February 25, 2012

Biafra, the Unacknowledged Holocaust, Documented in "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

"Half of a Yellow Sun" is both a love story and a story of war, and I’m not certain which of the two makes more of an impact on the reader.  I decided to read this novel after I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's speech at Narratives for Europe in Amsterdam.  A very entertaining and natural speaker, Ms. Adichi, in the most affable manner, cut President Sarkozy’s speech to shreds! Still reeling under that impact of Ms Adichi’s impeccable articulation, I came across “Half of a Yellow Sun” in my school library, and I couldn’t help but pick it up.

Ms Adichi claims she wrote the novel “because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don't ever want to forget.”  With so many goals to achieve, Chimamanda set herself up for a difficult task of presenting a war that the world didn’t remember or recognize, and a story of love that unfolds within that unacknowledged war. 

Set in the backdrop of the three year war fought by the secessionist state of Biafra against the Nigerian Federal Military, the novel is stark and even gory in it’s depiction of the senseless slaughter and vitriolic violence that happened in South East Nigeria even as the rest of humanity watched unashamedly, or as Adichi’s alternate storyteller in “The Book” states, “The World Was Silent When We Died.” Admittedly, majority of readers will come out of this reading with a new awareness of the legacy the British left behind in post-colonial Nigeria.  The reader will know how Biafra came to be; who were these Biafrans; why did they choose to secede from the rest of Nigeria; why did Biafra last only three years, and what happened to it at the end of those three years? With her vivid portrayal of a strife torn nation, Adichi compels the reader to wonder why no one intervened to stop this massacre which cost the world a million lives!

The backdrop of the Biafran massacre would not have been as compelling had not Adichi woven some dynamic characters into this conflict ridden landscape.  There are the twin Igbo sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who being born into wealth and status, choose diametrically opposite lifestyles  but share a common zeal for independence and a highly evolved sense of justice.  Ugwu, the thirteen year old houseboy and narrator of the story for the major part, represents the poorer sections of Igbo society. Richard, the shy white British journalist and the world’s only real window into Nigeria at the time, is the paramour of one of the twins. Then there is the revolutionary academician Odenigbo, who lives through the tumult of secession, desperately holding on to his vision of an independent Biafra. The Biafran experience is enmeshed in the lives of these characters as they negotiate peace for themselves and for their people in post colonial Nigeria. It is in the story of their lives in those three Biafran years that love takes on a new meaning as does the definition of loyalty.  The characters take on an environment that is hostile, relentless, and in flux from one moment to the next. Their relationships evolve in this uncertain atmosphere where betrayal is expected but not forgiven, and love lies in the stealth of darkness and death, but there is no silver lining that awaits!

An enchanting and informative read.

February 15, 2012

"The Help" - Decries Yet Distances Racial Segregation

I like movies that transport me into a world distinctly different from mine, and Taylor Tate’s The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel, did.  It took me to Mississippi during the 1960s when the word ‘Negro’ was not a slur, and when all a black woman could hope to achieve was to be a maid in a rich white home. I also liked the movie because it presented white and black America of the time with equanimity that’s colored in candor, humor, and wit. The black and white characters both have their share of skeletons to hide, and Tate indulges these characters by letting them be exactly who they are: at times shallow, sometimes wicked, oftentimes insecure, even downright evil, but overall very real. There is Minny (Octavia Spenser) and then there’s  Skeeters (Emma Stone), two undaunted women, one black one white, both witty and winsome and who enchant the audience while making good of the worst of situations.  Viola Davis who plays the silent yet solid Aibileen, the black maid whose story is the first of many to go public in a NYC newspaper, whose stoicism is in sharp contrast to Minny’s effervescence; yet both so real. Not to be outdone, the ‘white’ characters are just as delectable; the overtly segregationist ‘Hilly’ and the socially ostracized bottle blond “Celia’ are a treat to watch, especially as they outdo each other in petty pursuits.

The movie, though set in the times of social segregation, deals with race relations in a lighter mode yet sends a clear message decrying racial discrimination of the 60s. The Help provides for two hours of witty and wholesome entertainment.

February 05, 2012

Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish - a Sufi Tale Promoting Ijtihad?

Having watched and posted on Ayad Akhtar's movie "The War Within" a few years ago, here was no doubt that I would read Akhtar's debut novel "American Dervish" some time soon.  Besides, American Dervish had received several favorable mentions in the news media,  so when I found the novel sitting on the coffee table at my sister's place, I asked her if I could borrow it. My sister who had "finished reading it in a few sittings" had a lot to say about the novel; that was a significantly strong reaction coming from her. However, I managed to dissuade her from discussing the novel, but not before I heard her say that "the book was an 'Islam/Muslim Culture 101'" for her, and so it was for me too! American Dervish explores the religious identities of several characters, from different age groups and belonging to different strata of American society, before Hayat, the novel's narrator who too has been through the tumultuous process of exploring his identity, emerges the 'dervish'.   

Akhtar's American Dervish is a coming of age story of Hayat Shah, a ten year old boy  born into a rich Pakistani immigrant family living in Milwaukee during the 1980s.  Hayat's story would have been a lot different had Mina not happened to the family.  Mina, a friend of Hayat's mother, comes to the US in order to escape her ex husband who is threatening to get custody of her five year old son Imran.  Mina is a well educated, articulate and forward thinking Pakistani woman who also happens to be good looking and thus becomes  ten year old Hayat's boyhood crush.  Her entry into Hayat's family sets several sub plots in motion, all of which help unfold a catchy story; one depicting the struggle of several characters trying to live out their Muslim identities. Being  the storyteller, Hayat comes out of the struggle significantly wiser on what it meant to be a Muslim living in Milwaukee in the 1980s.

American Dervish is definitely not a Reluctant Fundamentalist; primarily because Ayad Akhtar's aim was to tell a story in a way that would optimize readership. Mohsin Hamid, the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, though telling a story,  has a clear prerequisite for his readers; they need erudition of the kind that will ease them into the planned and perfected writing of Hamid's and appreciate the captivating story Hamid has to tell.

Regardless, if it's a gripping story you want to read, Ayad Akhtar's American Dervish is a perfect fit.