For fans of Vikas Swarup and Charles Yu, the story of a starry-eyed cinephile who leaves his rural village in Punjab to pursue his dreams—a formally daring debut novel set against the global migration crisis.
In a farming village in Punjab, India, our moony young hero crouches over his phone in a rapeseed field near the cell tower, listening out for the occasional rattlesnake. His name is Happy Singh Soni, and he’s watching YouTube clips of his favorite film, Bande à Part by Jean-Luc Godard. Happy is often compared to a young Sami Frey by the imaginary journalists that keep him company while he uses the family outhouse. Pooing, as he says, “en plein air.” When he’s not sleeping among the cabbages and eating sugary rotis, Happy dreams of becoming an actor, one who plays the melancholy roles; sad, pretty boys, rare in Indian cinema. After an amusement park buys up the neighboring farms, and his family is fractured by the hard and soft forces of globalization, Happy saves money for a clandestine journey to Europe, where he’ll finally land a breakout role. Little does he know, his immigration is being coordinated by a transnational crime syndicate.
After a nightmarish passage to Italy, Happy still manages to find relief in food and fantasy, even as he is forced into ever-worsening work conditions over a debt he allegedly accrued in transit. But his daydreams grow increasingly at odds with his bleak reality, one shared by so many migrant workers disenfranchised by the systems that depend on their labor.
At turns funny and heartbreaking, sunny and tragic, Happy is a formally ambitious novel about the psychic fissures produced by the splintering of nations, and the lovely, generative, artful coping mechanisms created by generations of diasporic people. With this ingenious, daringly cinematic debut, Celina Baljeet Basra argues for the things that are basic to human survival: food, water, shelter, but also pleasure, romance, art, and the right to a vivid inner life.