The tragic exploitation that puts food on our plates

Tragic heroes, usually perfect in all but one respect, often suffer from an excess of virtues. The main narrator in Selina Baljit Basra’s debut novel, Happy, is a young Sikh cursed with stubborn optimism. “Forgive me if I’m smiling too big,” he says. Raised on a farm next to an amusement park in Punjab, India, during the globalization fever of the 1990s, Happy aspired to act in films, write screenplays and achieve international fame. Dissatisfied with his job as a “Wonderland assistant” at the amusement park, he leaves for Italy with a group of “illegal” travelers.

Basra’s experimental novel opens with a painstakingly crafted cover letter, signed “Happy Singh Soni,” elucidating our hero’s economic past and his reasons for leaving home. Although much of what follows proceeds through a more traditional narration in Happy’s voice, it is sporadically interrupted by the monologues of inanimate objects: an ancient necklace from Moenjodaro, a piece of luggage at a train terminal. This formal dexterity keeps the book deceptively lighthearted, offering a distraction from the horrors of reality. As is his self-deprecating humor. “Secret travel is much easier if you scratch your name on your passport and choose to become a nobody,” says Happy at the start of his journey.

Readers understand that Happy has been smuggled into Italy, even if he and his fellow migrants appear misinformed and underprepared, as evidenced by their style of dress: they opt for a “Punjabi version of that global all-American look,” wearing jeans, tracksuits, a Letterman jacket, “aspiring to look like a Sylvester Stallone postcard from the ’80s.” As the converted fast-food truck they’re in enters Iran’s Lut desert, and as they unload and walk through the snow-capped mountains, Happy distracts himself with imaginary conversations. His interlocutors include a flighty femme fatale named Europa and a tourist on his way to Kabul to visit conceptual artist Alighiero e Boetti’s One Hotel.

Basra has a penchant for surrealism. Happy in many ways resembles the ingénue at the center of Yoko Towada’s dreamy novelThe Naked Eye,” movie-obsessed Vietnamese kidnapped in Paris. In contrast, Basra’s plot is reminiscent of Nabarun Bhattacharya’s cult classic Harbart, a tragicomedy set in Kolkata that begins and ends with the death of its titular character. Readers will fear for Happy even before he arrives in Italy. In fact, in Rome he is stuck working for €20 a day, with no chance of recouping the €11,987.10 he owes his “coordinators”. After several involuntary relocations, Happy ends up near the town of Latina in central Italy, where he and other, mostly Sikh, “common farm workers” harvest radishes year-round.

As the work drains Happy, his optimism becomes increasingly complex, transforming into a kind of empathetic, almost critically aware hope. He describes himself and the other farm workers not as Sylvester Stallone lookalikes, but as “brown men with little shovels.” He notes, “All shovels are communists.” One of his roommates is a charismatic man named Zhivago, to whom Happy is drawn. Zhivago organizes awareness-raising sessions where a worker who used to work in an orange plantation talks about migrants from Mali who protested, acquired their own land and started selling organic products. Zhivago inspires radish pickers to do the same: “Death to radishes!” they cry. But the plan goes south, bringing the novel to its tragic climax.

In his confession, Basra wrote: “If Happy and his fellow farm workers had succeeded in their uprising, they might have started to found an initiative like Barikamà.” Barikamà is an organic farming cooperative in Rome founded by Suleiman Diarra, a migrant from Mali, who was earning €20 a day picking oranges and living in a shack when he decided to give up as an entrepreneur. Details of Diarra’s story, including his daily wage, are covered in “Happy,” but unlike Diarra, who has built what UN experts consider a model of sustainable agricultural development, Basra’s character does not have a happy ending.

The choice to rewrite Diarra’s success as a tragedy is a sobering reminder that stories of individual heroism can shift focus away from the exploitative conditions that compel them to act in the first place. Tragedy, on the other hand, does not dim the strength of the hero’s adversaries. Instead, he makes that power unmistakably visible. For Basra, the tragedy also highlights the value of simple needs and pleasures threatened by criminal labor practices.

Struggling with her destiny, Happy clings to every beautiful diversion she comes across. “Winter has come to Latina,” he reports from the radish farm. “We have a portable radiator to share between us: an exquisite, hypnotic, iridescent hot-glow demigod of heat.” On another occasion, he glances furtively at Zhivago, who is eating stolen fruit, “amber peach juice running down his chin.” Amidst their shared struggle, Happy’s dogged optimism uplifts and affirms the inner lives of his colleagues.

Jenny Wu is a critic, fiction writer and independent curator.

House Astra. 262 pp. $26.

Note to our readers

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide us with a way to earn fees by linking to and related sites.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *