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From the margins

PREETI ZACHARIAH
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BOOK Feeling like an outsider sensitised Sonora Jha towards the farmers’ problems. She could clearly see what it was for them to be in modern India which doesn’t include the village in its vision Leadin blurb

Ignored by the mediaSonora Jha decided to take such issues to the world with her book, ‘Foreign’Photo: Bhgaya Prakash k.
Ignored by the mediaSonora Jha decided to take such issues to the world with her book, ‘Foreign’Photo: Bhgaya Prakash k.

Sonora Jha spent her life feeling like an outsider, “I grew up with polio which was unusual for the time I was growing up in. I always felt like I was different from other people.”

Yet she believes that it is this inability to assume a shared social identity that defines who she is and what she has chosen to do. Sonora, a former journalist and a professor of journalism at Seattle University has just released her debut novel, Foreign — a fictionalised account of farmers’ suicides in modern-day India.

“The feeling of being on the margins, started with the polio. Then as a journalist, I began bringing out the kind of stories that were questioning social justice, questioning power structures, questioning why some people were on the margins and giving voice to them. To some degree I always felt that I was on the outside,” she says. “Now I seek not belonging. I seek foreignness. I feel most comfortable on the margins. I think if you belong somewhere you cease to question and wonder about things.”

Her book, which straddles the distinctly different worlds of Seattle and Vidarbha, is a poignant account of a single farmer’s struggle with fate, circumstances, inequities and a flawed economic and social structure. Yet the story is universal and can be applied to any man who tills the soil for a living, “I wanted to make it one story about this one person that all my readers could connect to.”

Her advent into fiction was somewhat serendipitous. Sonora graduated in commerce before taking a Masters in Journalism and going on to becoming a journalist with The Afternoon Despatch and Courier in Bombay and then the Times of India , Bangalore, where she went on to head the bureau. A tryst in Singapore followed and then the stint in America where she went on to do her Ph.D. in Political Communication at the Louisiana State University. “I don’t think I would have left India. I loved the country and my career there and would never have thought of giving up on it. But I hated Singapore because they didn’t have a free press and it was easier to leave. It was a personal decision to go back to school for a little bit, but I then got attracted to teaching journalism and I decided to stay on there.”

It was during her Ph.D. research that she realised how many big global stories like farmer suicides ended up getting missed out by global press and she decided to delve deeper into it. She went to Vidhrabha and began talking to the local farmers hoping to gain deeper insight into the issue, “Their narrative was so lyrical,” she recalls. “And I also realised that they expected me to take their story to the world.”

And that is what she went on to do. “I wanted to tell their story the way it was told to me which is why I opted to do it through fiction. It was hard at first — I had to unlearn journalistic jargon and academic norms before I could actually write fiction. As a journalism professor, fiction still feels like a guilty pleasure but I realised that it was the best format I could use to tell this story.”

The actual publication took nearly five years as the amount of research that went into the book was extensive, but it has certainly been worth the wait. “People are sending me letters saying that though they didn’t understand the issue earlier, they now are following it. And that’s what I want. I want my readers to go beyond the statistics and actually see the real people behind it.”

PREETI ZACHARIAH

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