Read The Wor(l)d

This is a long overdue post. On April 23rd 2015 that is last year I was asked to speak as a reader (yayyy!) on World Book Day at the British Council. I wanted to post my speech soon after but I did not feel ready to share it. Today while hunting for something else, I came across the printout of this speech and I read it again. It felt powerful. I am so happy I could write something that more than a year on has the same feel that I aimed for. That gives me hope.

Each speaker had to speak for 4 to 5 minutes before the discussion on books and reading. This is what I wrote in preparation but I forgot most of it while actually holding the mic! (Yes, that happens) I had the printout of my speech in my hand but since it was a speech so I did not want to break eye contact with the audience to look at the paper. In spite of that whatever I wanted to convey was conveyed. I know this because by the end of my speech the two or three genial young-at-heart British ladies sitting in the first row were nodding their head vigorously. 🙂

Here we go:

When I was eight, I fell sick with three different childhood illnesses in one year – mumps, measles, and chicken pox. My parents’ way of helping me heal –apart from the obvious medical attention – was to give me books. Invariably they were fairy tales. They had wonderful water colour illustrations which I can even now picture in my mind’s eye. I grew up in the 80s, so my reading rite of passage took me through Tintin, Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys. I did not have the wonderful books that Tulika, Tara and Duckbill nowadays publish. (Something that I try to remedy at every opportunity.) I don’t need to tell you that these were all books that I could hold in my hand. Ebooks hadn’t been born back then.

I love reading so much that I studied English literature in college. I continued to read books build up my own collection as I started working and earning and therefore spending on books that I would like to read.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but sometime in the last five years, the way we read a book has changed. Thanks largely to the rise of ebooks and devices which can hold them.

Even say in 2005, if anyone had told me that I would read the poems of D.H Lawrence or War and Peace on my mobile phone, I’d have laughed. Mobile phones had a different function – talking to and keeping in touch with people. Books were heavy, solid, comforting objects meant for holding and reading. They still are and I still read them. It’s just the way we interact with them now – sometimes through another device – the tablet or the mobile phone.

To illustrate, let me recount an incident. Last month, I attended the relaunch of the British Council reading club. One of the ice-breaker questions I remember vividly was ‘Have you read War and Peace?’ I hadn’t. I did find one person who did. By the end of the meeting, I suddenly wanted to read War and Peace. So what do you think I did? Rush to a library? No. Rush to the classics section of the nearest bookshop? No. Order an edition of War and Peace from an online bookshop? No. I downloaded a free edition of War and Peace (the Maud translation, btw) on Kindle app on my mobile phone. I started but haven’t finished reading it but it’s comforting to know it’s there to be read anytime. Just like a leaving a bookmark in my physical book to continue later.

One of the changes as a reader that I had to confront has been the format. Earlier I had to worry about only two formats – the hardback and the paperback. But that was easy – it was always a paperback because of its affordability. Hardback only when there was no option. I remember the latter Harry Potter books were all hardbacks. Now I have to think about the device – a reading app or Kindle; the format – PDF, epub, mobi; and compatibility – will this app open that file?; and if compatibility is a problem, how to solve it?

I will not go into the many reading apps, softwares, formats, websites available which have their own library of books. Those are external details. The book or to be specific – what it’s made of – the story that makes us learn something about ourselves or the world around us – is still unchanged. The book is not dead. Those who love reading find it through libraries, sometimes through ebooks or digital books. We humans will always need a good story. As Philip Pullman said, ‘We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them’. And as long as we need a story, books will continue to exist. How they come to us – now that may be subject to change.


Best Reads of 2015

Following yet another tradition and on the request of Rita, I have put down the five best reads of 2015. Technically, that’s seven best reads rather than the usual five that Rita asked. However, I am throwing in two more because I have always had a problem sticking to rules. Here they are in the order I have read them but in no particular order of preference.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

When reading Americanah I quickly got into the ‘good book zone’ mostly because it was a love story but such a political one. The long forays into African hair obviously was quite political by itself. I didn’t like central female character Ifemelu as much as I loved Obinze. Seriously, it’s like Adichie put all the ideal qualities into Obinze because I am sure no one like him exists in fiction. The one place he falters is when he marries the ‘well-fed houseplant’ (Adichie’s words, not mine) of a wife for no reason than the fact that he was dazed by his new wealth. Through the story of the two lovers (Ifemelu and Obinze), Adichie explores the vastly different post-colonial experiences in the UK and America. Finally though the houseplant and sapling are gently let go and the lovers come together to start their long awaited and much deserved life together in Nigeria.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)

I read Half of a Yellow Sun after Americanah. Does it matter that it was not chronological? There was a certain levity in Americanah that there was no space for in Half of a Yellow Sun. First of all, Half of a Yellow Sun is a historical novel set in Nigeria of the 60s at a time when the Biafran War was on. The Nigerian intellectuals wanted to create Biafra (pronounced Bee-ahfrah) and secede from Nigeria. This led to a civil war and unrest which claimed casualties on both sides. Many countries recognised Biafra but it couldn’t stand up to the military might of Nigeria.

Adichie mined the war part of the story from her own personal family history. The narrator is an outsider, a servant called Ugwu who tells the story of Olanna and Odenigbo. Both are intellectuals and are excited by the creation of this new country. Olanna’s twin sister Kainene and her boyfriend, Richard, chart another kind of journey before, during and after the war. In using twins to tell the story, perhaps Adichie is trying to say that Nigeria and Biafra are twin sisters who might not like each other but are still family. So they must tolerate each other and maybe over time even come to some sort of peace with the other.

To be honest, this book was quite adamant till around page 250 after which it started to yield its secrets and exploded. Half of a Yellow Sun is both a human story as a historical document. A must read if you want to understand politics through literature.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (fiction)

This is the first novel that left me breathless in 2015. What a brave and audacious write is Ali Smith! The story spans two different centuries and countries – 15th Century Italy and 21st Century England. The concerns are quite contemporary about the fluidity of gender, art and life. The story is narrated by two narrators: in 15th Century Italy, it is Francescho and in 21st Century George who seem to pass through both male and female identities quite easily. The most riveting part of the book is the arrangement. Half the number of copies printed by the publisher Hamish Hamilton has George’s story first and the other half has Francescho’s story first. So it’s a lottery whose story you get to read first. It’s fascinating what this means. Your perception of the novel is going to be driven by what you read first. I read George’s story first. So many levels of duality are explored through this novel. The book made me think so much that I didn’t finally write about it as I would have liked. (The same thing happened to me with Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller the year before last.)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (fiction)

Out of It has the distinction of getting me interested in the Palestine issue. I have struggled with understanding such an old and all pervasive issue but it has helped me a lot. You already know what I think of this novel. I am now constantly looking out for more Palestinian writers. I have started reading Raja Shehadeh’s Language of War, Language of Peace (non fiction) and Suhair Hammad’s Born Palestinian Born Black (poetry) thanks to this book.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (fiction)

I have already discussed this in a lot of detail in a separate post. Suffice it to say that it made a deep impression on me. I look forward to more books from this writer.

The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (fiction series)

What can I have to say more than what I have already put down here? I have continued to read McCall Smith after writing that post and I stand by what I wrote. I do dread what would happen if I run out of this series but since I am some distance away from such an emergency, I don’t have to worry about it right now. This series is by far the ‘lightest’ set of books I have read the past year. Light in tone that is but not light in seriousness.

Technically these books are classified as ‘crime fiction’ but that is a bit misleading. Yes, there are crimes in the book but it’s the mundane everyday kind: Think stolen office supplies rather than bank robberies. It’s more about human goodness, kindness and generosity and a certain way of life in a country in the middle of Africa.

One could argue of course that the mysteries of the human spirit does need a detective for them to be discovered. And that detective is Mma Ramotswe.

Burn My Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

I have been hearing about Beverly Naidoo about the same time as I was reading Philip Pullman and J.K Rowling. So that’s quite a while back. However, getting my hands on her books did not happen. Where would I find South African YA lit so many years back? Luckily, after so many years I found a book of hers at the British Council library.

The time is 1951 to 53. Mathew and Mugo, two kids on either side of the colonial divide, forge a tenuous friendship by being thrown by circumstances to spend time together. It’s a difficult time. Not just because of complexities of race and colonialism, it’s also because this is the time of the Mau Mau revolution, the violent uprising before Keyan independence which left so many Kikuyus dead, whether innocent and not.

This is the story of an accident that involves Mathew or bwana kidogo (little master in Swahili) and Mugo the son of Kamau, the man who worked at Mathew’s Dad Grayson’s farm and stables. A small incident burns through the lives of both the boys affecting them in different ways and tearing them up within and apart from each other.

The book made a huge impression on me. I cried at the injustice of Mugo’s life. I cried for most of the second part of the book. How much injustice is there in this world! I am enraged and outraged that so many Mugos and Kamaus have had to endure the wrath of the greedy White Man. Colonialism has so much to answer for. No amount of reparations – if ever considered – can ever amend the lives scattered, lost and warped because of it.

This is my first Beverly Naidoo and she is a formidable writer. This is how YA lit should be – no easy answers, no happy ever afters, just the raw story.

Books Read in 2015

Following the tradition of listing books read in 2014, here is what I read all of last year. The list with the book covers is available on my Goodreads page. There seems to be a pattern and I was swinging wildly between two extremes – children’s/YA fiction and serious literary fiction – all year. There is no middle ground. I have neglected poetry a lot so I will make that up this year. Fiction – serious literary TLS kind of books – seems to have dominated my list. I pushed myself to finish 50 books because of the Goodreads Reading Challenge. The last book was finished on the afternoon of December 31st. I might not have read so many books had it not been for it. In 2013 I aimed for 100 and fell short at 77. I learned how many I can manage in a year. So, in reverse order of my reading, here is the list of books read in 2015. What did you read in 2015?

Burn my Heart by Beverly Naidoo (YA fiction)

Eating Air by Pauline Melville (Fiction)

How I Discovered Poetry by Marilyn Nelson (Memoir in verse)

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Good Husband of Zebra Drive by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (Fiction)

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi (Fiction)

The Saturday Night School of Beauty by Marsha Mehran (Fiction)

Under the Weather edited by Tony Bradman (YA short stories)

Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula (YA fiction)

Miranda Road by Heather Reyes (Fiction)

The Beaten Track by Sarah Menkedick (Travelogue)

Gangsta Granny by David Walliams (YA fiction)

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore (Fiction)

Miyoko & Other Stories by Michelle Tudor (Short stories)

The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Fiction)

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (Children’s fiction)

The White Giraffe/Dolphin Song by Lauren St.John (YA fiction)

The Amazing Racist by Chhimi Tenduf-La (Fiction)

The French Confection by Anthony Horowitz (Children’s fiction)

The Collected Works of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Levin (Fiction)

The Boy Who Swam with Piranhas by David Almond (YA fiction)

From Somalia with Love by Na’ima B.Robert (YA fiction)

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells & Won, #1) by Robin Stevens (YA fiction)

The Rumbling Island edited by Zai Whitaker (YA nonfiction)

La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction)

Someone Else’s Life by Kapka Kassabova (Poetry)

Out of It by Selma Dabbagh (Fiction)

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson (Graphic novel)

The Heavy-Petting Zoo by Claire Pollard (Poetry)

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (Fiction)

Out of the Way! Out of the Way! by Uma Krishnswami (Picture book)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

The Talking Bird by Swati Sengupta (Picture book)

Stone Eggs: A Story of Indian Dinosaurs by Helen Rundgren (Picture book)

Tsomo and Momo by Niveditha Subamaniam (Picture book)

Excuse me, Is this India? by Anushka Ravishankar (Picture book)

Hambreelmai’s Loom by Mamang Dai (Picture book)

The Bubblegum Tree by Alexander McCall Smith (YA fiction)

Mr. Bliss by J.R.R Tolkien (Children’s fiction)

How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Fiction)

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond (Fiction)

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Short stories)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Fiction)

The Hotel at the End of the World by Parismita Singh (Graphic novel)

The Idyllic Charm of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

This past month has been an Alexander McCall Smith December. I just cannot seem to get enough of them. I have read other books too but I have binge read McCall Smith more.

Rita gave me a gift to be used on Amazon and I have been spending most of it on McCall Smith’s books. (Thanks Rita!) I never thought I would get addicted to these books. I have relaxed almost every rule in my rule book to read these books. For e.g.: I had a rule that if I bought books in a trilogy/quartet/series, they should all be in the same edition. I returned Half of a Yellow Sun twice because the book was a movie edition and did not ‘go’ with the other two books. Another was if a book looked old or used in any way, I would return it. But the last two McCall Smiths I got had a broken spine and one even had a British Airways ticket tucked into it. I worried about that for exactly two minutes before I opened it and started reading it.

I did not have any rules about reading books in the order they were published in the series. Each book I think once published is a single entity and while there may be connections between books, there is no compulsion to read the books in order. I read Harry Potter #3 first and then #1 and only then #2. (HP #3 is still my favourite.) After that Rowling started to write tomes and we had to go by the order since they were published quite far apart. Enough of the HP digression.

This addiction to McCall Smith is all quite surprising because I had read the first book in the series way back in 2007 and was not impressed by it. It was unlike any detective book I had read till then. I remember feeling anxious all through the book looking for familiar P.D James-like patterns. I was hugely disappointed and didn’t go near it till this year.

While I didn’t find the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (book #1) that exciting to continue, I keep following the titles that were released year on year. They had such delightful names: ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’, ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’, ‘The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.’ It was of course part McCall Smith himself since I have read this ‘44 Scotland Street’ series and they had all names that stood out as well (E.g.: ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Scones’, ‘The Importance of Being Seven.’) However, I think partly – a big part – was Africa as well – the African twist to the English language – and McCall Smith’s tapping into it. Just like Indian writers use the Indian English language. (The other day I came across ‘Shri Ruby Saloon Gents Beauty Parlour’ and I had to smile.)

The second thing that happened was that I was reading a lot of African literature or books set in Africa since last year from serious books to YA books set in Africa. I was just drawn to them. I saw films set in Africa too: Africa United (2010) about a bunch of underprivileged kids travelling to attend the Football World Cup in South Africa; and The Constant Gardner (2005) which was technically a spy thriller set in Africa; and a few I don’t remember since I forgot to note them down. You could say I was in an Africa frame of mind.

So when I finished reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, I had to read another book connected to Africa. However, it was during the Chennai Floods, and while I had a lot of unread books, I didn’t have too many Africa-themed books. While watching gray gloomy days turn into rain-stuffy nights, I felt so restless and helpless that I started reading ‘Tea Time for the Traditionally Built’ (#10), a book I had picked up idly from the library. I was hooked.

After ‘Tea Time’, I had a vague recollection of having picked up some of these No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books during the Book fair held in January 2015. I got them out and read them in whatever order possible. So, I read ‘Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party’ (#12) and ‘In the Company of Cheerful Ladies’ (#6) back to back. I rearranged the events in my head.

Having finished whatever I had in stock, I turned to Amazon. I was finishing them at the rate of one book a day so I need more for my fix. I next read ‘The Full Cupboard of Life’ (#5) and ‘Blue Shoes and Happiness’ (#7) in my frail attempt at chronology. Then I gave up and read ‘The Good Husband of Zebra Drive’ (#8) and ‘The Kalahari Typing School for Men’ (#4). By now, Amazon it seems has caught up with me. They have increased the prices and I’d rather wait a bit before ordering from them again since I will ordering more than one or two books.

I have seen when things get too much in life, I turn to Alexander McCall Smith. I saw that with La’s Orchestra and now these books. Of course, finding the sun shining and warm in the book was also a consolation since it was invisible for nearly a month or peeped shyly from behind the clouds. Mostly what I really enjoyed was the humour: I was laughing my head off on probably every page.

It’s so reassuring to come back to Precious Ramotswe and her Watson Grace Makutsi as they solve cases usually based on good sense and intuition. Completing the picture is Mma Ramotswe’s fiancé and later husband and also the ‘best mechanic in the whole of Botswana’ Mr. J.L.B Matekoni, whose apprentices, Charlie and Fanwell, are always getting themselves in trouble. Not to speak of Mma Makutsi’s frictions with Charlie and Fanwell. We also follow Mma Makutsi as she finds love in the arms of Mr. Phuti Radiphuti, the owner of the Double Comfort Furniture Shop and confronts her nemesis in the vilest violet in the whole of Botswana, Violet Sephotho who’s only got 50 percent in her final exams at the esteemed Botswana Secretarial College but who can make Mma Makutsi’s life 100 percent hell. Other characters like the irritating and endearing Mma Potokwani, the matron of the Orphan Farm, who’d do anything to get a freebie for the orphans, Dr. and Mrs. Moffat and, a late entrant, the gentle Mr. Polopetsi add to the general goings on at the shared premises of The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. The actual drama does not lie so much in the cases that Mma Ramotswe is asked to solve as in the lives of these characters. They are just brilliant.

How come I had missed all of this? How did I come to this series or it came to me so late? I just can’t figure it out. I know we all change but did I change so much since 2007 that what was once boring is so rich and wonderful now? It is a mystery that only Mma Ramotswe can solve.

I have seen the Anthony Minghella-directed TV series based on these books because M used to talk about it. Though I found it a bit devoid of colour – African colours are not pastels by any stretch of the imagination – I enjoyed the series a lot.

Though I haven’t finished reading all the books in the series, it so heartening to know there are more out there. So in 2016, I know what I have to read.

Notes on books: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Disclaimer: I wrote this note when Chennai was deluged by rains last week. At the time of writing I was not aware of what was happening apart from stray word of mouth reports that the waters were rising. Amidst worries about supplies, an unwell mother and unable to connect with anyone, it was frustrating to sit at home and do nothing. I had to do something. So, I wrote this. I am aware and thankful that I am one of the lucky ones. In writing this, I do not mean to ignore or diminish the tragedy that happened. Literature comes to our aid in the worst of times in different ways. This is one of them.

Disclaimer again: Some plot twists are discussed in this post. If you want to be surprised when you read this book, read no more.

It’s perhaps an coincidence that on the day Chennai saw the worst floods in almost a century (1 December 2015), I finished reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen. Of course at that time, I didn’t know it. I read, as usual, late into the night the book having hooked me from the start. (What is it that they say in creative writing classes? Was it ‘the first line should hook the reader’s attention’? I am sure they didn’t think it would tie in so neatly with the central conceit of this book.) As the hands of the bedside clock turned to tell me it’s 3.40 am and I approached the last page, I promptly went back to page 1 and started reading it again. It is that sort of a book. Two days later as I sit to write this I am house bound and waiting for more rains. It’s December 3rd, there is no internet or mobile connection but there is electricity. And so I write.

Let’s first go over the story. In the mid-90s Nigeria, four boys Ikenna, Boja, Obembe and Benjamin come of age but in a way that is mysterious, unexpected and fated. Their father Mr. Agwu, a believer in Western education has great plans for his sons to become doctors, engineers, scientists and professors. The story starts when their father who works in the Central Bank of Nigeria is transferred from Akure, where they live, to Yola, a distant Northern town. When the strict disciplinarian father disappears from their life and their mother’s attention is stretched with a toddler, an infant and her shop to look after, the boys break loose. Their transgression is seemingly minor – they go fishing in the nearby Omi-Ala river. The Omi-Ala was at one time the life of Akure but as the town developed it became the dumping ground for waste and a strict no-no zone for kids.

I live near a river too, the Adyar, and till these record-breaking rains happened, didn’t think much about it. In the summer one can see the river bed and in the monsoon, it floods the banks. I’d imagine the horror of any middle-class Indian mother if she finds out that her boys were fishing in the Adyar river!

So that’s what happened. The Agwu boys went fishing in the Omi-Ala and managed to do that for six weeks without being detected. They were found out when a neighbour saw them near the river. Their father was summoned from Yola and he did what he thought would stop them from going there – he whipped them all. However, the whipping had a different reaction. Fifteen year old Ikenna became distant from the rest. Boja bore the brunt of his brother’s anger. The reason for which turned out to be a prediction made by the town’s madman and mystic, Abulu. In one of the many fishing trips, Abulu called out to Ikenna and prophesised that he will be killed by a fisherman. This he takes it to mean his brothers, since they were all fishermen.

The burden of the prophecy coupled with the whipping sets Ikenna on the edge for months. Boja who shares his room is first ignored and then banished. Obembe and Benjamin who look up to the oldest brothers are confused and hurt. Their mother watches helplessly as her eldest son becomes a stranger to her, fighting with the others, walking out and not turning up for days after a fight. The worst fights Ikenna has are with Boja whom he has taken to be the fisherman who would kill him.

Things spiral out of control making Abulu’s prophecy a self-fulfilling one. Boja commits suicide in the backyard well. The double tragedy is a huge loss for the family. Their father resigns his job and comes back to Akure. Their mother becomes consumed in her grief seeing spiders everywhere. She has to be admitted to the psychiatric centre and comes back functional but still grieving so much that she pushes away her infant daughter, Nkem, from her lap without thinking.

Their father opens a bookshop and tries to get his friend to take Obembe and Ben to Canada. Just when you think things will go back to some sort of normalcy, Obembe becomes consumed by revenge. He blames Abulu for the prophecy that killed Ikenna and disintegrated their family and plans to murder Abulu. He ropes in reluctant Ben into his plan for revenge. Ben is confused. He doesn’t want to revenge but doesn’t know how to say it for fear of alienating Obembe, his last surviving elder brother. Blood wins and Ben joins in and together they kill Abulu with fishing hooks as if he were a carp they had caught. Obembe flees to Benin; Ben refuses to leave. So he is caught and tried. Ben is ten years at the time of the trial and despite all efforts of their parents and well-wishers, he is jailed for eight years.

When he does come out, the world is different, their parents older and Nkem and David, the last two siblings have grown up.

I cried copious tears for Ben when the book ended. What is it with African writers whose first novels usually narrated by child protagonists tear at your insides like this? NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and now Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen: I see a pattern here. There is the whole Blakeian innocence versus experience struggle. The children are forced to grow up because of external circumstances which give rise to their internal struggles: this process is so painful and so vividly recorded that it leaves an indelible mark on my mind.

Coming back to the book, each chapter with some exceptions is memorably given a title from the animal or avian kingdom. These animal metaphors are used as an insight into human nature. So, Ikenna becomes a python when goes through his transformation; their father is an eagle, Ikenna is a sparrow when he is killed and his soul like a bird leaves the earth; Boja is a fungus since he lies several days in the backyard well before he is discovered; Obembe is a searchdog since he keeps finding things. David and Nkem are egrets.

The narrator of the book is an adult who is looking back at this incident in this childhood. So his voice is both young and old. That’s why I find animal metaphors interesting. At one level, kids relate to animals well. One of his brothers tells Ben that he compares everything to an animal. On another, the adult level, the speaker uses an animal as a metaphor or driving urge in the character.

The central conceit is of fishing. The brothers are fishermen. They go to catch fish but get more than they bargain for. Understandably no character is compared to a fish. Abulu is just a madman. He is not compared to any animal. Ben doesn’t accord him that dignity. Obembe and Ben kill him using fishing hooks. Their father urges them to be fishermen of the mind – catching transformational ideas that would take them out of their immediate circumstances, which though not poor were definitely limited. He also tries to ensure his sons’ future by making arrangements to get them educated in Canada.

While reading the book, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was reading a timeless tale. Some reviewers have called this book a fable/myth or a Greek tragedy.

I see why it can be a modern fable: even though it is set very clearly in a certain time in history, there is a sense – to a large part due to the prophecy and maybe the setting of Africa – that the story transcends the time it is set in. You could read it today or ten years later and it would still have that feeling. As Joseph Campbell has shown, myths all over the world have a fundamental structure, what he calls the monomyth.

A tragedy is defined as – very simply put – bad things happen to good people. Ikenna at fifteen is our tragic hero. His flaw (harmartia) is his gullibility. He believes the prophecy rather than questioning it. The incident that starts the spiral into a tragedy begins like a small tear in the fabric and quickly becomes this gaping hole. That incident is fishing. The tragic noose tightens as Ikenna starts behaving in a way that makes the prophecy come true.

The structure of the novel is cyclical: at the end Ben tells us that he was narrating how his brothers became fishermen to the court where he stands trial. Now you know why I went back to the beginning to read the book again because the first reading is an innocent and light one but the second reading, where you know the ending is the experienced, tragic and heavy one. It reminded me of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things which also had a cyclical structure.

There are several incidents in which Nigerian political leaders make an appearance. Since I am an outsider to Nigerian politics they just came across as interesting interludes. Some other reviewers have read this as a political allegory connected to Nigerian politics. So while this might be true I am unable to see this connection.

What I do see is that this is a powerful and timeless story and I was very moved by the end of it. So, if you want a book that sends you into a trance, read it.

Quote Unquote

If you remember, not so long ago (that is last year) I had written about The Ayah’s Tale by Sujata Massey. Her new book India Gray is out now which contains The Ayah’s Tale among two other new stories. Having just received a review copy, I opened it and read some very familiar lines! What a surprise! How lovely of Sujata to quote what I said on my blog in this book! Thank you. Here’s a screenshot from the e-book edition.

I’ll be writing about this book in the next few days. Watch this space.




Notes on books: Out of it by Selma Dabbagh

So I injured myself again – I am quite accident prone – and finally had time to read! Let’s say I like to see the positive side of things. I will spare you the details though – of my injury not the book.

I have to be honest: this is not a book I would normally pick up. It’s a part of the book club book of the month and so I happen to read it. It didn’t also have a great first line. It actually failed the first line test but I was intrigued by it. However, despite everything, it surprised me by being fast paced, witty and deep.

Just like I had understood the history of India from independence till the 1980s by reading Midnight’s Children, and the history of one part of South America though A Hundred Years of Solitude, I finally started to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict through this book. That is indeed a tall claim for a book that is a first novel. However, Out of It is politically engaged but also at the same time, deeply human.

As far as I can remember this conflict has been around. My earliest memories related to this conflict was not a war but a person: Yasser Arafat wearing his trademark keffiyeh and army greens smiling and waving on grainy Doordarshan News. India has traditionally been pro-Palestine following a shared colonial connect. It seems wherever the British are involved, they tend to cause conflict. I will leave the explanation for the complicated history of this region to better writers and political analysts.

The story follows a set of twins (reminded me of Rahel and Estha of ‘The God of Small Things’ a bit) Iman and Rashid Mujahed and how they try to find their place in the world in the middle of the conflict a process which is confusing and difficult even during peace time.

The novel opens with Rashid receiving an email of acceptance to study in London. He is excited and wants to get ‘out of it’. Iman on the other hand has come back from school in Switzerland and wants to start making her contribution to the cause except she is seen as an outsider with no connection to the homeland. So when a religious woman, Manar, approaches her, Iman is very tempted to go for it. However, Iman seems oblivious that this action would entail probably becoming a kamikaze warrior for a religious faction. She is stopped in time by people from her father’s former political organisation.

Rashid has been working his friend Khalil on recording the situation in Gaza. Their contact in London, Lisa, with whom Rashid is having a relationship is enthusiastic in the unsubtle and non-nuanced Western way. She wants to help but has no clue about the ground reality or the Arab culture.

Iman and Rashid also have an elder brother, Sabri, who has lost his family but continues to fight in a very intellectual way.

Rashid is also increasingly distracted from his life in Gaza because he is bent on leaving. It seems as if Rashid and Iman in spite of being twins are moving in opposite directions. Perhaps this is Dabbagh’s way of pointing out the choices available to young politically aware people in Gaza who want to be involved in the Palestinian cause.

Option 1: Do nothing. (No way)

Option 2: Write about the conflict in an academic way (Sabri’s choice)

Option 3: Join a religious group and blow up people to make a point (Iman’s first choice which she doesn’t make)

Option 4: Leave the country and create awareness of the Palestinian cause abroad (Rashid’s and Kalil’s first choice; Iman’s second choice)

Option 5: Return by courting controversy (Rashid gets caught at a rally for the Palestinian cause for possession of marijuana)

Option 6: Return without courting controversy (Iman’s final choice)

Option 7: Sacrifice oneself in the mistaken notion that it will help the family (Rashid final choice)

I am aware I am being facetious making the choices available at war time into a multiple choice question. If I do that, it’s only because the conflict itself takes on shades of the absurd.

Sabri loses his wife and child and even his legs in an attack on them. While Iman wants to go find her father who is living with another woman in Egypt, she is questioned at the Palestine border. Though she is not overtly mistreated she is not allowed to go to the bathroom even though her period has started. Sabri, Iman and Rashid’s mother turns out to be a freedom fighter/terrorist (choose your term; choose your side) called the Sparrow who had hijacked a flight to blackmail the other side into giving into their demands. Are those demands legitimate? I don’t know because by then the conflict is so murky no knows who is right or left anymore. Who is killing whom and why becomes so muddled up that even within Palestine people start turning on each other. I gave up trying to understand it. As Sabri says:

‘It’s not something that you ever get “straight in your head,”” Sabri says turning away from the television to look at Eva. ‘It’s too wrong to be justified, too screwed up to be straightened out. If you force yourself to understand it in any way that leads you to justify it then you are fucked and we are lost.’  (Dabbagh, 284)

I am reminded of this sentence that I read or heard when I was studying absurd drama. (If you know who said it, let me know and I will add the name.) It’s not an exact quote: What does one do in the face of the absurd but laugh? Indeed several parts of the book this laugher springs out. Rashid nicknames his marijuana plant, Gloria. (Let us pause to reflect on that.) His father Jibril Mujahed doesn’t know his wife is an ex-freedom fighter/terrorist (have you chosen your term/side yet?) called the Sparrow even though British Intelligence agencies and almost everyone in ‘the Organisation’ (the Palestine Liberation Organisation) know it. He finally finds out when someone makes a joke about it.

To balance out the absurd elements, Dabbagh forces the reader to confront the existence of the self/other. At one point in the novel, in London, Rashid is brought to his English girlfriend Lisa’s family home, “as though she had brought home a particular piece of jewellery from a junk shop and could now, against a plain background, appreciate its particular panache” (Dabbagh, 113) Later Rashid gets into the London tube, and spots a woman who:

…tested the air twice with her nose as through trying to detect prey and looked up and down the carriage.

Rashid looked at what she was looking at. It had to be the otherness of the passengers that was disturbing her. Their darkness, for they all were, without exception washed up there like him. (Dabbagh, 120)

According to Post Colonial theory, ‘the other’ is the opposite of the ‘self’, which is the coloniser. The ‘other’ is the (ex)colonised subject, the brown or black people who have been once subjugated. The other is both to be feared and exoticised. It’s kind of an ambivalent reaction. Rashid’s awareness of being othered comes through several times in the narrative. It irks him because it is a kind of prison. His relationship with Lisa is perpetually slipping into these two roles: roles that perhaps they want to escape but don’t know how to.

Iman’s roommate in London, Eva, typifies another reaction of the West to the East. On the face of it, Eva has many good intentions. She is a medical student and works for many charities. Iman explains why Eva’s naïve political outlook irritates her:

‘She was trying to talk to me about what was going on in the news and she kept trying to do this supposedly objective BBC thing of being so intelligent and always looking at the other point of view, and she kept using their terms: “terrorism”, “democracy”. I flipped.’ (Dabbagh, 193)

Eva represents a kind of unsubtle and criminally exuberant response that the West has towards the especially troubled East. It builds on exoticising the East. As Iman says a United Nations/BBC kind of objectivity which is perhaps born out of good intentions but does not necessarily understand the East or its problems. It is in fact another kind of prison.

Prisons are all over the book – the house in which the Mujahed family live, the country itself and once they leave the country, they are imprisoned by ideas of otherness.

I noticed an interesting thing – for much of the book, the other side (i.e. Israel) is mentioned obliquely. In fact I think the word ‘Israeli’ is mentioned either once or less than a handful of times in the book. Usually euphemisms like the ‘other side’ or ‘enemies’ are mentioned. There is a kind of self-censorship at work perhaps to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism.

Throughout the book, there are several secrets that the family has which are not revealed to Iman and Rashid. The fact that their mother is a high level operative of the Organisation is kept a secret. This they find out by looking up the recently released classified documents at the British Library. The sense that this family is not quite the regular one calcifies at this moment. The twins react in diametrically different ways. Rashid is disappointed and offended that this secret was being kept from him. Iman is proud of this heritage and feels empowered by this knowledge. Rashid is so disconnected from his Gazan life that he offers to die instead of another soldier.

Whatever their choices are, as narrators they are easy to relate to. Rashid and Iman have travelled all over Europe with their families; Iman has studied in Switzerland and later London; Rashid goes to London to study. They are young, neither of them is religious and both are insider-outsiders, people who are born in Gaza but educated abroad.

Finally, ‘Out of It’ apart from giving us a glimpse of Gazan life also contributes to world literatures from the conflict zone. Think South American literature, Partition literature, World War II literature, South African literature (apartheid) and Kashmiri-American literature (Agha Shahid Ali).

Read Out of It if you want to question the regular ways of seeing the world.