Seattle-based Sonora Jha draws on her experiences as a journalist and as an academic for a novel on Vidarbha farmers’ suicides. In this interview over Skype, she shares how she transformed her “dry” subject into a fecund narrative of “love, longing and belonging”…
The spate of suicides by debt-trapped farmers in Vidarbha (Maharashtra) is a grim reality. Sonora Jha, professor of journalism and the chair of the Department of Communication at Seattle University, however, harvests it for fiction. Jha mingles her passion for fiction and compassion for Vidarbha farmers in her debut novel,Foreign, published by Random House India.
A novel that dwells on the mirth and misery of love and death, Foreign, at its core, is also about home and homelessness, hope and hopelessness, foreignness and familiarity, beginnings and ends. It tells the story of the desperation and gradual devastation of a farmer couple, Bajirao and Gayatribai, who are swamped with love, but steeped in debt — debt that does them part.
Jha, who worked as a journalist in Mumbai and Bangalore before moving first to Singapore and then to the US for her Ph.D in political communication, says some of the stories she covered as a journalist stayed at the back of her mind. Even as she published papers in various journals on “intersections of press, politics, and the Internet”, she kept wondering why the “biggest story of our time” was not given its due “urgency”. Influenced by the writings of P. Sainath, Dionne Bunsha and Jaideep Hardikar, she got involved with the farmers’ crisis on her many journeys to Pandharkawada in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. The suicides of farmers kept “eating away” at her, keeping her sleepless in Seattle, till she found a way to release it, as it were, through Foreign.
Jha chose fiction as she wanted to tell this story in the format it was narrated to her by real-life farmers. “Their story had so much beauty, I wanted to bring it to the larger audience,” says Jha, who had to wade through multiple drafts in a bid to take “her ego as a researcher” out of the story. She had to leave aside the statistics and follow the “hearts” of her characters. She had to focus on their soul to bring to the wider world what someone like Bajirao, a cotton farmer caught in the deadly cycle of debt, would have wanted the world to know.
“Not everyone who can help is helping. Not everyone who can make a difference is making a difference,” Jhasays.
Her novel, she says, doesn’t “exoticise” India, but talks about the country in terms of real human beings with real problems. But that doesn’t mean Foreign has anything to do with a “poverty tour”, designed to give to the West what they tend to lap up. “I am interested in human beings,” says Jha, adding she could talk for hours about the “love life” of her girlfriends when they meet. The arc of her interest also includes Bollywood, heartbreaks, Mirza Ghalib and Sahir Ludhianvi. She has named her son, Sahir, after the poet and lyricist and dedicated the book to him: Kabir is modelled on Sahir, her son, who recently gave a miss to his high-school prom to attend the national convention of social activists.
Foreign, says Jha, is an outcome of her engagement with the people of India, a product of the stories of “love, heartbreaks and sacrifices”.
Jha is hopeful that India wakes up to the sacrifices of farmers. “There is enough food in India. There is enough money in India. We don’t need anyone’s help,” she argues.
There are people in India like Ammar, an activist in the novel who is so committed to the cause that he ends up doing a disservice to his own woman and child, Katya and Kabir. Jha says this is among the many basic things that can go wrong. “Even when you have the right policies, it somehow can’t translate into humanity,” says Jha. Among her many other feats in Foreign, it’s the “humanity” of the novel that Jha gets right.