Review by MELISSA HOLBROOK PIERSON
Everything about Happy Singh Soni, the titular hero of Celina Baljeet Basra’s stinging first novel, is unlikely. He is the son of Punjabi cabbage farmers, but he fancies himself a screenwriter and prospective movie actor in the mold of Nouvelle Vague darling Sami Frey. (Indeed, he has effectively memorized Godard’s Bande à part.) He imagines his future in a Europe of all the classic allures, living in an elegant stone house with a yellow door; he is all about the details, which are uniformly sensual and full of wonder to him. Even as a child on his parents’ modest farm, he begins practicing for the day when his public utterances will be sought after by the press, so he invents a series he titles “The Loo Interviews,” conducted by an eager reporter for the gossipy Jodhpur News . . . while he occupies the privy.
He is in exuberant love with all he experiences, especially his mother’s adoringly proffered fried treats. Happy even appreciates the pests that afflict the surrounding farmland that is slowly being consumed by the amoeba of a badly managed Disneyland knockoff called Wonderland, where he takes a desultory job in which his nascent talents are ignored. He is the kind of imaginative soul who can’t help but personify even the stars in the sky (“Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde”).
But everything that comes to happen to him in this, the late-capitalist phase of a global economy, is sadly likely. A dreamer and an optimist, Happy is easy prey for the rapacious market in human trafficking that trundles the desperate over borders. There they become prisoners of a system that requires their ultimate sacrifice—the promise of their future lives. And too often their lives themselves.
In Happy Soni, Basra has created one of the most endearing characters ever to grace the printed page. Ever since childhood he has shown himself to be observant, hopeful, imaginative, kind, a good son. He uncomplainingly helps his father on the cabbage farm—he wears proudly the villagers’ no doubt derisive nickname “Prince of Cabbage Land”—and is always available to run errands for his mother, most often to get her many medications for what appear to be largely trumped-up illnesses. As a schoolboy, his artistic inclinations put a target on his back, eliciting bullying and the accusation that he was a “pansy,” which he secretly admits. Endlessly if naively forgiving, though, Happy always finds the generosity to go easy on his tormentors. He is intensely smart, although not the right kind of smart for the deceitful world in which he grows up. It’s impossible not to develop the nearest thing to a crush one can get on a fictional character. Which is how you know nothing good is coming for Happy.
The foreshadowing of Happy’s fate when he, too, leaves home is contained in the story of his parents, forced to migrate after Partition—from “Punjab in what is now Pakistan for Punjab in India”—and though they have lived on their farm, which Happy calls Soni Square, for fifty years, it is never fully home:
. . . deep down, they are people on the move. They’ve never returned to their old village. Over time, they forgot its buildings, its people, its cattle, its flowers, and its particularly rich buffalo milk, foamy and warm in a jug made of clay. The place of their birth has taken on a strange and shifting shape; an image drawn in sand, sieved through multiple eyes and ears, losing contour.
As a child Happy is similarly attentive to the lush details of what is clearly to him an idyllic place. He, like all of us, deserves the chance to hold his memories dear as life draws on. He deserves to have the chance to have them slowly fade.
But this is no longer a world in which that can happen for the likes of him, an ambitious romantic who was not born into privilege. Basra is adept at economically delineating a complex moment in time and place: she uses the granular experience of one individual to portray the wages of globalized consumer culture. In just one of a wealth of such lamentable details, she convinces the reader that, unlike memories of the cabbage fields before harvest—“the pickers prepare, knives sharpened, cabbage pouches waiting, the ancient tractor running, emitting the scent of diesel and anticipation”—no one in later life is likely to recall with wistful fondness an ersatz tracksuit such as the one Happy inherits from his older brother, bearing the label Abibas.
Structured using pieces of “found” material, such as Happy’s resume, lists, voicemail transcripts, emails, work chats, brief bits of first-person narrative, and even monologues by inanimate objects of importance in the main character’s world, the novel conveys a lean immediacy that feels particularly of our moment. It is no less moving for its post-post-modern architecture, however. The author is a commanding prose poet; nearly every page contains some literary astonishment or other. Of Happy’s favorite movie, Basra has him say, “I rewatch the movie many times, mostly at dusk. Looming over me are the telephone poles and thick balls of intertwined cables leading all the way to Jalandhar and beyond, connecting me with future selves.”
Basra is careful to build out Happy’s fictional world—a world that can enable the kind of dizzyingly rich interior life he develops—so we will feel the pain of its erasure. An uncaring system devoted only to wealth can’t help but bulldoze the sort of particularities that identify a place as home while feeding an insatiable urge for “more,” “elsewhere.” Without a second thought it eats the land on which age-old ways of life are conducted and excretes cynical entertainments (so-called). Yet as Happy’s fecund imagination proves, the true wonderland was the place in which he grew up, with its gulmohar trees and beetal goats, the outdoor tandoor on which a mother cooks rotis while a son carefully watches. What surrounds him is described as a sort of magic—the enchantments of love.
It is that system that will grind a sensitive young man into dust.
Taken in by the blandishments of traffickers, cleverly personified by Basra into the voice of the most unctuous of hucksters, familiar to us from every advertiser of a product that could never fulfill its outlandish promises, Happy resolves to pay for transport to Europe. “Your official invitation to Europe, it has finally arrived,” the saleswoman called Europe breathes into his willing ear. “Full disclosure, this was my first gig as a representative . . . How did I do? You can rate my performance after this call.” His further questions are answered according to script: “Let me check though. I will get back to you.
As he imagines his journey—not by airline, much less one that offers a menu choice in hot served dinner—he persists in being only of the most positive bent. “A weeklong car journey through the Middle East, and into Europe. Can’t be too bad, can it?” He is instructed to bring cash, and one small bag. He thinks he can’t help but make friends along the way.
Fantasy and reality collide in the frozen air over a mountainous boundary: the passengers were never told they would walk over snowy passes. They get frostbite and gangrene; two die. Still, on arrival in Bari by boat, Happy believes his future of fame and fulfillment awaits. A stint in the kitchen of a fried-fish restaurant in Rome does little to dislodge his hope, even though he is consigned to sleeping on the floor of a windowless storeroom. Even when he is reassigned, still in debt to his traffickers and even more unknown than he was back in Punjab, to an agribusiness in central Italy that grows radishes, he believes there is still the chance he can resume his journey to a fulfilled life. But his ticket is one-way. It always was. “Behind me, I can barely make out the silhouettes of my old plans. An ancient city lost in a sandstorm. Buried alive.”
Celina Baljeet Basra has written one of the darkest indictments to date of late-stage capitalism on a late-stage planet. It is a testament to her powers of observation, and compassion, that Happy Soni Singh is immortal—in book form, at least. Every one of the migrants who, invisible by design, labor to make the goods we are told will make us content is like him. This is the cri de coeur of this satire composed of mounting tragedies: they all have their hopes and desires, peculiarities and memories. They could all be Happy.