drought ravaged Vidarbha.

Foreign follows Katya’s harrowing journey as she leaves the country to bring back her son to their home in rainy Seattle. What follows is a mature social drama about falling for one’s roots but also other niche identities that decide our place in the world, or as Katya might put it, “of whether one has a voice in society or one doesn’t.” Her attempt to bring back the hyperactive, curious son Kabir to their home in America and her fiancé Alec, is set against a deeper conflict of the farmers’ fight against bio-tyranny at the hands of corporations like Monsanto and local and political goons and bureaucrats seeking their own mileage in a drama that has played havoc for over a decade in the drought ravaged village of Vidarbha. So while our protagonists are busy fetching their own ends, the heart and soul of this novel is the social and moral issue of farmers getting the raw deal for their efforts, becoming bonded slaves to first world technology and being manipulated by politicians who evade their duty of doling out compensations to families of farmers who committed suicide – establishing a vague, inaccessible document of the 40 point criteria for a farmer’s death to qualify as suicide and for the victim’s family to be eligible for government compensation. The actors are all too familiar.

Katya is in search of her son Kabir who is in search of his real father, the well known Ammar Chaudhary, a hot blooded, self-respecting activist who left Katya years ago, under the shade of his cowardice but what he wields as his chastity card, wanting to avoid “moh and maya” (attachment and illusion). Orchestrated by the pious Mr. Chaudhry, almost immediately the mother and son are made at home by a host family of farmers to be embroiled in a series of events and suicides that change their lives and question their motives. Human weaknesses are overcome by human action, and that becomes the underlying strength of this novel: history cannot be overcome, but the future might reap harvest from a collective call to action.

Sonora Jha spins a taut tale between Seattle and Vidarbha, placing unexpected characters in a crisis zone a lot of us have only remotely heard referenced in news clippings and television. All the clichés about a returning “foreign” non-resident Indian woman are cleverly and economically communicated in her story, with two Americanised characters offset against the more rustic others, especially Anmar Chaudhary the blood father of Kabir, who stokes an unflinching love and hunger for his new found son.

Interestingly, Katya and Kabir are characters you may understand and empathise with, but not necessarily get under the skin of, at least not until you are more than halfway through the novel! This is because, the mother and son, like skillful reporters or vehicles, take you deep into lives and situations far more urgent, complex and foreign than theirs – the livelihoods of a family of farmers for whom the next meal could well mean selling their best kidney – where you meet Bajirao and Gayatribai, central characters of the farmers’ struggle, but also Katya and Kabir’s host family. Gayatribai and Bajirao’s problems become Katya and Kabir’s, but also the reader’s. The ease and agility with which the American teenager Kabir, adapts and innovates with adult calm, to the needs and cues of Gayatribai, the village, or his father, is slightly over remarkable, and also the catalyst for a life-changing decision taken by Katya towards the end.

There is one particularly brilliant chapter where the river assumes the metaphor of a bride, who in the wake of her groom’s arrival, the rain, is contemptuous of other human forms, deciding the arc of life for others who have grown up, consummated by her banks or been swallowed up in her. The hungry river continues flowing, avenging her hunger with a death toll of the old and wasted.

The story is consistently dark, intense, gripping and layered with societal tensions in the midst of an agricultural and economic crisis. The action is hectic, sometimes too much so, and for a plot that is realistic, there is never a dull moment of characters that are constantly transcending their identities or transiting different worlds between paragraphs.

Is Foreign the journalist’s approach to fiction? If so, how much journalism feeds good fiction, or how much journalism should depend on fiction for an issue to be advertised/conveyed to larger numbers? Foreign sits on years of primary and secondary research and groundwork undertaken in the region, and it shows. Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night was another successful, deeply interesting novel that treated an issue (female infanticide) among others, within the framework of a novel.

Foreign spans two countries (without parallel narratives, thankfully; nearly everyone is in the present tense), and protagonists you may not necessarily like or hate, but several heart-stopping moments of characters submitting to a range of conflicts and choices in a country that has witnessed the death of a staggering 2,70,000 farmers over a decade and a half at least, according to most sources. Is this immersive fiction like immersive journalism, or just journalism based fiction?

You feel slight relief on recalling this year’s ruling of Indian government rejecting the Monsanto patent in attempts to save the farmer from seed slavery and the more commonly known bio-rape. Foreign comes as a jolting reminder of the perils at the bottom of the pyramid, taking us through Bajirao and other farmers’ desperation, disputed or stalled land claims, chain funerals, widows farming, mass weddings, organ selling, ruthless moneylenders, vulgar and corrupt bureaucrats and law officials. To be a farmer is hard enough, to be a woman and a farmer, is to be political! This story unravels the farmer’s story, gives it cinematic scope, as an entire village protests its way out of seed dependence, chain suicides and continuing poverty with the reluctant heroine Gayatribai, at its helm.

This ambitious novel cleverly attempts to unite different worlds, across continents, economics, societies and technology divides, rife with uneasy encounters and life and death dilemmas that highlight the choices one makes, but also those implemented under the iron hand of society, circumstance, ideology and justice. Foreign offers some grim, enlightened reading to anyone in search of a good story.

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