I’ve been carrying this article in my head for a while. I edit it while travelling or watching TV or any work that does not require 100% of my attention. I have difficulty switching off sometimes so I also edit it in my head before dropping off to sleep. It’s time to put it down – literally and figuratively.
Adichie has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while but for some reason or the books didn’t come to me. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I read this book towards the end of last year. In the middle of a maddening time workwise, this book was my refuge, my sanctuary when I needed something solid to hold on to. I could get into the world of Adichie’s story and stay there protected from the real world.
Let me introduce you to it. Fifteen-year-old Kambili and her brother Jaja live strictly prescribed and compartmentalised lives in Enugu, Nigeria. Their affluent lives are chalked out into neat sections – study, eat, pray and school. They are growing up in the care of their silent and long-suffering mother Beatrice and father Eugene Achike. Eugene is a generous God-fearing man who looks after everybody in his personal and professional orbit. He is considered an elder and he takes his responsibility seriously. As an industrialist and publisher, he is a fierce protector of his employees. Kambili looks up to him as do the people in his community. There is only one chink in his armour, his fatal flaw if you will, Eugene is a strict and sadist disciplinarian who doesn’t think twice about hitting his wife or whipping his son or pouring boiling water on his daughter’s feet for what he considers the ‘devil’s work.’ The devil’s work is having an opinion different from him. But Eugene is not the hero of our story, Kambili is.
When Aunt Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister visits them, she brings with her an air of freedom and laughter. As a professor at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, she lives in the professor’s quarters on campus with her three children. Her husband, Ifediora, is no more. Aunt Ifeoma takes Kambili and Jaja away from Enugu on the pretext of visiting a Christian shrine and opens them up to the world of laughter, literature, music and ideas. They are deprived of many physical comforts but they are exposed to love, laughter, opinions, literature, music and ideas. It is far cry from the life they are accustomed to but slowly they start appreciating it. Their cousins the politically-aware Amaka, the pragmatic Obiora and the very young Chima help them settle in. Jaja is a sensitive soul who discovers his love for gardening almost immediately. Kambili takes a while to discard her darling Papa’s conditioning. Almost against her will, she discovers music and love: she begins to love the Afrobeat music of the Nigerian musician Fela and develops a crush on Aunt Ifeoma’s friend, Father Amadi. Removed from the oppressiveness of their home, they finally begin to live.
Nothing lasts forever and definitely not this idyllic pause in Kambili and Jaja’s life. Eugene has disowned his father, Papa Nnukwu, because he worships the traditional gods. He wants his father to convert to Christianity and be ‘saved’. But Papa Nnukwu sticks to his beliefs. Kambili and Jaja are allowed to visit Papa Nnukwu for 15 minutes each year when the Achike family move back to their hometown for a month in summer. They are not allowed to eat or drink anything in the ‘heathen’ home. But when they go to live with Aunt Ifeoma, they learn a bit about their grandfather and even grow to love him.
Aunt Ifeoma looks after Papa Nnukwu in his last days. When he dies, all hell breaks loose for Kambili and Jaja. They are forced back to their own homes and airtight schedules but having tasted freedom can now no longer tolerate the oppression at home. Their transgressions which were minor and accidental before (Kambili came second in class once) become more serious and deliberate (Jaja refuses to go to communion and Kambili possesses a painting of Papa Nnukwu made by Amaka). Their punishments become severe to match their transgressions. So much so that Kambili has to be admitted to the hospital. She gets better but is so scared to come home that she starts pretending that she hasn’t recovered. When she does, Jaja does the unthinkable. He walks out with Kambili to their Aunt’s home, their true home.
Aunt Ifeoma, her children, Jaja and Kambili start their second innings together. But this time their time here is short lived as there is unrest in the University of Nigeria at Nsukka which affects both students and teachers. Aunt Ifeoma decides to leave the country to America and Kambili and Jaja have to go back to their father’s home. But things come to a boil when they get back. Jaja is imprisoned for something he didn’t do and Kambili and her mother wait for his release.
The first thing that struck me was the opening line:
Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère. (Adichie, 3)
What a bold homage to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart! I get the feeling that Adichie is planning on walking on his footsteps but in her own way through her own stories.
Breaking seem to almost be the running theme of this book. Eugene breaks with tradition when he converts to Christianity. The relationship between Papa Nnukwu and Eugene is definitely broken. Eugene breaks Beatrice’s figurines right at the beginning of the book. He also breaks Jaja’s little finger when he is a kid as punishment for disobeying him. Their mother Beatrice seems like a broken lady right from the beginning but who carries on for appearances sake. Yet she shows unbelievable strength when she makes a choice. Jaja and Kambili break several rules at different stages in the narrative. They also break Eugene’s heart by rejecting his home and preferring his sister’s. The Achike family, completely whole from the looks of it, is actually crumbling apart. The family is the smallest social unit. What happens in the family reflects on the state. On a macrocosmic level, Nigeria itself seems to be coming apart. There is unrest and riots in the University which makes Aunt Ifeoma leave the country in effect breaking a centuries old connection with the land. The young priest Father Amadi breaks Kambili’s heart. And we don’t know if Jaja will break from his experience in prison. To counter this much breakage, Kambili writes, narrates, remembers and tells her story.
In telling her story, she employs her voice. It’s the voice of a grown up woman looking back at a turning point in her childhood. There is some amount of nostalgia but nothing that takes away from the veracity of her account. An immense sadness tinges the entire first person narrative. It’s like the last summer of her childhood before she had to grow up.
Growing up involves making choices for oneself. Choices that may not concur with that of the parents. Kambili and Jaja choose Aunt Ifeoma’s emotionally and intellectually rich home over the material wealth of their own father’s. Several such oppositions play out against each other in the story – rich and poor (in all its connotations), Christian and pagan, traditional and modern, reason and emotion, oppression and freedom, fear and fearlessness, silence and speech and home and abroad.
For Kambili home becomes Nsukka, where Aunt Ifeoma stays and not Enugu, where her parents do. The first time when Kambili and Jaja come over to Nsukka, Aunt Ifeoma drives them around the city and Amaka introduces them to the landscape of Nsukka. In these descriptions of hills, professor’s quarters, university buildings, you can feel Adichie’s love for her beloved hometown. Purple Hibiscus, the novel itself, is Adichie’s love letter to Nsukka.
Adichie is the master of atmosphere. When Kambili describes her experience, there is this extreme oppressiveness weighing the narrative down. And while that becomes better in the Nsukka sections, there is this certain gravitas that stays till the end. Kambili’s quiet and calm behaviour hides intense and sensitive feelings. Something that Father Amadi senses and Aunt Ifeoma knows but Eugene is oblivious to.
Aunt Ifeoma is an amateur gardener experimenting with a rare variety of hibiscus. In the beginning of the book, Kambili compares Jaja’s defiance to Aunt’s Ifeoma’s purple hibiscus. But I think Kambili herself is the Purple Hibiscus of the book’s title. She is the rebellious one and she thrives when transplanted to another place. Her rebellion though is not like Jaja’s full of action. Her rebellion is quieter and full of reflection.
Reading this book was like being in a trance not just till the story lasted but much later too. I had to read another Adichie after this. But Purple Hibiscus is in a league of its own. I cannot imagine that Adichie wrote this when she was only 26! It’s truly an accomplishment for any writer but even more so for a first time one.