HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksReview: The Laughter by Sonora Jha

Review: The Laughter by Sonora Jha

Sonora Jha’s new novel, The Laughter, is a powerful statement on a range of themes including radicalization, xenophobia, prejudice, inclusion, white rage in America and Muslim identity in a global world.

56-year-old Dr Oliver Harding is a professor of English at a university in Seattle. Divorced, he is estranged from his ex-wife Emily and their 23-year-old daughter Kathryn, who is engaged to be married. Quite unexpectedly, Harding finds himself attracted to his dynamic Pakistani colleague, Dr Ruhaba Khan, a professor of law. Harding’s initial sexual fantasies about Ruhaba, who is about two decades younger, soon turn obsessive.

320pp, ₹599; Penguin
320pp, ₹599; Penguin

Unaware of all this, Ruhaba begins to trust Harding, and shares with him many private thoughts and feelings related to her identity. Harding ruminates that contemporary white men don’t usually point at women from other “exotic” cultures without using the word “beautiful” – “such pandering, such patronizing.” Ruhaba, somewhat of an anomaly in her culture, tells him that her family does not approve of her liberal ways, the fact that she lives by herself in her late thirties, and moves around easily in the western world. “You study all the way to a PhD, and your family tells you it makes you less marriageable,” she says. She also tells him that she has to imagine her sentences carefully in her head before campus meetings, pause before responding to any student questions, and avoid social situations where she might be unable to predict conversation.

When Ruhaba’s nephew, Adil Alam, whom she has never met before, arrives from France to stay with her, Harding warms up to him. 15-year-old Adil, for his part, agrees to walk Harding’s dog every day. The two spend much time with each other and the boy begins to view Harding as a kind of mentor in matters of the heart. He confides in him about a French girl from Toulouse called Camille, who is “the one great love” of his life.

Black Lives Matter protesters in Seattle on June 24 2020. (Shutterstock)
Black Lives Matter protesters in Seattle on June 24 2020. (Shutterstock)

Adil also tells him about policemen commanding his mother to remove her headscarf at a park in France. On researching the matter online, Adil had discovered that several French Muslims – Arabs, Pakistanis and Iranians – had been similarly humiliated. Some had been brutally attacked. The French police had taken Adil’s laptop into custody, asked him not to open his email and had disabled all his social media accounts. That’s when his parents decided to send him away to his aunt in the US. But whether in France, Pakistan or America, Adil, felt like “a boy on the outside, looking in.” When he mentions his fear of campus shootings in the US, Harding’s underlying prejudice makes him think of the Muslim world’s linkage to terrorist shootings. He also finds out that the teenager is being questioned by FBI agents. All through his interactions with him, Harding continues to provide information about Adil and his aunt to the federal agents.

Amidst all this, protests demanding diversity break out across the university. Highest on the protesters’ list of demands is a complete overhaul of the humanities curriculum with subjects to be taught by qualified faculty belonging to marginalized backgrounds, persons of colour, recently immigrated communities and queer professors. They also demand a “Day of Absence” in which all white students and faculty should leave campus. “We are living in an age of reaction masquerading as an age of reform,” thinks Harding. Though he seems liberal through most of the book, the reader sees that his perception of Ruhaba changes towards the end, when he judges her based on precisely what drew him to her initially – her religion and identity. “Intellectual discourse, debate, disagreement, and certainly academic freedom, were dying swiftly in this terrible fire, this pretence of progressivism,” he says.

Author Sonora Jha (Courtesy https://www.sonorajha.com/)
Author Sonora Jha (Courtesy https://www.sonorajha.com/)

The Laughter is set in the days preceding the 2016 US Presidential elections, when there were strong camps for and against both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Though Harding believes Trump proposing an all-out ban on Muslims entering the country is over-the-top, he still feels a “grudging admiration for the man for putting a thing or two on the national agenda”. Narrated in flashback by Harding who is relating everything to the police, the novel reaches a shocking, even disturbing, conclusion.

The author, a professor of journalism at Seattle University, brings the worlds of the principal characters alive. While well-known neighbourhoods in the Emerald City such as Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, Pier 91, Olympic Peninsula and Queen Anne Hill form the backdrop of the book, much of its authentic flavour also comes from its sketches of an academic’s life in America, one 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.”

This is an absorbing read that presents the many complications of a world grappling with violence, racism and historical injustice.

A freelance writer based in New Delhi, Neha Kirpal writes primarily on books, music, films, theatre and travel.

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