December 6, 2012
I expected to find getting a book in English by a Maldivian author fairly straightforward. Given the country’s colonial history, I assumed that there would be several things out there and it would just be a case of choosing what to read.
How wrong I was. After weeks of googling around and emailing people, I began to realise that, for some reason, books in English by Maldivian authors were more than a little thin on the ground.
I even tried contacting Robbie Bulloch, the British Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It turned out he was one step ahead of me: he’d asked friends in the Maldives for suggestions of translations only the previous week. From their blank looks, he said, it seemed the selection couldn’t be very wide.
He did send a link to a blog by Ibrahim Waheed, a writer who won the National Library of the Maldives’ first ever English Fiction Story Writing Competition in 2007 with what he claimed were the ‘first ever novella-length fictional works published in the English language by a Maldivian author’ (try saying that with a mouthful of marbles). In fact, he’d won not only first prize but also second prize, which made me wonder how many entries the competition had attracted in the first place.
His stories were available to read as pdfs on his site – but they were somewhat short. The search continued.
About this time in the year, I started pestering PhD students. It struck me that the biggest experts on literature from some of the remotest countries on my list might not be thousands of miles away but holed up in university libraries up and down the land. Perhaps they would be able to help?
As it turned out, there weren’t many people doing doctorates on the Maldives. However, I did find one: Mariyam Shiuna, a student exploring ‘Urban violence and disillusionment with democracy in the Maldives’ at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The discovery was a stroke of luck. Not only was Shiuna researching the Maldives, but she was also a Maldivian national. Two days after I emailed her, she came back with details of a classic she had studied at school, which she described as ‘the Maldivian version of Romeo and Juliet or Layla and Majnun‘. In fact, she went one better than simply telling me about it: she had found a free pdf of an English translation of the work online on a website promoting Maldivian heritage. The hunt was at an end.
Starting several generations before the birth of the title characters, Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu – told in this prose version by Abdullah Sadiq – unfolds a great, royal love affair that stretches across the archipelago. Boasting a large cast of characters, a plethora of incidents and a good dose of myth and magic, the narrative takes readers on a tour of the obstacles, complications and frustrations that stand in the way of happiness.
This is a book of new beginnings. I lost track of the number of times that characters abandoned their old homes and habits and struck out to set up a new life on a different island. From Raaveri Ali – who, having lost his family because of a rival’s curse, gets on a boat for Komandu island, leaving no trace of himself behind on Maroshi ‘even his smell’ – to his son Moosa, who runs off to live in Malé, the idea of clean breaks drives much of the narrative. This can be disconcerting, particularly when we see how quickly old loves and lives are forgotten, but it also gives rise to great ingenuity. The child Moosa, for example, sets himself up as a Koran tutor in the capital, earning the money that will enable him to start afresh. Indeed, the narrative seems to be shaped as much by the nation’s island geography as by its characters’ desires, and moves in fits and starts between one colourful episode and the next.
Through it all, the diligence of its modern-day author and his desire to do justice to this ancient classic is clear. As he demonstrates in his ‘Author’s Preface’, Sadiq feels a great responsibility to render the character of the original raivaru (song version), expressing his desire to write a prose story ‘that was worthy of such inspiration’. As a result, he includes numerous maps, genealogies, notes and explanatory essays in and at the back of the text, as though anxious that not one ounce of significance should be lost on the reader.
In fact, the story is robust enough to stand on its own, not least because the strangeness of some its episodes is one of its strengths. The curses and magic spells that fill the text, and are often described in elaborate detail, are fascinating – at one point the story even becomes a battle of wits between Ali Fulhu and Hawwa Fulhu, as each hurls fanditha (magic) at the other in an effort to come out on top. The scene where Ali Fulhu summons the great king of the Ocean is marvellous too. In addition, the numerous rituals that surround daily life, from the way to prepare for fishing to the words that should be spoken on the birth of a child are, for the most part, self-explanatory.
That said, Western readers will find some episodes hard to empathise with. Dhon Aisa and Moosa’s sanguine reaction to the discovery that their midwife has murdered seven of their babies is surprising, for example, while some of the reasons for characters to act as they do seem opaque – although this could be as much to do with the age of the story as its cultural setting. In addition, Sadiq’s commitment to use plain language and retain the original form gives rise to a few sequences in which very little seems to happen. Sometimes, reading descriptions of the characters talking about how much sugar they should prepare for toddy and their domestic arrangements, it’s hard not to feel that we are being forced to sit through the dressing-room conversations of actors in between their big scenes on stage.
All in all, though, this is a fascinating book – and one quite different from anything I’ve read before. It sparkles with insights and humour drawn from a time and place quite different from our own. If some of the storytelling techniques and actions of the earlier characters have a distancing effect, the love affair between Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu is utterly believable and engrossing when it comes. Enchanting.
Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, translated from the Dhivehi by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea © F Abdullah and M O’Shea, 2004
November 19, 2012
As a friend reminded me when I put a call out for Ghanaian suggestions on Facebook, Ghanaian literature has been part of my life almost since the beginning. I can still remember the Anansi tales being read to me in my first years of school, as we all sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the teacher at story time.
As an adult, however, I’ve not kept up with literature from the country, so when I found details of Journey by Dr Gheysika Adombire Agambila on the Writers Project of Ghana website, I had no means of knowing whether the novel was likely to be any good. I couldn’t help being a bit put off by the rather lack-lustre design of the book jacket, which features footprints going across sand under a weirdly beige sky. Alright, so we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when you haven’t got much else to go on, it’s hard not to look for clues somewhere. On the strength of what I could see in front of me, I was tempted to stick with the first suggestion on my list, Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, which, the internet told me, was likely to be good and, by the way, has a fabulous cover.
But Armah’s classic was published in 1968. Surely I should try to read something a little more contemporary if I could?
Then I noticed that Journey was championed by the African Books Collective, which has delivered a series of good reads to this project throughout the year. Maybe there was more to this 2006 novel than met the eye?
Journey recounts the coming of age of Amoah, a teenage school leaver keen to make his mark on the world. Sex and girls are high on the adolescent’s list, as are going to live with his uncle and getting a job in Accra, far away from his grandfather’s traditional village. But as reality bites, Amoah begins to lose his prefect’s swagger and realise there is more to life in contemporary Ghana than his neo-colonialist boarding school could hope to prepare him for.
This is a book that thrives on oppositions. Whether he’s pitting old against young, educated against illiterate, rich against poor, Christian against Muslim, male against female, or science against superstition, Agambila delights in testing the boundaries of ideologies and cultural mores by letting them fight it out in the arena of his narrative.
Humour is the biggest weapon in his arsenal. From sharp, language-based jokes, such as the unfortunate Schola’s letter to Amoah at ‘sukool’, in which she tries to make him see that they are ‘swimming in the same boat’, to killer one-liners – the observation, for example, that ‘if acne affected older people, they would have found a cure for it by now’ – Agambila makes great comic capital out of his material. Amoah is at the heart of this. Filled with the arrogance of youth and yet touchingly naive, he is forever coming a cropper in his desire to ‘take advantage of promising situations’: drinking himself silly instead of intoxicating the girl he hopes to seduce, lending money to a friend who will not pay it back, and finding his plans scuppered by the systems of a society he has not yet taken the time to understand.
This vulnerability makes Amoah very likeable and gives Agambila leverage to tackle some of the book’s more challenging themes, such as the long shadow that British rule has cast upon the country. Many of these struggles play out in Amoah’s mind as we see him scorning the ‘hopeless bush students’ at his school and reflecting that a porter is ‘so strong he would have fetched enough money to build a house and marry several wives in the days when humans were bought and sold’, but becoming furious at his grandfather’s nostalgia for colonial rule. Similarly, while he sneers at the traditions and beliefs of the villagers in Tinga, Amoah is unable to help superstitions about witches creeping into his mind when he walks out late at night. Educated to be disdainful and distrustful of the culture he is rooted in, he struggles to find a way to assimilate the contradictions within him, playing out a national drama on a personal level.
At times the pacing can be problematic. Agambila has a tendency to put us in scenes and keep us there in real time. While this works brilliantly with comic set pieces such as the dance Amoah attends at the hotel near his school, it becomes less compelling when it comes to descriptions of the hero’s bathing rituals. In addition, the latter half of the narrative could do with some tightening to keep the momentum up right to the end.
On the whole, though, there is a lot to like in this book. Sharp, funny and insightful, it is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read – a worthy successor to the crown of Anansi in the kingdom of my imagination.
Journey by Gheysika Adombire Agambila (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2006)
October 22, 2012
The suggestions for the small southern African Kingdom of Lesotho were a bit thin on the ground. The two authors who had been recommended, Thomas Mofolo and AS Mopeli-Paulus, were both long-dead, pre-independence writers whose books came out in the early 20th century.
I was sure there had to be more some more recent Sesotho literature available in English. But it wasn’t until I got talking to people at the recent, excellent International Translation Day event in London, that another lead emerged. There, a world-literature fan told me that her book group had read and enjoyed How We Buried Puso by Morabo Morojele, a contemporary Mosotho author.
Heartened by this news of a recently published book in English by a writer from Lesotho, I returned to my search refreshed. It was then that I stumbled on a surprising statistic: according to the CIA World Factbook, female literacy in Lesotho is unusually high for the region (estimated to be around 95.6 percent in 2010). It’s so widespread in fact that it outstrips male literacy by quite a long way – only 83.3 percent of men in the country can read.
If I found a book by a Mosotho author, then, it might well turn out to be by a woman. And so it proved: a few searches for ‘Lesotho women writers’ later, I was ordering a copy of Basali! – a collection of short stories by Basotho women, edited by K Limakatso Kendall.
The product of her two-year Fulbright Scholarship in Lesotho, the anthology grew out of work Limakatso Kendall did with students at the National University of Lesotho, who gathered, transcribed, translated and even wrote the stories in the book. Many of the tales were told originally in Sesotho and consist largely of episodes from the storytellers’ lives. These range from accounts of what led the narrators into particular vocations, including health work and life in a convent, to stories of overcoming hardships and challenges, such as Tembela Seleke’s memory of her return to South Africa years after the assassination of her husband there and ‘M’amoroosi ‘M’aseele Qacha’s tale of a woman’s reaction to the discovery that her schoolboy son has brought home a wife. There are also celebratory pieces, such as ‘The Universe’ – the only poem in the book – which is a sort of hymn to the beauty of the natural world.
Discrimination underscores many of the stories. Published in 1995, only a few years after the collapse of apartheid in neighbouring South Africa, the collection reveals the legacy of widespread racial persecution in many of the narrator’s lives. We see it in the terror of Usiwe as she contemplates a trip back across the border in ‘The Lost Sheep is Found’, as well as in the first story ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’ by Mpho ‘M’atsepo Nthunya, in which Agnes remembers her family’s mistreatment at the hands of the Boer police.
The gender discrimination that has limited many of the women’s choices also drives a lot of the stories. Although local traditions mean that, in many areas, girls are better educated than boys because boys are taken off to be trained for farming, physical labour and other traditionally masculine pursuits at a young age, the strongly patriarchal structure of society there dictates that decision-making rests entirely with the men, leaving women at the mercy of their male relatives.
This power imbalance manifests itself in many ways, such as the extreme domestic violence depicted in ‘M’atseleng Lentsoenyane’s ‘Why Blame Her?’, in which a wife is beaten because of her inability to bear children. However, it is also a spur to great courage and ingenuity. In Mzamane Nhlapo’s ‘Give Me a Chance’, for example, we hear the story of Mama KaZili, who refuses to let her children starve because of her husband’s irresponsible behaviour and trudges through the snow to confront his indignant relatives with a speech that deserves a place among the great feminist manifestos:
‘”Yes I know the Bible,” she answered. “It says women should keep silent: ‘they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law’. Customary laws also treat women as children who are supposed to be under the man’s guidance and protection. Women are considered weak and naive. They have to seek permission even for little things like visiting friends and parents; in looking for employment; when they want to go to school, or ask for a scholarship or a loan; in applying for a site… Name them all.” [...]
‘”All these forms of gender inequalities and injustices take place in a government that repeatedly points out with pride that it has been elected by women because men, who are predominantly away in the South African mines, are mostly pro-BCP. Society and government don’t want to give women a chance. Women have to seek permission for everything that can improve their lives. Before I pass away in this world I want to have had a chance to improve my life and the lives of my children.”‘
Such words are very inspiring, particularly when accompanied by the celebration of women’s friendships and relationships that runs throughout the book. From the ‘Letter to ‘M’e’, in which a daughter praises her mother, to the intriguing description of the motsoalle (best friend) celebration in ‘Three Moments in a Marriage’, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and sisterhood between Basotho women as they struggle in the face of hardships and discrimination, and seize the chance for education, described by Julia ‘M’amatseliso Khabane as ‘a weapon to fight life’.
The result is a stirring and memorable collection. While the anecdotal quality of the stories can mean that a few of them lack polish and impact, the overall effect is striking. I was inspired and moved. Great stuff.
Basali!: Stories by and about women in Lesotho edited by K Limakatso Kendall (University of Natal Press, 1995)
October 17, 2012
I stoogled upon Frederick Yamusangie’s website when doing a bit of preliminary research into literature from the DRC earlier this year. Born in what was then Zaire (the country reclaimed its name in 1997 after the ousting of President Mobutu), the Congolese writer studied Communication Engineering at the University of Kent and now lives in the UK, where he has self-published several poetry anthologies and his novel Full Circle. As it turned out, after several more hours of searching and sending out queries, he is one of the very few DRC writers to have work available in English today.
It’s hardly surprising when you consider what the Francophone nation has been through. Home to the planet’s deadliest conflict since World War II, Africa’s second-largest country has seen more than 5.4 million of its people die as a result of the fighting since 1998. Despite being rich in natural resources, DRC is the state with the second-lowest GDP per capita in the world. Small wonder then that promoting a publishing industry does not figure very high in many people’s priorities there.
With so little to go on, it seemed perverse not to give Yamusangie’s novel a try. And so, swallowing those die-hard qualms about self-publishing – which have turned out to be misplaced in several cases this year – I downloaded the book and set to.
Full Circle follows city boy Dada, who is sent to live in the village of Bulungu and learn about his culture when his father leaves the country to take up a diplomatic post in the US. The community seems pleasant enough at first, but as time goes by Dada discovers dark secrets and deep rifts beneath its peaceful surface that threaten to destroy him. Will secular Dada survive this superstitious minefield? Will his peers accept him as one of their own? And will the shapeshifting human-crocodiles in the nearby river get to carry out their wicked plans?
Yamusangie presents a nation divided by money. On one side sits Dada, who, because of his privileged upbringing, has ‘more knowledge of Western Europe than his own country’ and has never travelled in Zaire before. On the other is the rural population with its strong tribal traditions, loyalties and beliefs. At the start of the book, Dada is convinced that he knows enough about his culture and could ‘live in the USA[...] and still know how to relate to [his] own people’. Yet as the book goes on, he discovers he has much to learn.
The customs Dada discovers are eclectic and sometimes surprising. Magic, superstition and animistic beliefs weave through everything and are treated as part of normal life. When Dada goes for lunch at his teacher Mrs Betika’s house, for example, she tells him not to worry about a snake in the henhouse because it is the reincarnation of her auntie. Indeed, enchantments are big business, with many of the local spiritualists jostling to corner each others’ shares of the market and even plotting to murder a newcomer who seems to be too successful for his own good. The discussions of these customs and how they fit with the prevailing religion of Christianity, as well as the pressures on young people to abandon the old ways are fascinating, as are the glimpses into the rites of the secret society that tries to recruit Dada.
At times, however, the author’s sociological and historical insights hi-jack the narrative and send it hurtling off on long detours, sometimes threatening to derail it. This is not helped by an increasingly outlandish plot, which is sometimes held together with rather flimsy logic. For example, the reasons the police give for releasing Dada when he is accused of murdering a friend – that a child would never admit to doing such a thing and that children are incapable of killing anyone – are rather questionable.
It’s a shame, because there are some great moments in the story. The scene where the dead boy’s relatives converge on Dada’s guardian’s house seeking revenge is gripping. And by using a quote from that most famous of Congo-based novels, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Yamusangie makes his ambitions for the book clear.
With some robust editing and another eye on the work, he might have got there. As it stands, though, this is a fascinating and surprising book that opens up a little-known part of the world to English-language readers. It is rough round the edges, as many self-published books can be, but it contains some good things. I’m glad I chose it.
Full Circle by Frederick Yamusangie (iUniverse, 2003)
October 11, 2012
When one publisher recommends the work of another, you know you’re likely to be on to a good thing. And so, when Lynette Lisk, commissioning editor of the Heinemann African Writers Series, told me that she admired the work of Bloomsbury-published Abdulrazak Gurnah, I lost no time in looking him up.
Spanning 100 years, Gurnah’s 2005 novel Desertion weaves together the threads that lead a young Tanzanian man, Rashid, to leave his homeland in the early sixties and make his life in England. It starts in the dying months of the 19th century, with the scandalous love affair of Rashid’s grandparents – an unconventional English traveller and a shy local woman – before darting forward to Rashid’s childhood in the mid-20th century and on past the declaration of Tanzania’s independence to his lonely and wistful middle age. Steered by Rashid himself, who writes much of the story, with an interjection from his brother Amin and a poem from his sister Farida, the narrative brims with questions and observations about identity, nationality, belonging and love.
Gurnah is a writer with an eye for the thousand little human foibles that can combine to clog up and alter the course of a life. Whether he is describing Rashid’s great-grandfather Hassanali’s hesitance and self-effacement, born out of the ridicule he recognises in the eyes of those who visit his shop, the double-think that allows the British colonisers to despise corruption in others and yet practise it themselves, or the rituals and cruelty that stand in for intimacy between siblings, Gurnah is forever revealing the processes that mould and set personalities.
This perceptiveness extends to larger social structures too. Through the patterns Gurnah traces, we learn the limitations of the social codes surrounding courtship marriage that stymie Rashid’s grandmother’s life and the effect of the gross under-provision of schools for girls. Crucially, however, these observations are not delivered through authorial tirades but lived and enacted by the characters so that it is only when we sit back and think about the story that we realise the wider implications of what we are reading.
Alongside this runs a lively discussion about storytelling, which erupts into the narrative as Rashid begins to question the version of events he presents. Speculating, contradicting himself and imagining where he does not know, Rashid rehearses his family’s history, increasingly aware of the possibilities in fiction, both in the choices he makes as a writer and in the scope the form offers to process, assimilate and remake the past.
Fiction also presents Gurnah with the opportunity to unpack the legacy of colonialism in a far more inventive and impactful way than essays might afford. While his portrait of the British Victorians sitting on the veranda swapping racist ideology well into the night ‘to make themselves feel significant and present in the world’ is compelling, his description of Rashid’s lonely arrival in a Britain leaves a lasting impression. It also buys him the leverage to reach forward in time and challenge assumptions that still underpin much of social interaction today:
‘In time I drifted into a tolerable alienness. Living day to day, this alienness became a kind of emblem, indeterminate about its origins. Soon I began to say black people and white people, like everyone else, uttering the lie with increasing ease, conceding the sameness of our difference, deferring to a deadening vision of a racialised world. For by agreeing to be black and white, we also agree to limit the complexity of possibility, we agree to mendacities that for centuries served and will continue to serve crude hungers for power and pathological self-affirmations.’
For all its sociological and historical observations, though, this is first and foremost an engrossing and deeply moving novel. It is a book to get lost in, led by an expert storyteller, who wins our trust and piques our interest from the very first page. I’ll be looking up more of Gurnah’s works when this year’s literary adventures are over. Wonderful.
Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury, 2005)
August 29, 2012
I knew this was going to be tricky when Catherine Teya, president of the Central African Republic Association of Europe (SEWA Europe), struggled to suggest a book from CAR that I could read in English. However, it wasn’t until I did a bit more detailed research into the state that I began to understand quite what the challenges were.
Riddled with unrest and pockets of lawlessness since it gained independence from France in 1960, CAR is one of the planet’s least developed and most isolated countries. Indeed, as award-winning photojournalist Spencer Platt explains in his 2008 dispatch from the country, it has to all intents and purposes been abandoned and forgotten by the rest of the world. With frequent coups and attempted coups forcing crisis after crisis on its impoverished citizens, most of whom will not live to see their 45th birthdays, it’s small wonder that very few books by writers in the country have made it into print in recent decades, let alone been translated into English.
However, although she was unable to recommend anything directly, Catherine Teya was nothing if not helpful. She sent me a number of links that might assist me in my quest, among them the website of Solidarité Franco Africaine, which features an overview of Central African writers. Perhaps one of these might have been translated in to English, she suggested.
As luck would have it, sloshing about in Amazon’s dankest recesses, I stumbled on a 1970 translation of a novel by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, one of the writers on Solidarité Franco Africaine’s list. There was no information, no summary and no picture. The book was in an ‘unknown binding’ and I could tell nothing about it beyond the date the English version was published, its title and the number of pages it had. Still, given the lack of anything else to go on, it had to be worth a shot.
First published in French in 1966, Les Randonnées de Daba (or Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui as the English version has it) follows young Daba as he leaves his parents’ village to visit friends and relatives around CAR and further his education. Moving between the Westernised milieu of his French boarding school and the rich rural traditions of the communities he stays with during his holidays, Daba develops a love for his country, as well as a desire to explore the rest of the world – and has some gripping adventures along the way.
Daba’s is a culture where storytelling is part of the furniture. From the very opening lines, in which Daba’s mother tells the tale of the will-o’-the-wisp bird, fielding her son’s comments and chiding him for questioning her skill as a narrator, the power of the oral tradition is clear. This comes across in the novel too: the text is frequently interspersed with stories told by adults the boy meets and the narrative itself has an organic feel, as though Bamboté is sitting just across from us, developing the story as he goes along.
This instinct for storytelling also manifests itself in the evocative descriptions that fill the book. Whether he is describing the ‘sparkling white wings of insects, looking like thousands of stars, [that] glittered in the headlights’ on a drive through the jungle, the way a crocodile’s tail ‘would suddenly spank the water and send a great sheet of white spray up into the air’, or Daba’s eerie sense of being followed when returning home from a day spent tracking lions with his friends, Bamboté is a master of transporting his readers into the midst of the places he describes.
Indeed, for all its exotic crocodile hunts and days off school because of prowling panthers, the book has a profoundly nostalgic feel. This is partly down to the author’s skill, which makes us yearn for a place we have probably never been (the presence of Daba’s French penfriend Guy throughout much of the book suggests that it was probably aimed at a European rather than a CAR readership), but it is also because of the look and feel of the book. With its illustrations sprawling over the pages like jungle creepers and the smell of its old pages, it reminded me of the books my mother gave me from her own childhood.
Now, 42 years after it was published, Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui and the handful of Bamboté’s other translated novels offer a rare window on a much-neglected and surely now much-changed corner of the globe. I wonder how long it will be before English-language readers get a chance to take another look.
Daba’s Travels from Ouadda to Bangui (Les Randonnées de Daba) by Pierre Makombo Bamboté, translated from the French by John Buchanan-Brown (Pantheon, 1970)
August 18, 2012
How do you choose one book from a nation of 1.2 billion people – a country that is one of the most culturally rich and diverse in the world and a country, that, as I discovered when I was lucky enough to visit West Bengal last year, is so varied in its constituent states, let alone across its 1,269,219 square miles, that it makes a nonsense of the term ‘nationality’ as it is commonly understood?
I’m afraid I still don’t have the answer to this question. I struggled with it long and hard. As the suggestions of Indian writers poured in from visitors to this blog I did my best to research and weigh up each one. All to no avail: the more I looked into the many excellent and intriguing Indian authors whose names I’ve heard this year, the more impossible it seemed to limit my selection to just one work. An Indian friend of mine kindly posted my dilemma on Facebook and yet more names flooded in. The truth was, I could have spent a decade reading Indian literature and still barely have scratched the surface of the literary delights this country has to offer.
One thing I did know: I wanted to read the work of an author who was prized and celebrated in India rather than one who had made his or her name outside the country. As Tim who recommended Kushwant Singh just this week put it, ‘rather a lot of the “Indian” writers beloved of the international literati seem to live in London or New York’. Talented though many of these authors are, they didn’t chime in with what I was looking for: I wanted to read the work of someone who wrote primarily for Indian readers.
With this in mind, one among the many comments I’ve had about Indian literature stood out. It was from Suneetha:
‘I am from India, and I note that both the suggestions in comments and your list for India reads are those written originally in English. I have to say these are just second best to what regional literature we have here in over 23 official languages and a couple of hundreds of other languages spoken across the country.’
This struck a chord with me. After all, if I was looking for an Indian writer who wrote to be read by his or her compatriots, surely I should choose something written in a regional language, rather than the international lingua franca of the country’s colonial past? And so it was that I plumped for a novel by one of Suneetha’s favourite authors: the much decorated Malayalam novelist and filmmaker M T Vasudevan Nair.
Kaalam (Time), which won Nair the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1970, follows Sethu Madhavan as he leaves home for college and tries to make his way in the world. The expectations of his rural village rest on his shoulders and his excellent academic record seems to promise him a bright future. Yet, as the years pass and Sethu staggers from one failure to another, consoling himself with a series of hopeless love affairs, his potential seems to tarnish and warp and he grows disgusted with his life. At last, obliged to return to the family home he has spurned for so long, he is forced to face up to himself.
MT (as he is known) excels at presenting experiences that are at once universal and very specific to his characters’ time and place. Readers everywhere will recognise the adolescent Sethu’s embarrassment at his relations’ eccentricities – his aunt who lies scantily clad on the verandah, for example, and his mother who grumbles whether anyone is listening or not – and his desire to hide his poverty from his friends, as well as the perennial graduate’s dilemma of needing experience to get a job and a job to get experience.
What makes MT’s portrayal of these relatively commonplace rites of passage is his insight into the inconsistencies and contradictions that wrestle beneath the surface of all of us as we seek to move through life. From Sethu’s exasperated interior monologue in the face of an interview panel, to his stilted encounter with a friend who left education long before him and is now married and running a company, the author is a master of the tricks we use to disguise our shortcomings and the way casual questions and pleasantries can strike a person to the bone. This is particularly evident in MT’s depiction of his protagonist’s dealings with women: Sethu’s delight in the ‘illusionary obstacles’ that mask the impossibility of his feelings for teenage Thangamani and his wild justifications of his cruelty to his first love Sumitra both point to the self-delusion that keeps him crashing blindly, wilfully on.
These insights are couched in scintillating descriptions, which make the novel a joy to read. There is the loveless married couple for whom ‘words had become brittle showpieces in a glass case, to be used only on special occasions’, the minutes that ‘swam before [Sethu's] eyes like bubbles distilled from the indistinct colours of sunset clouds’ and, perhaps my favourite of all, Sethu’s numbed reaction to his mother’s death: ‘The news stood just outside his mind like a traveller in search of shelter’.
The editorial decision not to explain culturally specific terms in the text but instead to confine their definitions to a rather incomplete glossary at the back means that readers from other parts of the world may find it hard to work out some of the roles of and connections between characters. There are also some gremlins in the e-edition, which mean that odd words have been misrepresented, making for some rather strange sentences that have to be read twice to tease the proper meaning out.
These glitches in no way hampered my enjoyment of the novel, though. If anything, the initial confusion I felt over the interrelationship of the characters is an added bonus: it means that I will have to read the novel again now that I’ve got them sussed. I’m already looking forward to it.
Kaalam by MT Vasudevan Nair, translated from the Malayalam by Gita Krishnankutty (Orient Blackswan, 2012)
June 29, 2012
This 2000 novel by Binwell Sinyangwe, another pick from Heinemann’s African Writers Series, promised something I hadn’t come across in any of the books I’ve read so far this year: a story centring on the hardships facing women in rural Africa written by a man.
Its premise is disarmingly simple. At the start, widow Nasula has less than three weeks to find the 100,000 kwacha she needs to pay for the next stage in her only daughter’s education, after more than a year of trying to get the money together. The rest of the narrative portrays the extreme lengths she goes to in an effort to raise the funds that are her daughter’s only hope of escaping a life of poverty.
In many ways, this is a profoundly feminist book. Dedicated to the memory of Sinyangwe’s wife Grace, the narrative reveals ‘the unfairness of the life of a woman’, returning again and again to Nasula’s desire for her daughter to be able to ‘carve a decent living that would make it possible for her not to depend on a man for her existence’. These hopes spring from Nasula’s memories of her own bitter experience of marriage and ill-treatment at the hands of her in-laws, recollections that bring out some of Sinyangwe’s best rhetoric:
‘Nasula had not forgotten. She would not forget. How could she? They had turned her into a servant, a slave in a chief’s palace. They had turned her into a stream in which to wash and kill the stink of their humanity. They had turned her into the hunter’s flat stone on which to sharpen their spears and axes. Into icisongole [a hard-shelled fruit] to play iciyenga [a game like jacks] with during the day, a fruit to be eaten at by the chief during the night. Into a source of laughter.’
Sinyangwe heightens our sense of Nasula’s plight with his repeated references to the common hardships facing many Zambians during the nineties. With the end of government grants, poor rains and the spread of HIV/AIDs, these are ‘the years of havelessness’ for rural and urban workers alike, in which many who previously prospered, and to whom Nasula turns for help, struggle to survive.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this material would be woven into a two-dimensional sob story. Instead, Sinyangwe rises to the challenge, imbuing his narrative with the vigour, vibrancy and ingenuity of his heroine. As we watch Nasula undertake the marathon walk to her in-laws, sleep in the city market to protect her possessions and challenge criminals and corrupt officials single-handedly, it’s impossible not to admire her.
If the narrative is occasionally a little overwritten, with a few too many adjectives fighting for space, the power of the plot more than makes up for it. So much so, in fact, that in the gripping final chapters, it’s easy to forget that what we are reading is not an account of some grand odyssey but the story of one woman’s attempt to secure a basic necessity for her child. It’s humbling to remember this as the narrative draws to its close – and more effective than any sob story could ever be.
A Cowrie of Hope by Binwell Sinyangwe (Heinemann, 2000)