Sunday, October 22, 2023

Book Review: Happy by Celina Baljeet Basra


“Ha. Yes. I know. You imagine too much, Happy Singh. Think too much. Attach too much meaning to things.”

Happy Singh, from the Indian side of Punjab, is a slightly delusional, over-imaginative young man who aspires big. A fan of Godard, he decides to try his luck in Europe, moving away from his family farm, which is about to be engulfed by Wonderland, an amusement park conglomerate. Lured by a dubious travel agent, Happy reaches Italy, surviving a nightmarish journey through illegal means, and has to work in the Italian food industry as an irregolari, the undocumented. As his dreams and bleak reality are bound by an eventual course of collision, will Happy jolt out of his own imaginative Wonderland and escape on time?

Happy is the debut novel of Celina Baljeet Basra, a Berlin-based writer and cultural worker, and it explores illegal global migration and the exploitation of immigrant labour in first-world countries. Instead of tackling the serious and urgent subject in a heavy-handed manner, the writer uses a postmodern approach and prefers a 'happy' and cheerful depiction of a protagonist who is cruising his way to certain disillusionment. I received an advance copy of the novel from its publisher, Astra Publishing House, through Netgalley in exchange for feedback.

The cover page of the novel sets its tone with a bright and cheerful yellow colour and a prominent, distorted happy face on it. The story is predominantly narrated in first person by the protagonist, and the narrative also contains several snippets of his autobiographical writings, fictional stories, poems, and imaginary interviews. The plot is very loose and has a polymorphous, non-linear structure. It takes us closely inside the psychology of a person who has aspirations but is too naive and complacent in his ways to attain his goals.

Among the Indian states, Punjab and Kerala might have the highest number of migrant populations in percentages (Kerala finds a single mention in the book as a communist bastion). Millions of Punajbis work outside of India, especially in Europe, the US, and Canada. Several sectors in these countries depend on immigrants for survival, and this demand has resulted in several criminal syndicates luring young people in Punjab to illegally migrate through land using dangerous routes. It seems our Happy has also fallen into their trap. It is heartbreaking to see him innocently asking what the menu would be on his flight, ignorant of the circuitous and torturous route that he has to endure to reach his dream destination.

The illegal immigrants are made to work in dangerous conditions for a pittance, and their chances for any progress in their prospects are virtually zero. But these immigrants try to make the best of what's available. In Happy's delusions, the writer shows us the strange coping mechanism employed by them, the eternal hope that one day the sun will shine on them and the future will be bright. Happy is a novel about the aspirations of the migrating populace, who are ready to suffer subhuman situations for a chance to acquire a brighter future, and about how the powerful exploit them.

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