HAPPY, by Celina Baljeet Basra
A friend recently told me he’d read an article in this paper describing the money to be made supplying migrants in their journey from South America to the United States. “Made me realize I don’t have any real understanding of the immigration situation,” my friend said.
Ain’t it the truth?
Despite a surfeit of stories and countless words from politicians, policymakers, reporters and migrants themselves, the complexities of immigration throughout the world remain confounding. It seems none of us has a real understanding of the subject, which is too big and variable to fully grasp. Yet we must try.
Leaping, chattering, dancing atop this conundrum comes the hero of Celina Baljeet Basra’s debut novel, Happy Singh Soni, his head bursting with ideas, his heart set on gargantuan dreams. He is the youngest son in a family of Punjabi cabbage farmers. At the time of the Partition, his parents left their home in what is now Pakistan and settled in a village near Jalandhar, India. Happy was born later, in 1991, and grew up on the family farm, proclaiming himself “the Prince of Cabbage Land.” He christens the farm’s center “Soni Square” because “naming things could make them mine.”
But ownership doesn’t last. Progress arrives with ironic consequences. An amusement park called Wonderland buys up the local land and replaces family farms with surreal attractions.
Happy dreams of movie stardom. He begins working a low-paying Wonderland job and sets his sights on emigrating to Europe. His hopes exceed his prospects though not his irresistible faith in himself.
The setup is familiar, but Basra makes it new by bombarding us with short takes from Happy’s changing reality and his hyperactive imagination, delivered in a variety of formats including: a “Welcome to Wonderland” brochure; Happy’s C.V.; brief bios of his neighbors; passages told from the perspective of a tree; a puff of cotton candy and an ancient necklace; and an imagined journalism series called “The Loo Interviews.” Soon he’s talking to another figment, a voice that is “Europe,” which extends an official offer to migrate using telemarketing techniques: “Have you had the chance to think about your invitation to Europe, Happy?” it asks. “You won’t regret it. Have you signed the agreement yet?”
It’s an entertaining assortment and also a perplexing one. What’s the point of navigating this jumble? Why ask us to go on this Wonderland bumper car ride? The reader’s impatience begins to take hold, and then we realize: Basra is making a magnificent attempt to help us understand the mixture of optimism, self-defense, hope and delusion that Happy needs to make the monumental choice of whether or not to leave his home, move to a faraway place and face all the deceptions and misery that might await. By fragmenting the picture, and by playing with voice and structure, Basra invites us to experience Happy’s emotional journey at its most unfiltered, intimate level. She’s thrown away conventional narrative, and the outlandish chaos she creates conveys both the exuberant folly and dream-fueled logic that lead Happy to act.
He journeys to Italy, joining an invisible work force in grueling restaurant and agriculture jobs. The once “Prince of Cabbage Land” is reduced to laboring at an enormous radish farm. Mysterious, unnamed forces move him from job to job, and we see how greed and industrialized agriculture control Happy’s fortunes. The novel continues on in short segments, introducing fellow migrants, detailing living conditions and glancing back at Happy’s family and home in India, which highlight what he lost in leaving.
Basra’s too smart to think she can explain to us “the immigration situation” in one novel. But she does want us to feel Happy’s plight, and to share her anger at the dehumanizing methods by which our capitalist systems exploit migrant labor. To a profit-driven boss, one worker is the same as another, and is easily replaced by the next one who dares to come. But Happy’s indelible voice won’t let us take that attitude, or let Happy be forgotten.
“Wave if you see us on the road, or far out at sea,” Happy tells us. “Wave, stranger, as a greeting might help us to remember who we are.”
Kathryn Ma’s most recent book is the novel “The Chinese Groove.”
HAPPY | By Celina Baljeet Basra | Astra House | 262 pp. | $26