A dive into the inky human soul

This brave, oftentimes audacious, trauma-informed work unmasks each of us even as it casts a sweeping gaze over everything we’ve become.
Last Updated : 01 April 2023, 20:15 IST

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A common ploy in fiction is to write even contemporary novels a little in the past, as if those momentous and often momentously horrendous events that happen may in no way be linked to the author and her endeavours. Which makes The Laughter by Sonora Jha as bold as it is beautiful. It happens almost in the now, firmly framed by our present circumstances that implicate the author as much as it implicates everybody. This brave, reflexive, searing, oftentimes audacious, trauma-informed work unmasks each of us even as it casts a sweeping gaze over everything we’ve become.

At the outset, this novel is not meant for relaxation; a sense of impending doom hovers from the second page on. The author does not shy away from the brutal. Via her subject matter, she charges straight to the heart of where angels fear to tread. It is a form of essential reading, though. And the author’s style and the still silence she builds around her choice of words place her among the best.

At the centre of the maelstrom, a mild-mannered divorced professor estranged from his wife and daughter is grappling to cope with the newer realities of his life. Professor Oliver Edward Harding is seized by lust for the young Pakistani Law professor, Ruhaba Khan. That lust, with the final burst of the radiance of a dying star, is all-consuming. She is friendly, bursting with optimism and slowly becoming aware of Harding’s attraction for her which she underplays. Into this mix lands her nephew from Toulouse, 15-year-old Adil Alam. The boy provides a route, a tool by which Harding may ingratiate his way into their lives. The ploy is to offer Adil a dog-walking job for his attention-starved mutt, Edgar.

The book begins as a confessional. That itself is a little odd and adds a note of foreboding. As a diarist, Harding is effusive and honest to a degree. A certain duplicity between his words and actions slowly becomes apparent as does the gap between his perception and reality. The incursion of the FBI into the narrative is not to be discounted though initially, it seems but a routine check on Adil.

In the minuscule universe of the university and its politics, Professor Ruhaba Khan first comes to Harding’s notice when they serve on the same committee, and she visits his office to ask to be relieved of her duties. The world of academics in an American university is the author’s own and justice is done to her experiences in how the minutiae are detailed: the endless committees, the general cluelessness, the almost ivory tower existence of academics, soulless social gatherings, power and race politics and the resistance to learning in any form. This is also about the immense space and clout older white men hold over learning and the career paths the future generations are to take.

A moral question

To the average Indian reader, universities here are a different ballgame with unique fault lines. While there are stray similarities, the exact dynamics in this novel are that of a planet quite far away. The flashpoints of racial politics, Black Lives Matter, gender, liberals opposed to the conservatives, the opening out of the syllabi, etc., are not the immediate concerns of the Indian experience. This is more of a thoroughly American novel centred around unique locational dilemmas. The subject matter may be a primer for students from the subcontinent applying for higher studies in the US.

Though the allusion is rather strained, the issue with Harding as the unreliable narrator here is also the issue with the Netflix series, Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. There is discomfort at someone this close to the brink being totally in charge of the narrative or as in the case of the series, in charge of the focus. Why must monsters be given the platform to air their evil deeds? It is both a moral issue and plain repugnance at giving a criminal that amount of airtime. Technically too, as all we have are Harding’s musings, he seems rather un-fleshed out: just a series of thoughts, just words prettier than deeds. This is a plot that calls for a third-person narrator. Both Ruhaba and Adil offer better choices if the book must be in the first person.

The murder lies somewhere between unpremeditated and a crime of passion. The criminality comes from how geopolitics may be twisted to deflect the onus. While the ending offers a glimmer of hope that justice does prevail, the storyline may have read better had the murderer gotten away. That is more realistic and truer.

The niggle that The Laughter is an odd-sounding title for a book persists. Yet, this is a book formidable and fearless. It tackles head-on a sweeping international malaise. Read it for the gem-strewn writing and for a porthole into the inky human soul.

Published 01 April 2023, 19:39 IST

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