An NRI is forced to face issues concerning herself and her country, issues she had turned her back on.
Foreign works on two levels. It is about Katya (Katyayini) Misra acknowledging how she feels now she’s back in India after years away. She looks wincingly at the dismal situation in a small hamlet where farmer suicides are mounting by the day; the place, people and the situation look back at her unflinchingly. It is also about how this person, carrying the `foreign` tag like an outsize chip on her shoulder, eventually shrugs it off and does what has to be done.
The book gets off to a tentative start where the reader is a dispassionate observer as Katya, having a fame and glory moment in Seattle, receives the news that her teenaged son Kabir, now on holiday in Mumbai, has gone missing. Katya tracks him down to Pandharkawada in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, where the boy has gone in search of his biological father, Ammar Chaudhry. Katya, of course, fetches up there, too; mother and son stay with a local farmer Bajirao and his family, and at this point, Katya, uptight and edgy, stands out awkwardly in that bleak, joyless landscape.
And then, the backdrop starts to grow larger and moves centre-stage. The rains are playing truant, as usual, the moneylenders are closing in on the hapless farmers who are also taking what they deem the easy way out: death by poison, at the end of a looped rope or by drowning. The absolute failure of governmental measures to alleviate the farmers` plight stands fully exposed. These are men who carry sachets of pesticide with them; this is a life so wretched, no one should have to live it.
While the characters and situations are well sketched, the relationship between Katya and Ammar is somewhat stilted, with none of the conflicting emotions touched upon beyond a point. This is more than made up by the bond Katya and Kabir share; that one is so real, it virtually jumps off the page. In this wretched village, the boy comes of age in ways more various than his mother would wish for him, but emerges a better person for all he has seen and endured. The love story in Foreign is not the one shared by Katya and her American fiancé or even Katya and Ammar; the unlikely yet appealing couple here is the wiry Bajirao and his wife Gayatribai.
Some chapters down, the tenor of the narrative shifts, becomes stronger. It is, of course, inevitable that Katya gets drawn into the grim theatre of real life playing out in the village. Bajirao, struggling to stave off penury, the loss of all his land… and suicide. Gayatribai, who has to face down unspeakable horror and misfortune to be able to just carry on with the business of life. Their daughter Meera, who is about to get married at the mass wedding organised in the village. The slimy Sachin Patekar, Chief Agriculture Officer, who casts an ominous shadow over the broken farmers. The activist Ammar Chaudhry, doing a sterling job against formidable odds. The reader is dropped without much ado into all the horrors that is a Vidarbha farmer’s life, with the bleached gem in this diadem of bone being the 40 criteria a suicide must meet, for the government to give compensation to the deceased farmer’s family. And all too soon, Katya who was working industriously at not being a team player, becomes one heck of a team player.
Foreign’s denouement takes place by the river that runs through the village, and it is Jha’s tour de force. The rainfed, roaring waters become Grim Reaper as well as comfort-giver, as the river takes the bodies given it in oblation, aids those who would rescue themselves from the undertow.
It is rarely that a piece of fiction has been placed fair and square on this broken, cracked, dry ground. For that alone, `Foreign` must find a significant place. If it finds its readers, there is no doubt it will.