An NRI is forced to face issues that she had turned her back on.
This is a book that works on two levels. It is about Katya (Katyayini) Misra acknowledging how she feels now that she’s back in India after years; at the dismal situation in a small hamlet where farmer suicides are mounting by the day. It is also about how a person, carrying the ‘foreign’ tag like an outsize chip on her shoulder, eventually shrugs it off and does what has to be done.
Foreign starts tentatively with the reader being a dispassionate observer when 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.
In the village, the rains are playing truant; 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.
While the characters and situations are well sketched, the relationship between Katya and Ammar is somewhat stilted. This is more than made up by the bond Katya and Kabir share; that one is so real that 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 and 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. 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 rain-fed roaring waters become Grim Reaper as well as comfort-giver, as the river takes the bodies given to it in oblation, aids those who would rescue themselves from the undertow.