Deccan Chronicle

Book Review | Culture wars (in a US varsity) and the price of clarity

Deccan Chronicle.| Kushalrani Gulab

Published on: April 22, 2023 | Updated on: April 22, 2023
Cover photo of 'The Laughter' by Sonora Jha. (Photo by arrangement)

Cover photo of 'The Laughter' by Sonora Jha. (Photo by arrangement)

If I'd journalled my feelings about Sonora Jha's novel, The Laughter, as I read it, I might perhaps have not been left in a catatonic state when I got to the climax: frozen still, my eyes wide and staring, breathing, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god, endlessly.

Then again, even if I had made notes, I doubt I'd have seen that final, heinous act coming. The Laughter is so packed with reprehensible incidents, so fraught with hateful tension, that it seemed impossible, as I turned the pages, that there'd be anything left with the power to shock. Yet, 10 days after I closed the book, I still feel as though it ran me over with a lorry.

On the face of it, The Laughter is a campus novel set in a Seattle university in 2016, just days before the election that will bring Donald Trump to power. That makes it political too, since ideological battles are bound to be fought.

But the story is actually about a man and a mystery. The man is Oliver Harding, a liberal arts professor and the narrator of the book. The mystery is served in small, increasingly sinister doses, starting from the time Harding writes in his journal: "I must remember that the police prefer a clean retelling of incidents."

As a white, male professor, Harding presents himself as aware that he comes pre-judged. In fact, he's so self-aware that he's almost a caricature. Yet, there are limits to which people can see themselves. Men, for example, are seldom aware enough to understand that however attractive they believe they are, most women do not enjoy being objects of their lust.

Harding's object of lust is Ruhaba Khan, also a professor at the university. A brown-skinned, hijab-wearing Pakistani woman, Ruhaba is as liberal as they come. She is not close to Harding, but treats him with a jokey friendliness that edges into familiarity when he takes an interest in her nephew, Adil.

Adil is a 15-year-old from Toulouse, France, who had joined a youth group clamouring for Muslim pride. Though he quickly realised the group had violence in mind and stepped back, he became suspicious to the French police. His parents packed him off to his Khala Ruhaba for a year, telling him to keep off social media, but the French police kindly informed the FBI that a troubled young Muslim man was now on US soil.

Harding first fakes an interest in the boy as a way to slither into Ruhaba's bed. But he comes to find Adil fascinating: as a young Muslim man known to the police, as a young man in love for the first time, as a person afraid of American universities because of campus shooters.

He gets the boy to tell him about the French Muslim group. He agrees to post a letter from Adil to Camille, the girl the young man loves. And when he learns Adil is scared of guns, he takes the boy to a shooting range to help him overcome this fear.

Meanwhile, on campus, a protest has broken out, pitting students and faculty of colour against whites. Ruhaba is closely linked to this protest. Harding ought to be on the other side, but keeps to the fence in the hope of getting Ruhaba to trust him.

Then a white professor wears an insensitive costume to a campus Halloween party. Another white professor writes an article accusing people of colour of being racist. The protesters demand a white-free day on campus — only students and faculty of colour to attend classes. Then an internet threat is made to shoot the people of colour if the white-free day takes place. Then Harding learns that Ruhaba is not quite the person he thought she was.

In the midst of all this, the mystery deepens. The reader learns that Harding is a national hero. The FBI keeps visiting Harding to ask about Ruhaba and the boy. Meanwhile, the boy is in hospital. The boy is unconscious. The boy may die. And faster and faster, so quickly that it's almost sleight of hand, the story progresses. Till reader gets to the climax in the penultimate chapter and then drops the book, stupefied.

When I first cracked The Laughter open, Harding's sliminess so put me off that I crawled through the pages, ill with disgust. But somewhere before the halfway point, the story took hold of me and I finished the rest in less than three hours. The story is totally on point, the novel a true book of its time.

But I have a caveat. Do not, no matter how curious you are, read the very last chapter. Sure, it ties up the loose ends nicely. But it's the weakest, most unbelievable part of the story.

The Laughter

By Sonora Jha

India Hamish Hamilton

pp. 300; Rs 599

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