Thursday 10 May 2012

Caine Prize 2012 Shortlist 1: Bombay's Republic by Rotimi Babatunde

Rotimi Babatunde is a Nigerian author and playwright. His fiction has won prizes before and his plays have been staged in London as well as broadcast by the BBC.

Chinua Achebe seems to be a writer whose repute and style loom large over the literature of the African continent, in much the same way as Rushdie's does in India. To make things tougher on Babatunde, he is a Nigerian, like Achebe. So what does he do with that potential burden of history and expectation? His answer to this question, in this story, is mature, relevant and free of fanfare or deference. During the course of the story, when Babatunde's protagonist, Colour Sergeant Bombay, kills a white Bombardier who has become dangerously deranged, he thinks back to the plight of Okonkwo, a man who killed one of the white rulers' constables and hung himself rather than give his imperial rulers the chance to execute him. Okonkwo is referred to as a real man, someone whose story will later become famous when it is told 'in a book called Things Fall Apart'. That novel is of course the archetypal fictional depiction of Africa and a part of the critique around the Caine Prize has been that it forces writers to work in Achebe's tradition and propagate a particular way of writing African literature. A writer in this position might feel compelled to toe the line or he might feel compelled to commit a symbolic act of patricide, slay the literature-father in a bid to announce his own autonomy. I think what Babatunde does here is to take a third path, one that shows that he is confident in his own voice, confident enough to touch on that iconic work without being overwhelmed by the need to either genuflect or play iconoclast. Colour Sergeant Bombay is thrown into the conflict between colonial masters and slaves, between races at a point history that is nearly the other end of the colonising process from Okonkwo; referring to the older story shows us how much has changed, and also how little. I think it's a valid and perfectly placed reference.

The story itself uses a lesser-known aspect of world history as its pivot. The British drafted soldiers from their many colonies into participating in World War 2; I know that Indian soldiers fought in far-away theatres of war in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Gurkha Regiments participated in the liberation of Italy. Similarly, troops from Nigeria were drafted to serve in Asian campaigns. We don't really see these things in the unending spew of World War 2 movies flowing out of the Western film industry; the accepted narrative seems to be that, with the exception of the Japanese adversary, this was a war fought between rival gangs of caucasians while the rest of the world stared in breathless fascination. While this is not exactly forgotten history, I doubt whether a lot of people outside the countries these soldiers were drafted from, or indeed within them, are really aware of it.

Babatunde tells a story of one of these soldiers, a man who has grown up in a highly stable colonial environment and is taken aback by the pragmatic egalitarianism forced upon black and white soldiers in combat situations. He is not especially ambitious - army life suits him because, at first, it demands little initiative. But the war is an eye-opener for him. Asians believe that Africans have tails - an idea he finds absurd rather than offensive. His Japanese opponents have been given to believe that the African troops are savages who will eat them. On the other hand, he finds that he is as good a fighter as any white man, even better than a couple of officers who crack up - one in a combat situation, and another whom Bombay has to kill. Most of all, he learns that people make up stories about each other all the time, that people believe in all sorts of strange things and that there are many more roles you can play than the obvious.

Back home, Bombay takes on his exotic monicker to reflect the fact that he has been to far-off Asia He regales the village children with exaggerated tales of the things he has seen in that other dark continent. But the genie is out of the bottle; he can no longer return to being a humble subject of the British Empire. In a brilliant satiric twist, he usurps a dilapidated prison - itself a symbol both of colonial authority and its gradual decline - and declares himself an autonomous state. He comes out with a story so absurd that it winds up defeating all challenges. The authorities try to force him to pay taxes, but are pungently repelled. The government decides to ignore him, lest he lend momentum to the emerging independence struggle. Bombay becomes an enclave to himself and something of a celebrity as regimes rise and fall around him and he congratulates each new incumbent, a benign but formidable eccentric who  takes his place amongst the ranks of heads of state.

Babatunde's story has a light touch that does not undermine its subject matter. In many ways, satire and farce can be most effective ways to deal with harsh truths; this story reminded me a little of the best story I have ever read about the India-Pakistan Partition, Toba Tek Singh by Sadat Hasan Manto. Like Manto, Babtunde is irreverent and witty, but a similar sense of the stakes underlying his story informs Babatunde's story.

I found Babatunde's style interesting and familiar, perhaps due to the shared colonial past. Like a lot of Indian writers I've read, the Nigerian Babatunde has a flair for a slightly archaic, mannered vocabulary - there's an echo of Victorian diction every so often. And there are also slightly awkward passages where the rhythms are syncopated in a manner just a beat or two off standard English.This is not to suggest that Babatunde is a bad writer - although he does tend to 'tell' rather than 'show' a little too often, a strange trait in someone who also writes plays -  but to point out that his use of the language has its own idiosyncrasies.

While researching this piece, I read another short story by the author, Auto Da Fe, a powerful tale of schoolyard conflict between a village boy and his city-bred counterparts. Babatunde seems to be a writer who can take powerful themes of identity, independence and conflicts between cultures - African and British, urban and rural - and tell them through memorable, moving narratives in which characterisation is foregrounded.

I think 'Bombay's Republic' is a very good story. It takes only a little longer to read than, and contains telling details and ideas beyond the scope of, this brief essay. I don't know how it addresses the call for diversity that is associated with this year's Prize, but it tells a story that relies on satirical and humorous techniques rather than just mimetic reporting to make its points. It also focuses  on the individual, rejecting narrow colonial and postcolonial politics to emphasise the autonomy that a single human being whose perspectives have been broadened can aspire to, even if few do so as literally as the unforgettable Colour Sergeant Bombay. Nationality helps shape us; but it does not have to be the only thing that defines us. In his own way, Bombay is a reminder that we can reject the narrow narratives imposed on us, whether by literary tradition or history.

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