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Shifting currents in a campus

Sonora Jha’s novel, The Laughter, is a clarion call for wider social change and for the possibility of shifting cultural signifiers in the most devastating of times

Debashree Dattaray Published 26.05.23, 04:41 AM
Representational image.

Representational image. File photo

The Laughter by Sonora Jha, Hamish Hamilton, ₹599

When I get up in the morning, I’m excited to come to class, not because I get to teach you, but because I get to learn from you.” — Ji-Yoon Kim in The Chair


Ji-Yoon’s valiant approach towards academia in the Netflix series, The Chair, is articulated through her struggles as the first female, non-white person who takes responsibility as the Chair of an English department caught in the morass of bureaucratic hassles and academic stagnation. Sonora Jha’s protagonist, Dr Oliver Harding, is a representative of the complacency of the stereotypical white American academic and his deeply rooted prejudices that the likes of Ji-Yoon had to battle in The Chair.

The Laughter is Jha’s second novel. Her first novel, Foreign, tells stories of farmer suicides in India. Jha is better known for her memoir, How to Raise a Feminist Son: Motherhood, Masculinity, and the Making of My Family, which records her tumultuous journey as a mother trying to inculcate certain values in her son. In an interview in May 2021 Jha had said this of her forthcoming writings: “I’m finishing up a novel that tells the story of a white man. Because, you know, the world needs more of those. But seriously, this is a twisted tale.”

Jha lives up to her promise as she writes a complex tale featuring Dr Harding, a G.K. Chesterton scholar, his obsession with his new colleague, Ruhaba Khan, a talented Pakistani law professor, and his unequal relationship with Ruhaba’s nephew, Adil Alam, a fifteen-year-old boy from Toulouse, France, who has been sent to the United States of America — a “safe place” — to escape the persecution faced by Muslims in France. Jha succinctly maps her story across neighbourhoods in Emerald City, such as Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, Pier 91, Olympic Peninsula and Queen Anne Hill, evoking an ethos of everyday life in America. Most importantly, through the meetings, demonstrations and classes on campus in the US, she offers a sketch of a life in which “semesters go by in the predictability of students’ papers arriving on one’s desk and coffee mugs drained and forgotten during glassy-eyed grading.”

Set in the days preceding the presidential elections of 2016 with strong support for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on campus, the novel speaks to the broader issues of misogyny and Islamophobia. The campus demands a “Day of Absence” — a day devoid of all white students and faculty. Harding dismisses these events as he believes “We are living in an age of reaction masquerading as an age of reform.”

Harding’s evolution is motivated by a keen hostility based on sex, gender and race despite his apparently liberal façade. On being interrogated by federal agents, he proves to be a person who views his Pakistani colleague and her nephew on the basis of race and religious that are a testament to the intersections of different forms of prejudice. The poignant epilogue provides an apt conclusion in the form of a letter from Ruhaba to herself in which she writes: “Dear You, Come bear witness to my silence.”

Jha’s novel is a clarion call for wider social change and for the possibility of shifting cultural signifiers in the most devastating of times.

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