Monday, December 13, 2010
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
Title: Black Mamba Boy
Author: Nadifa Mohamed
Publisher: Harper Collins
Acclaim: Long listed for 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.
Now you depart, and though your way may lead
Through airless forests thick with hagar trees,
Places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,
Where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach -
Yet may God place a shield of coolest air
Between your body and the assailant sun.
- Gabay by Maxamed Cabdula Xasan
'Black Mamba Boy' depicted a grim tale of war-torn North Africa during the period of Second World War, when it was ripped apart under Italian fascists and the British invaders. The hero of the story was a 10 year-old Jama who embarks on a treacherous journey through Northern Africa with the sole purpose of reuniting with his father. Set in the 1930s, the story covered the deserted lands of Northern Africa including Somali land, ploughing through Djibouti, war-torn Eritrea, Abyssinia, Sudan and Egypt - some of these countries were seldom focused in modern literature. The author's exceptional work portraying a lively Somali, decades before the Second World War offered a refreshing outlook (though short-lived) for those minds which always conjured up poverty-stricken, disease-ridden people at the mention of many African nations.
Like expected, the journey was perilous and I was subjected to deaths, torture, violence, hunger, crime and all sorts of atrocious things that happen in the name of war. The vivid portrayal combined with the bloodstained history was quite enough to bring me to tears. Especially, I found the chapters on African history during the colonization heart-wrenching. What I found fascinating were those little snippets of information regarding different african clans. It was so heartwarming to realize how most of the clans worked well with each other, always lending a helping hand when necessary. When Jama travelled through the African landscape, he always found good hearted african people ready to offer him help. Not entirely convincing, but glad to see it happen at least, as a figment of imagination. Though the first half of the book was utterly compelling, I felt that the second half could have been a bit more succinct. Often, I kept wandering off the pages, mindlessly skimming over the lines, struggling to keep my focus on the page. The overly long descriptions and the stale scenarios bored me and I should admit that I expected a bit more fresh content and adventure. However, the story picked up pace towards the fag end, especially the chapter that narrated Jama's adventures on a British ship sent shivers down the spine.
"They rode a lorry together towards Abyssinia. They travelled for five days in the back of the lorry, marvelling at the paradise they passed through; the landscape was a juicy emerald green, with wild mango trees full of frolicking, singing birds, herds of giraffe and zebra gathered around blue watering holes. Jama would have been happy to jump off the lorry and stay in this small heaven but shiftas and patriots lurked amongst the trees and long grass. It was unsettling to see a place so lush, so full of promise without one tukul or any kind of human dwelling."
"To appease the hungry demon in his stomach, seething and cursing from his cauldron of saliva and acid, Jama had fought with stray cats and dogs over leftover bones. He tried to be brave but sadness and loneliness had crept up on him, twisting his innards and giving him the shakes."
Whether it be describing a lush landscape of Africa, or a painful hunger gnawing your guts, Nadifa's writing was rich, luminous and evocative. One particular instance that really gave me the shudders was the time when one of Jama's friend got mutilated by the Italians for stealing food to stave off hunger pangs. I was almost shaking in terror, crying out in pain as I read those horrific passages describing their barbaric acts. Another chapter that really moved me to tears was the last one that described the events that happened aboard a British ship 'Runnymede Park', carrying thousands of Jewish prisoners of war from the concentration camps to be taken to Britain after being denied entry into Palestine. Some of the horror stories refugees ranted during that voyage still kept ringing in my ears long after I finished reading the book.
"a young woman stood up to speak. 'I knew this man in Poland, he was a friend of my father's, he taught Hebrew to my sisters and me. When the German and Polish soldiers came, he saved my life. He hid me in a barrel in his flour mill while the rest of my family were walked to the river and shot. I saw their naked bodies floating down the river. If it wasn't for this man, I would be in that river with them'..."
For someone new to African fiction, Nadifa's book will serve as a window into their culture, clan, war-torn history. Her writing is truly an exemplary work of fiction and something to look forward to in the future. Sometimes, its even hard to believe that its a work of fiction because of her vivid narration. At times, I felt a little squeamish, giddy, unsettling reading her book. This is one story that will surely tug at your hearts' emotional strings, as the author plays with various elements such as grief, love and loss. In a way, thats partly the success of this novel. It drags you into the middle of a sweltering desert in Africa to witness the horrific injustices played out repeatedly in the name of war.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Indra Sinha, a France-based author, himself went on a hunger strike in 2008 supporting the survivors of the tragedy and the local activists condemning the authorities and accusing the government for letting the DOW chemicals off the hook. He has spent about 5 years writing this novel, many of the accounts drawn directly from the experience of his friends. In many ways, he truly triumphs in bringing back those terrors alive, giving readers an unflinching account of the truth, plunging the readers into a world hardly known. Though considered a fiction, the fabrications remain confined to perhaps the character names as their stories turn out searingly painful and honest as the tragedy itself.
The protagonist of the novel, Animal (a.k.a "Jaanvar" in Hindi), narrates this story as voice recordings using a worn-out 'tape mashin' which he hides in a spider hole, in the dilapidated tower he resides in. "I used to be human once. So I'm told. I don't remember it myself, but people who knew me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being". so begins 'Animal'. Being a victim of the gas attack himself, Animal was barely a few days old 'That Night'. He lost his parents that terrible night and picked up by Ma Franci, a French nun, was normal until he was six. One day, a searingly painful attack on his back twisted his spine and didn't leave its monstrous grip until he hunched forward on all fours leaving him permanently crippled. About two feet from the ground, Animal is hunched, his hands deep rooted to the ground, his legs weak, yet his upper body strong as a body-builder. He could navigate through the crowded alleys in a lightning speed, climb up trees, eavesdrop (a.k.a 'jamisponding' as in spying 'James Bond') behind doors and survives in a human world with his pittance of earnings. He loves Nisha, a daughter of a local musician 'Somraj' and yearns to marry her. Zafar, a local hero, who fights against the injustice by protests, demonstrations, hunger strikes and rallies people against the government and the DOW (a.k.a 'Kampani' as in 'Company') asking them to pay compensation, set up clinics to treat the ill and clean up the factory and the polluted water wells and ponds. Nisha falls in love with Zafar much to Animal's contempt. His attempts to thwart their love, though futile in the beginning, takes a disastrous turn of events. Elli, the 'Amrikan' (American) doctress sets up a clinic to treat the diseased, but the locals refuse her offer suspecting her true motives. The plot revolves around the campaign run by Zafar, the many boycotts, hunger strikes, the war in general waged against the government and the 'Kampani'. But, in many aspects, it is also the story that portrays love, regrets, loyalties, sorrow, revenge and lust.
Animal is undoubtedly the most beloved character of all. With his crippled body and an orphaned, desolate upbringing, he earns a magnanimous amount of sympathy in the beginning, no doubt. As the novel progresses, the readers will witness his true motives, his yearnings and the lengths he would 'gallop' to, in order to attain them. He is flawed, of course, does despicable things, but his honest reasonings could make you rather hesitant before judging him. He repeatedly narrates that he is an animal, a one of a kind at that. Yet, I could not find someone more human than him in that novel. His shortcomings - a sex maniac, selfish, greedy 'bugger' - though loathful at times, he comes across as a profoundly honest, human being.
Some Western readers might find the pidgin-like style, Hindi-French-Inglis mixed notes, and the profane language a little difficult to get into (though if you had enjoyed novels like 'The White Tiger' by Aravind Adiga, you may not), his scathing observations will suck the readers right in. I adapted to the style rather quickly, enjoyed reading it a lot. All the characters in the novel are totally lovable - Be it the selfless, bold, Gandhi-ist type Zafar who is willing to lose his life for the betterment of his people, or Elli, the doctress who leaves behind her country to fight for the poor and the deceased, the Comical Somraj who lost his voice 'That night' now finding music in the oddest creatures like in the croaking of frogs, fart of an ant (as Animal observes), Nisha, the lovable teenager who treats Animal like a respectable human, even Farouq, the local thug who does the utmost sacrifice for his people, and Ma Franci, the mother Teresa type French nun, who lost her mind after the accident.
Despite Animal's belief that his audience might fail to comprehend their sufferings, his harrowing account of 'That night' and the unspeakable misery that ensued will surely bring the readers down to their knees begging for an end to misery. As I read, tears flowed incessantly, my numbed fingers gripping the pages, sorrowful eyes going over the lines over and over refusing to turn the page. Sinha's triumph not just lies in his ventriloquistic style, but more on his honest depiction of the corrupted political system and blighted lives of the victims. The authorities indifference to the poor and their denial for justice brings forth many questions in the minds of the readers. Aren't all human lives the same? Why does the law stay partial and delay justice to the poor? Why do the politicians succumb to the demands of a foreign company when their own people are dying before their very eyes every day? Is greed so powerful that it can turn a blind eye to humanity, love and grief? Why do the rich treat poor like scums? Aren't we all equal in the eyes of god? Is god truly there? If he is, Why would he let such atrocious things happen? I am burning with curiosity to seek out the answers myself. Yet I remain perplexed for the answers seemed to elude me. The context of the novel is powerful, the characters complex yet endearing. This compelling novel truly deserves the nomination and awards, perhaps even more recognition would have been better. As for me, It will remain one of the best reads of all time. If you like this novel, you might also want to consider reading 'A Breath of Fresh Air' by Amulya Malladi and 'A Fine Balance' by Rohinton Mistry (both I tremendously enjoyed).