Monday, September 30, 2013

The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

The Householder by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is bildungsroman fiction about a young, mediocre college teacher Prem, who is new to independence, marriage, job and a city life.  He is a shy innocent, transitioning from a sheltered life into true adulthood where his decisions lead to consequences. Initially, he identifies himself as the son of a college Principal and he thinks he is entitled to the same respect his father was given. “Prem had sometimes envied him his position of comfort and dignity and had looked forward to being married himself so that he occupy a similar one.” (p.38).  It is his immaturity that he is not able connect respect with effort but thinks of it as an entitlement.

He is not sure how his wife Indu fit into his life, although she is even pregnant when the novel starts. He is not willing to share his thoughts or his love with her.  In fact, he is irritated with her sighs and her quiet crying, totally unaware of his role in her unhappiness. When he is asked to bring his wife along for a tea party at the Principal’s house, he is in a conundrum.  “I hardly know her, he wanted to say; how can I bring someone I hardly know to such an important tea-party?” (p.35) His problem seems ridiculous even to him--”Yet it seemed a strange thing to say about one’s own wife, especially after he had already confessed to Sohan Lal that Indu was pregnant.”  Besides being embarrassed about his status as a young householder-- Grihasthashrama, the householder, is the second major phase in a Hindu’s life--  he is conscious of a heavy feeling of responsibility, the burden of a breadwinner.  A short but humbling search for a better paying job makes him realize that his present employment is doubly precious given his inadequate qualifications. He then decides to ask for a raise but each time he attempts to talk to the Principal a comic turn of events prevents him from doing so.  In fact, whenever he tries to assert himself, in any relationship, he finds he is being laughed at.  His wife leaves him when he demands she take care of his widowed mother.  His friend Raj practically ignores him. His mother interferes in his life, and he even has problems with his colleague, Mr. Chaddha which threaten his career. However, he finds strength to move on.  He attends prayer meetings where a Swamiji teaches him to accept the downs of life with the ups.  Unlike Hans Loewe, for whom the Indian mystique is elusive, Prem instinctively understands it as he matures.  He surrenders to the will of God and immerses himself in the role of the householder without actively seeking solutions. Intimacy between husband and wife deepens, and a new man emerges who can forget for a while the Khannas and the Seigals of the world who prey on innocent victims like him.

Writing with a lively sense of humor, Jhabvala makes the everyday landscape specially poignant. The readers laugh at Prem when he handles his life clumsily but sympathize with him when he has a tough time picking himself up.  They cheer for him because he has just started out in life, is extremely conscientious and he deserves every opportunity to prove himself.

Jhabvala, Ruth. The Householder. W.W. Norton & Company. New York. 1985. Print

Update 10/27/2013: Please read this chapter from Nagendra Kumar Singh's book, Society and Self in the novels of R.P. Jhabvala and Kamala Markandaya.
Read more »

Sunday, May 20, 2012

"Xala" by Sembenè Ousmane

            “Xala” opens with the announcement of a proud moment in the history of Senegal.  An African is now the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.  This is a period of transition from French colonial rule to African Independence.  Leading this country is a group of businessmen, at the peak of their career with a foot in the door of wholesale trade and the import-export field.  Having an African President to lead the Chamber of commerce and industry meant “access to the heart of the country’s economy, a foothold in the world of high finance, and of course, the right to walk with head held high.”(1) Among that elite group is El Hadji Abdou Kader Beye, a teacher turned entrepreneur.  After dabbling in various business schemes, he settles down as the “front” for overseas investors.  He establishes himself on the board of two or three local companies and acquires for himself a strong political and social influence.  This day is important to El Hadji in other ways as well.  He is acquiring a third wife.  “This third marriage raised him to the rank of the traditional notability; it represented a kind of promotion.”(4)  That actually reminds me of a Monkhouse limerick:

There once was an old man of Lyme
Who married three wives at a time,
When asked, “Why a third?”
He replied, “One's absurd!
And bigamy, sir, is a crime.” 

But I digress. 

On his wedding night, El Hadji is stricken with xala (A Wolof term for “impotence”) and is not able to consummate his marriage.  The novel is about the embarrassment it causes to his manhood and to his status in society which leads him to be a failure in business as well. In the few weeks that he has the xala, El Hadji suffers considerably.  “His bitterness had become an inferiority complex in the company of his peers.  He imagined himself the object of their looks and the subject of their conversation.  He could not endure the asides, the way they laughed whenever he went past, the way they stared at him.  His infirmity, temporary though it might be, made him incapable of communicating with his employees, his wives, his children and his business colleagues.  When he could allow himself a few moments of escape he imagined himself a carefree child again.”(38-9)

This reaction seems extreme. To El Hadji, however, who is on the threshold of “greatness” and for whom acquisition is a sign of progress, his impotence sounds his death knell.  He is the representative of the corrupt, and the hypocritical middle-class of Senegal.  He belongs to the world where only money talks.  Just as he is a fusion of two cultures, the book is a fusion of two apparently parallel plots—the story of El Hadji the man, and the story of the country he represents.  The author hints that the country is not yet ready to take responsibility for its own rule, because the very fabric of society reveals moral decadence.  The xala is not El Hadji’s alone.  The impotence had spread into all the nooks and crannies of Senegalese government and culture.
Change has to come from self-awareness.  Where does El Hadji really belong?  Sembenè calls him a “synthesis” of two cultures (French and Wolof)—“business had drawn him into the European middle class after a feudal African education.  Like his peers, he made skilful use of his dual background, for their fusion was not complete.” (4)  He has all the status symbols of a wealthy European businessman—the Mercedes Benz, three houses (referred to as ‘villas’) and of a rich Muslim—the three wives.  “I am a Muslim.  I have the right to four wives,” asserts Hadji.  Polygamy is one of Sembenè’s favorite themes. Herein lies the impotence of women. El Hadji’s first wife Adja Awa Astou, a Christian, had severed her ties with her own family to marry a Muslim and had accepted his religion.  Her sacrifice was for naught. She was forced to face the reality of an oppressive social structure when El Hadji married again.  “By an act of will she had overcome all her feelings of resentment toward the second wife.  Her ambition was to be a wife according the teachings of Islam by observing the five daily prayers and showing her husband complete obedience.”(20) She had no family support; as a result she was a lonely woman. Sembenè Ousmane seems to point out the importance of free will.  She chose to be alone and “as others isolate themselves with drugs she obtained her daily dose from her religion.”(22)  Although a victim by choice, she plays the role of the martyr. In fact, she warns Rama (her daughter) that it is not easy to change the world and that every woman was fated to share her man.  “You are young still.  Your day will come if it pleases Yalla.  Then you will understand.” (12)  Rama would not allow herself be put in that position.  Divorce may be a social stigma for her mother but not her. She is intelligent, feisty, and rebellious and has a mind of her own.  She is educated and questioning, the product of a new free generation that questions unfair traditional practices.  “A polygamist is never frank” (13) she tells her father and is slapped for her pains.  She has the courage of her convictions, and is the key to the change that is to take place in her country. She is conscious of the new political awakening in her country, and is determined to keep the African ethnicity alive by promoting Wolof language instead of the colonial French. 

As for the second wife, “as long as she was the favorite she accepted polygamy and the rivalry.”  However, Oumi N’Doye’s pride was hurt. At El Hadji’s third wedding she bravely lies to the aunt of the bride and the first wife: “I thank Yalla for putting me to the test so that in my turn I too can show that I am not jealous or selfish.”  But she is both of those things, and she does share the bitterness of polygamy with the first wife.  “As they watched someone else’s happiness the memory of their own weddings left a nasty taste.  Eaten up with a painful bitterness they shared a common sense of abandonment and loneliness.  Neither spoke.” (20)  Neither had anything to say because they were carried by this tide that they had no control over.

Women felt that they had no way to defend themselves against the ignominy of being relegated to the back burner with the advent of a new co-wife.  Oumi is unhappy; but her introspection can only bring out her shallow nature.  She recalls how she would rob Adja Awa Astou of whole days and nights of her husband’s company, and pretend to herself she was the only wife.  Not that she is remorseful of her part in hurting her co-wife.  She plans now to extract all the privileges she can from her husband.  Aware that divorcing him would leave her destitute and force her to prostitution to maintain herself, she decides to help herself to El Hadji’s wealth. Her immediate target is the acquisition of a car.  She waits till her “moomé” (her rightful time with her husband) to make her move; plies him with delicious food and then speaks her piece.  “You must treat us all fairly as the Koran says.  Each household has a car except this one.  Why?” (51) Not being educated or intelligent, she does not realize that nothing about polygamy is fair to women or the children.  The third wife N’gone, for instance, is a mere nineteen years old and is manipulated by Yay Bineta (her aunt) to marry a middle aged man who has been married twice before and has had a brood of children, the eldest of whom is her age.  Afraid that N’Gone would make rash decisions and fall for men who “don’t have a pocket handkerchief and wear clothes only fit for a scarecrow”, Yay Bineta fixes El Hadji as her quarry and embarks on a systematic campaign to trap him into marrying her niece. El Hadji, always attracted by a pretty face, falls neatly into the trap. In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, the author terms El Hadji’s life as “Urban Polygamy” or “Geographical Polygamy” as opposed to “Rural Polygamy” where wives have to share their home.  In the towns, as in the case of El Hadji, the men have different houses scattered all over so the wives do not meet each other and the children have limited contact with their father.  The fathers have no particular interest in the raising of the children. They are to the children what the colonial rule is to Senegal.
The xala is a lesson.  Everything that El Hadji built up, crumbles like a deck of cards.  Corrupt and greedy that he is, he discovers that his personal and business worlds were propped up on a weak foundation and could not endure the vicissitudes of life.  Also, Sembenè Ousmane condemns the imposition of an alien culture over the traditional one.  When El Hadji suffers from the xala, it is not modern medicine that cures him.  He is cured by the wisdom of centuries, by a marabout who lives in a village not accessible by car away from the sphere of influence of the western civilization.  It is the deep mysticism of the African culture, thrust rudely aside by the colonists and Christianity, which feeds the soul of its people.  Suddenly, the novel is not about El Hadji anymore but of the prevalence of a more insidious influence, of the oppression of a race, of human dignity.  It is up to El Hadji to rediscover the visionary gleam, the glory and the dream of the African people.   In a cri de coeur at the end of the novel, he criticizes the citizens of Senegal for their lack of integrity and for pandering to the colonists. Although the country was free, he pointed out that the important positions of the state were still occupied by the French. 

“What are we?  Mere agents, less than petty traders!  We merely redistribute. Re-distribute the remains the big men deign to leave us.  Are we businessmen?  I say no!  Just clodhoppers!”(83)

The truth is out, and the other “businessmen,” in denial, are shocked.  El Hadji continues:

“We are a bunch of clodhoppers.  Who owns the banks? The insurance companies? The factories?  The wholesale trade? The cinemas?  The bookshops?  The hotels?  All these and more besides are out of our  control. We are nothing better than crabs in a basket.  We want the ex-occupier’s place?  We have it.  This Chamber is the proof.  Yet what change is there really in general or in particular?  The colonialist is stronger, more powerful than ever before, hidden inside us, here in this very place.  He promises us the left-overs of the feast if we behave ourselves.  Beware anyone who tries to upset his digestion, who wants a bigger profit.  What are we?  Clodhoppers! Agents! Petty traders! In our fatuity we call ourselves “businessmen”!  Businessmen without funds!” (83)
In a dramatic turn of events, reminiscent of the medieval Moral Interludes, El Hadji faces the consequences of this corrupt society.  He falls from grace, his homes are taken away, his wives leave him and he is subject to a ritual of spiritual cleansing that is at once atavistic and cathartic. He is stripped naked and spit on by beggars and lepers, who represent not the dregs of humanity but the people that were trampled upon without qualms by these corrupt businessmen and himself.  One of the lepers accuses him, “You are a disease that is infectious to everyone.  The virus of a collective leprosy.” (100) El Hadji surrenders to this treatment because he realizes the need for every man(personal level) and the country(collective level) to be purged of every evil on the soil.

Sembenè Ousmane’s skill as a film maker is obvious in the dramatic intensity of each ‘scene’ in the book, and there is really no other way to describe these chapters.  The humor of the bedroom scene on the wedding night with the woman and the cock, the mortar and the axe has the readers scoff at tradition, but the humor soon turns to seriousness at the dying mores and the collapse of an ancient civilization and the endemic ills such as polygamy. The book has representation from every strata of society, each searching for identity in the confusing world. The author is himself a griot, a wandering minstrel keeping alive the culture of the Senegalese.

Ousmane, Sembenè. Xala. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books. 1976
Rating 4 out of 5.

Read more »

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Meet the Lomans--Death Of A Salesman

“Why didn’t anyone come?” Linda Loman’s piteous, plaintive cry at Willy Loman’s funeral is perhaps the most touching moment in the play.  Even after at least thirty-five years of marriage to Willy, his wife is still clueless about her husband. She cannot understand what made him commit suicide.  “I search and search and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy”. (Requiem)

Meet the Lomans.

Willy is a salesman. He has a wife Linda and two sons Biff and Happy.  The play is about his dreams to make it big in his career, his dysfunctional family and his tenuous bond with his son Biff.  

Willy is constantly talking.  He talks to Linda, he talks to his sons, and he talks to himself. But Linda refuses to listen.  She has a fear of the unknown, so she does not probe into the relationship between her husband and her son Biff, never tries to figure out what exactly the conflict is, and actually prevents Willy from considering brother Ben’s offer to accompany him to Alaska and work with him. She is sucked into Willy’s delusional world. She tells Ben, “Why, old man Wagner told him just the other day that if he keeps it up he’ll be a member of the firm, didn’t he, Willy?”(p 85), when only a couple of minutes previously Willy had confided in Ben, “Ben, nothing’s working out.  I don’t know what to do.”(p. 84)

         Linda Loman is an enabler.  She lets her weak husband weave fantastic dreams that have no basis in reality.  She is fooled by Willy’s “wrong dreams”, just like the people in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who were carried away by the grandness of the delusion of a non-existent fabric.  “He’s got a beautiful job here”, Linda assures Ben, “why must everybody conquer the world?” (p. 85) Taking the cue from her, Willy recovers from his brief spasm of insecurity and promises-“We’ll do it here, Ben! You hear me?  We’re gonna do it here!” (p. 87) 

Linda Loman is the picture of serene domesticity—always appearing with a basket of laundry, mending stockings in the manner of a thrifty housewife and performing those hundred little services that are expected of a dutiful wife. To Linda, Willy is the handsomest man in the whole world and deserves to be smothered in love.  She fusses over Willy’s glasses, his saccharine and his handkerchief as he goes out of the house, she takes his shoes off when he gets home; she is forever offering platitudes:  “But you didn’t rest your mind.  Your mind is overactive, and the mind is what counts, dear.” (p. 13) She lives her life with the ideology that “father knows best”.  She is blind to Willy’s faults.   Although Willy is not “easy to get along with”  (“nobody knows that better than me”, she qualifies), although he’s not a great man, nor the finest character that ever lived, she insists, “attention must be finally paid to such a person”(p. 56) She finds excuses for him and in a way buries her head in sand because it is too much trouble to confront life.  It is easy to fall under her spell and pity Willy’s state, as she perceives it.  “For five weeks he’s been on straight commission, like a beginner, an unknown.” (p. 57) Willy as seen through her eyes is the victim of a changing world, an unappreciative employer and ungrateful children.  He is tired, exhausted and wants to end it all because he has worked too hard and too long without being appreciated.  In a way, she instinctively feels compelled to restore dignity to a man who has willfully lost it. She however, shows keener perception of the character of her sons.  Of Biff she says, “I think he’s still lost,” and Happy she calls a philandering bum; both judgments are appropriate in Willy’s case as well.  She protects Willy from Biff and Happy, and uses all tactics in her power to elicit compassion in them for him.  She confides in them about Willy’s attempts at suicide and while it truly shocks them, the audience is left wondering why she does not confront Willy herself and help him face his demons. 

Willy Loman rode on “a smile and a shoeshine”.  However, he did not even do that very well.  He boasts that he “knocked ‘em cold in Providence, slaughtered ‘em in Boston” and sold thousands and thousands of whatever and could have gone on doing it but he had to get home.  He later modifies that to “five hundred gross in Providence and seven hundred gross in Boston” and within seconds stammers, “I—I did—about a hundred and eighty gross in Providence.  Well, no---it came to –roughly two hundred gross on the whole trip.”(p. 35) We never know what he is selling, but are left with the impression that he is trying to sell himself.  But Willy is a mediocre man, with mediocre abilities and mediocre morals.  He is only slightly aware of his shortcomings.  He confides his insecurities to his brother,  “Ben, nothing’s working out, I don’t know what to do.” (p.84) 

Willy is always tempted to link his lot with brother Ben.  Ben epitomizes all that is brave and successful.  He takes on the untamed, and the unexplored and nature seems to drop her cornucopia in his lap.  “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked in to the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out.  And by God, I was rich! (p. 48) Willy is fascinated with this account and parrots it incessantly—it all seems so simple to him.  Nowhere in his brother’s account is the story of blood, sweat, toil and tears.  Willy has a skewed view of success or what makes a person tick.  He himself follows no rules.  He makes his sons steal wood from neighboring construction sites to make additions to his home, and is quite brazen about it.  “You shoulda seen the lumber, they brought home last week.  At least a dozen six by tens worth all kinds of money.”(p. 51) He encourages Biff to bring home footballs from the school but vehemently denies it is stealing.  He is merely “borrowing” them to practice with; ends, to him, justify the means. Somewhere in his conscience he does have this niggling doubt, “…sometimes I’m afraid that I’m not teaching them the right kind of---Ben, how should I teach them?” (p.52) He does not let that worry him for long.  He cheats on his wife and offers loneliness as his excuse.  He is angry that Biff is disproportionately shocked, “You musn’t—you mustn’t overemphasize a thing like this”, he tells him little realizing that he has now lost Biff forever. 

Willy is out of sync with the world.  He is slowing down while the rest of the country seems to be spinning faster.  Even his neighborhood changes–the streets are lined up with cars, the houses have given way to apartment buildings, there are no huge backyards anymore and certainly no trees.  People eat whipped cheese and discard anything that is of no advantage to them.  Nothing grows in Willy’s world anymore.  Not his commission, not his relationship with his sons, not even his mind.  He gets fired and has to depend on Charley for handouts. Linda’s hair becomes grey, Happy stagnates at his job and Biff becomes a drifter utterly lost, not believing in his father but not being self-aware either.  What makes Willy’s life pathetic is that he did not have the capacity to appreciate what he had or owned.  He did not make the connection between effort and result or even effort and ability. He was lost just like Biff.  He could not risk leaving his world behind and going to Alaska with his brother, but he did not have the special talent in sales like Dave Singleman, the ultimate salesman.  What is significant is that even though he was not so remarkable and had suicidal tendencies, he was not doing too badly.  The Lomans did eventually manage to pay off their mortgage and the installments on the refrigerator.  Willy Loman was a restless spirit and “he had the wrong dreams. All, all wrong.”(p 138) He mistakenly believed that a “man can end with diamonds here on the basis of being liked”, because “it’s not what you do. Ben.  It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts, Ben, contacts”.  (p.86) He never quite grasps what success is, so he oversimplifies it.  Of Ben he says, “What’s the mystery?  The man knew what he wanted and went out and got it!  Walked into a jungle, and comes out the age of twenty-one, and he’s rich!” (p.41) He believes that superficial charm and popularity without the foundation of integrity, effort and honesty is enduring. 

And this is what Biff had learned from his father.  He is his father’s twin soul, misguided for most of his life, but unlike his father, Biff introspects.  “I’ve always made a point of not wasting my life, and everytime I come back here I know that all I’ve done is to waste my life.” (p.23) He admits to being “mixed up very bad”(p.23) to Happy, reminiscent of Willy’s confidences to Ben.  He is lost as Linda put it but the years have matured him.  He senses now the need to settle down and stop being a drifter. Act One of “Death of a Salesman” is a time for Biff to do some soul-searching.  He is not sure about his future, but he knows he would like to spend it outdoors, stripped to his waist working in a ranch.  However, he is willing to settle down in the city to please his mother. Biff’s indecision stems from certain unresolved issues and the first half of the play leads up to his self-awareness.  “I just can’t take hold, mom.  I can’t take hold of some kind of life.” (p.54) In any case, he makes up his mind to speak to his ex-employer Bill Oliver about a loan to start a sporting good store fully aware that he had once quit Bill’s employment because he had stolen a carton of basketballs from him.

Biff’s moment of epiphany occurs as he subconsciously steals a pen at Bill Oliver’s office.  “I took those balls years ago, now I walk in with his fountain pen?  That clinches it, don’t you see?” (p.112) This coincides with the climax of the play, with the audience transported to Boston to witness Biff’s horror as he discovers his father’s infidelity. In one chaotic instant, the audience, Biff and Willy reach the same level of awareness.   Willy and Biff both come to terms with their past.  Although Biff is not consciously thinking of the adultery, he realizes that he had spent his entire life believing his father’s “simonizing”.  He understands now that his father’s dreams are phony, and that his father never really understood the needs of his family.  “The man don’t know who we are! The man is gonna know!  We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house!” (p.130) The one thing Biff finally learns is that a person is “well-liked” and popular, not for being handsome and charming, but for his honesty and hard work—qualities that were non-existent in his upbringing.  In spite of perfect role models in Charles and Bernard next door,  the Lomans more or less drifted rudderless.  Bernard was termed anemic, not well-liked and Charley was dismissed as not having a great personality.  Trusting in his father, Biff ignores all warning signs; he fails in math, loses his place in the football team and never quite recovers the glory of his carefree years.  Lost and confused since Boston, he stumbles through life, rebelling against all enduring values, a petty thief and a drifter, in and out of prisons.  He finally has the sense to stop.

“Willy! I ran down eleven flights with a pen in my hand today.  And suddenly I stopped, you hear me? And in the middle of that office building, do your hear this?  I stopped in the middle of the building and I saw –the sky.  I saw the things that I love in this world.  The work and the food and time to sit and smoke.  And I looked at the pen and I said to myself, what the hell am I grabbing this for?  Why am I trying to become what I don’t want to be?  What am I doing in an office, among a contemptuous begging fool of myself, when all I want is out there, waiting for me the minute I say I know who I am!  Why can’t I say that, Willy?”  (p.132)

The separation from his alter ego is complete.  As the past explodes into the present, and Willy is forced to accept his part in Biff’s plummet into life’s deep end, Biff and Willy’s paths diverge. Willy is not “Pop” to him for a brief while.  He is one of the multitude, “a dime a dozen”. Willy senses this momentous change in Biff more than understands it.  While the change makes Biff come alive, it signals the death of the salesman.
Read more »

Monday, April 18, 2011

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe


     Is Okonkwo’s suicide the act of a man in despair?  Why would a man so fearless and determined, who said yes very strongly that his chi agreed, find life hopeless? 
     “Okonkwo was well-known throughout the nine villages and beyond”.  This is a mighty testimonial to his bravery and character in the very first line of the book and an instant identification of a hero.    He had defeated “The Cat”, the greatest wrestler of all time, in a fight that was fierce, and was not only a test of strength and stamina but also of cunning.   He was not afraid of war; he had collected his fifth head in the last one.  Even his physical appearance was formidable. “He was tall and huge and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look”.(3-4)  He despised weakness and failure, for this reason he despised his own father, Unoka.  Unoka was a coward and hated bloodshed and was never happier than while playing his flute. “In his day, he was lazy and improvident and was quite incapable of thinking about tomorrow.  If any money came his way, and it seldom did, he immediately bought gourds of palm-wine, called round his neighbors and made merry”. (4)  As a consequence, he owed everyone some money.  
     Okonkwo was so driven to be unlike his father that he was determined to hate two things with a passion—gentleness and idleness, the two qualities that his father represented.  He hated showing affection or emotion unless it was anger.  “To show affection was a sign of weakness, the only thing worth demonstrating was strength.” (28)  He worked like a man possessed.  He belonged to a tribe that respected age but revered achievement.  Okonkwo’s father had not left him a barn.  He had shown no skill at farming, and so left nothing but debts for Okonkwo to inherit.  However, the son had already made attempts to carve a bright future for himself. He had enough self-confidence to approach Nwakibie for help when he needed seed yams.  He appealed to him thus:
"I have cleared a farm but have no yams to sow.  I know what it is to ask a man to trust another with his yams, especially these days when young men are afraid of hard work.  I am not afraid of work.  The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree to the ground said he would praise himself if no one else did.  I began to fend for myself at an age when most people still suck at their mothers' breasts.  If you give me yam seeds I shall not fail you." (21)
Impressed with his determination and sincerity, Nwakibie, a self-proclaimed miser, gave him twice four hundred yams.  
     The first year that Okonkwo planted the seed yams, everything had gone wrong.  It didn’t rain, then it rained too much and the harvest was “sad like a funeral” (25).  It was enough “to break the heart of a lion” (25)   but he never gave in to despair. Since he survived that year, he was sure he could survive anything.  By turning misfortune and poverty into success and wealth, Okonkwo became one of the youngest lords of the clan with three wives, two titles and two barns full of yams (a man’s crop). “As the elders said, if a child washed his hands he could eat with kings. Okonkwo had clearly washed his hands and so he ate with kings and elders.”  (8)
     Okonkwo had arrived.
     He was part of the rhythm of Umuofia.  He observed all its protocols.  He took kola nuts to his elders, he drank the palm-wine in a gesture of friendship, and he participated in all the rituals and traditions of his clan. The betrothals and the marriage rituals are a celebration of life, just as the coming of locusts and the scrubbing of the walls with red earth.  He worked with his hands, he created life in the land.  He sowed the seeds and watched life grow.  He ruled his house with “a heavy hand”.  Being a self-made man he carried with him an air of arrogance.  He did sometimes step out of line and had to be chastised.  Although he did not admit his faults, he did repent inwardly and he accepted his punishment.  During the week just before the planting season Umuofia lived in peace with its fellows to honor its great goddess of the earth without whose blessings the crops will not grow.  Okonkwo beat up his wife for neglecting his dinner one night during that week.  It was unheard of to beat someone during the week of Peace.  At another time he chased one of his wives with a gun and shot at her.  Chapter Five gives an insight into Okonkwo’s domestic life, a description of the bond among the wives and children.  There was gentleness in their behavior and affection towards each other.  The children got their education—Umuofia’s rituals and folklore—from the stories that were passed on from the wives and elders.  It seems as though Okonkwo is the discordant element here. 
     Okonkwo had two weaknesses, Ikemefuna and Ezinma.  The Ikemefuna episode is the closest Okonkwo comes to a moral dilemma. Ikemefuna was a young boy who comes to Umuofia as human sacrifice for the murder of one its daughters in Mbaino.  He was one that the Oracle forgot for three years.  In those three years, he was the older brother to Nwoye (Okonkwo’s son).  He was the right mixture of the manly and the sensitive.  He brought with him a new fascinating culture of Mbaino, an “endless stock of folktales. Even those which Nwoye knew already were told with a new freshness and the local flavor of a different clan.”(34)  In those three years, Ikemefuna “grew rapidly like a yam tendril in the rainy season, and was full of the sap of life”.(52)  At once, his youth, his tenderness, his vitality and his potential is captured in that single sentence and once more the reader is made aware that this boy is living on borrowed time and the feeling of foreboding sets in. When the time came, it was Okonkwo who struck the fatal blow even as Ikemefuna cried out to him for help. Okonkwo could not eat or sleep for several days; he only drank the palm wine.  He did not understand why he shivered every time he thought of the boy who called him 'father'; he did not understand his emotional attachment but thought of himself as a coward.  Obierika, his friend, cast a niggling doubt in Okonkwo’s brain that he may not have done the right thing by participating in Ikemefuna’s death. “…if the Oracle said that my son should be killed, I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it”, said Obierika.  Okonkwo was not happy with Obierika’s statement.   “The Earth cannot punish me for obeying her messenger”, he insisted, “A child’s fingers are not scalded by a piece of hot yam which its mother puts into its palm”.  Okonkwo sought a single, simple explanation that would give him peace and a good night’s rest, and he had it. He had done it because the Oracle said so.  He slept peacefully after three nights. 
     To view this incident with the modern western eyes and express shock at the barbaric, primitive nature of Okonkwo is to separate him from his way of life.  Okonkwo fell back on what he believed in.  That was Ibo tribe’s savage justice. The machete that was used for farming, to tame the earth was also used in war.  The conflict between the Oracle and personal loyalties had only one resolution.  “If we were all afraid of blood, it would not be done.  And what do you think that the Oracle would do then?” (67)  His tribe had already made a decision to kill Ikemefuna.  It was tragic that three years had elapsed before it happened, and there was time for a bond to be established between the boy and Okonkwo’s family.
     The reader wants Okonkwo brave but also wants him to be compassionate when every chapter in the book has already revealed his lack or suppression of finer feelings.  Achebe writes, “If Okonkwo had killed Ikemefuna during the busy planting season or harvesting, it would hot have been so bad, his mind could have centered on his work.”  Cruel as this seems, Okonkwo was a part of a fatalistic culture. The priestess of Agbala, the Oracle of the Hills and Caves was an ordinary woman till the spirit of the goddess chose to speak through her.  The Oracle also meted out a Hammurabi-like code of justice to the layman, largely executed on a revenge principle. It was not Okonkwo’s to reason why.  It was the same way he accepted his daughter Ezinma was an ogbanje or a changeling, who is impossible to bring up without it dying unless its iyi-uwa (a special kind of stone that is a link between the changeling and the spirit world) is first found and destroyed.  Although Ezinma’s iyi-uwa was found and destroyed, she fell seriously sick again the next year, but no one questioned the earlier ritual.  
      Maybe the author felt he was too harsh on Okonkwo, to portray him utterly devoid of emotion.   The next few chapters reveal a vulnerable side to him when he experienced fear and anxiety over Ezinma’s illness and during her abduction by Chielo, the priestess of Agbala.  When Chielo carried Ezinma off into the hills, Ekwefi, the mother of the girl, had followed her, worried out of her mind.  Okonkwo “had felt anxious but did not show it.  When Ekwefi  had followed the priestess, he had allowed what he regarded as reasonable and manly interval to pass and then gone with his machete to the shrine.”(112) When he did not find them there he had become “gravely worried” and he kept going back and forth to the shrine and home till he finally found them. 
     And then something quite unexpected happened.  At Ezeudu’s funeral, Okonkwo’s gun exploded accidentally and killed a sixteen-year-old boy.  Okonkwo fled and in a blink of an eye everything he had achieved was destroyed.  “They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn.  It was the justice of the earth goddess and they were merely her messengers.  They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo.  His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them.  They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman.” (125)  Okonkwo had committed a crime and was forced to live seven years in exile in his motherland Mbanta.
     Do things really fall apart here for Okonkwo?  It seems as though Okonkwo is stationary and the world is spinning around him.  So far, he had been a man of action and soon after Ikemefuna’s death, he is left standing still while the world is spinning out of control.  Did his chi desert him?
     This is a crucial part of the novel because Obierika, “a man who thought about things” (125), was certainly thinking harder than ever.  “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently?  But although he thought for a long time he found no answer.  He was merely led into greater complexities.  He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away.”(125)  Every man evaluates his relationship with his community and God at some point in his life.  Obierika’s introspection indicates that his community was ready to make changes.  In the poem, “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats, from which the title of the book “Things Fall Apart” is taken, the poet envisages a time when “The best lack all conviction, and the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” That time was now.  With Okonkwo gone, there were no more unquestioning clansmen, there was no strong bond of kinship.  The warning behind that old man’s words at Okonkwo’s farewell comes to mind. 

“‘…I fear for the younger generation, for you people.’  He waved his arm where  most of the young men sat.  ‘As for me, I have only a short while to live, and so have Uchendu and Unachukwu and Emefo.  But I fear for you young people because you do not understand how strong is the bond of kinship.  You do not  know what it is to speak with one voice.  And what is the result?  A man can now leave his father and his brothers.  He can curse the gods of his fathers and his ancestors, like a hunter’s dog that suddenly goes mad and turns on his master.  I fear for you; I fear for the clan.’” (167)
     It seemed as though the center could not hold and anarchy was let loose in Umuofia.  It was appropriate that Obierika, our thinking man, should be a messenger of the changing times in that village.  His periodic visits to Mbanta kept the link between Okonkwo and his home.  It was through him that Okonkwo learned of the white man, the slave trade, missionaries and the white man’s government.  Aware of all the tremors that were rocking Umuofia, Okonkwo brooded over his misfortune.  “He knew he had lost his place among the nine masked spirits who administered justice in the clan.  He had lost the chance to lead his warlike clan against the new religion, which, he was told was gaining ground.  He had lost the years in which he might have taken the highest titles in the clan.  But some of these losses were not irreparable.  He was determined that his return should be marked by his people.  He would return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years.”(171)          The changes were still not that significant to him, nothing that a good dose of manliness could not cure.  His old uncle Uchendu was wrong when he saw “clearly that Okonkwo had yielded to despair”.  His subsequent pep talk was not necessary; the despair was only a momentary aberration.   
      Gradually, the forces of change swept the village of Mbanta too, touching Okonkwo’s life.  Nwoye, his son, left his family to learn to read and write in a school in Umuofia, run by the Church. His mind was full of questions about Ikemefuna and all the twins that died.  He found comfort in the Christian hymns.  Their words "were like drops of frozen rain melting on the dry palate of the panting earth." (147)  Okonkwo staggered under the weight of the disappointment.  “At first it appeared as if it might prove too great for his spirit.  But it was a resilient spirit, and in the end Okonkwo overcame his sorrow.  He had five other sons and he would bring them up in the way of the clan.” (172)  Meanwhile, Christianity was gaining ground.  It had embraced the outcasts who, filled with gratitude at finding dignity and self-respect, embraced Christianity back with intense zeal.  Steadily, old values, old religion began to be questioned and new values and religion replaced them.  The new religion even withstood the test of the Evil Forest, a region where people who died of the “really evil diseases, like leprosy and smallpox” were buried. “it was also the dumping ground for the fetishes of great medicine men when they died” (149).  People expected the missionaries to be dead in four days, but they did not, of course.  So they were believed to have extraordinary powers.  That is how they roped in the first converts. What was left of the clan was decimated by the white man’s government.  The tribes were not even aware of its insidious influence until too late.  “The white man is very clever”, remarked Obierika, “He came quietly and peaceably with his religion.  We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay.  Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one.  He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” (176) 
     Along with the religion and the government, the white man brought trade into these villages—palm oil and kernel brought wealth into the lives of Umuofia.  But what was even more of a concern than these western influences to Okonkwo was nobody noticed his return!!  “Okonkwo’s return to his native land was not as memorable as he had wished.  It was true his two beautiful daughters aroused great interest among suitors and marriage negotiations were soon in progress, but, beyond that, Umuofia did not appear to have taken any special notice of the warrior’s return.  The clan had undergone such profound change during his exile that it was barely recognizable.”(182-3) 
     Okonkwo grieved for the clan, which was breaking apart.  Every ritual and custom was being stripped of its awe and significance and no one cared.  The killing of the sacred python was one, and then the unmasking of the egwugwu by Enoch, a convert, was another. 
     When the egwugwu were desecrated, the clan destroyed Enoch’s compound and the church headed by Mr. Smith. When this happened the District Commissioner had gone on tour; upon his return, he spread a net for the leaders of Umuofia.  He invited them to a meeting, overpowered them, handcuffed them and threw them in prison till they promised to pay a penalty of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries.  They were even whipped by the court messengers and their heads were shaved!   Okonkwo’s thoughts, when he was released, were of war. He was not one to back down even in the face of all these odds.  He even planned on executing his revenge all by himself.   After all, he was known as the "Roaring Flame".
     A special meeting of the clansmen was called.  However, the grandeur and the solemnity of the first meeting (when the daughter of Umuofia was killed was called) could not be replicated.  The clan was divided.  The natural order of life, the rhythm of the clan was now disrupted.  “All our gods are weeping”, announced Okika.  He impressed on his brothers the need to stay united in their fight against the intruders. “We must root out this evil.  And if our brothers take the side of evil we must root them out too”, he declared (204).  But when the time came, only Okonkwo sprung into action.  He killed the messenger who tried to break up the meeting.  When he found that others reacted in fear, he went away and hanged himself.
     We are back to answering the question, “Why did Okonkwo commit suicide?” Why did he desecrate the land he loved? Okonkwo lived and breathed the rhythm of the tribe.  He was one with the rituals, the traditions and the seasons of the land.  The titles, the religion and the spirits of the egwugwu and the Oracle were all part of his life.  He only knew what he grew up with. What he aimed for had significance only if the clan had lived and prospered.  His suicide was not an act of cowardice or despair but of defiance—an act against the white man’s intrusion into his clan.  At the last meeting, he understood that the warrior race had become “extinct”, so to speak, that they had become soft like women.  “He knew that Umuofia would not go to war.  He knew because they had let the other messengers escape.  They had broken into tumult instead of action.  He discerned fright in that tumult.” (205) In a way, Okonkwo dies so his death could mean something to the people of Umuofia.  It was done to remind them of their duties toward their ancestors and the glory of that village.  In the beginning of the book, we hear “Umuofia was feared by all its neighbors.  It was powerful in war and magic, and its priests and medicine men were feared in all the surrounding country.  Its most potent war-medicine was as old as the clan itself…And so the neighboring clans who naturally knew of these things feared Umuofia, and would not go to war against it without trying a peaceful settlement.”(11-12)  When Umuofia lost that one voice, it ceased to exist and when Umuofia ceased to exist, so did Okonkwo.  (It is ironic that while Yeats’ poem predicted the fall of the western civilization, it is used here to signify its influence.)  Okonkwo would get maybe a paragraph of mention in the District Commissioner’s book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger but his own clansmen would choke with emotion at the death of this hero.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday. 1959
Rating: 4 out of 5

Read more »

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Responsibility and Debt in August Wilson’s “Fences”


Troy Maxson’s life is all about recognizing responsibility.  It’s that big word that turns his life around.  It puts the brakes on his life of crime, gets him to find a decent job with the sanitation department, a decent home and a decent family.  With all these in place, he forms very definite views on who owes what and to whom. The baseball team had owed him a place in it; his father had owed him care.  His employer, Mr. Rand, owes him a driver’s job. Cory, his son, owes him obedience and Troy owes him responsibility, and finally, he even thinks he owes himself an affair.  Where did it all go wrong for him?  In his wife Rose’s words, “You always talking about what you give… and what you don’t have to give.  But you take too.  You take…and you don’t even knownobody’s giving !” (II, i; page 71)

As long as he is battling racism, an outside enemy, the audience is proud to know Troy.  His fight with the management and the subsequent promotion from a garbage lifter to a garbage truck driver (a position heretofore reserved for the whites) is the fulfillment of the Black American dream.  They may have kept him out of the baseball leagues (although age more than race might have been a factor) but he sure bounces back with this victory.  The audience is also proud of Troy for leaving a life of crime and for his firm views on duties and responsibilities. “I done learned my mistake and learned to do what’s right by it.  You still trying to get something for nothing.  Life don’t owe you nothing.  You owe it to yourself”, he lectures his older son Lyons. (I,i; page18)  The audience falls in love with his energy, vitality, his stories and his endearing family and friends. Troy jokingly claims he keeps the devil away by paying him ten dollars a month.  That clinches the connection the audience has with him.  Not only is he now an upright citizen he is also a god-fearing man doing the best he can to take care of his family.

Read more »

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"My Life and Hard Times" by James Thurber

It's really difficult to finish James Thurber's books.  Almost impossible to read even one chapter at a single sitting.  By the end of the first paragraph, I am laughing so hard I just cannot continue.  "My Life and Hard Times" was my Mothers Day gift and it is such a treasure.

The book was written by a middle-aged Thurber but of events that  took place before he was 25.  "The sharp edges of old reticences are softened in the autobiographer by the passing of time--a man does not pull the pillow over his head when he wakes in the morning because he suddenly remembers some awful thing that happened to him fifteen or twenty years ago, but the confusions and the panics of last year and the year before are too close for contentment", he explains.Thurber had the unique ability to bring out the humor in what must have been the most painful situations in his young life. The years at Ohio State University seem to be tinged with disappointment because that was when he was made painfully aware of his handicap--he just did not have great eyesight. At age 7, he had lost one eye while playing "William Tell" with arrows and the other through "sympathetic opthalmia". He couldn't look through microscopes, he could not participate in gym and he could not enlist in the army.  Although he recalls with amusement his weekly visits to the draft board medical examiners, the reader can detect a growing disappointment  in him as he kept getting rejected and a subsequent relief when the armistice was called.

Thurber's early life was a revolving door to bewildering eccentrics.  I wonder how much he laughed reminiscing about the Get-Ready Man "a lank unkempt elderly gentleman with wild eyes and a deep voice who used to go about shouting at people through a megaphone to prepare for the end of the world. 'Get ready! Get read-y!' he would bellow, 'The Worllld is coming to an End!'"  Somehow the man got mixed up with a production of "King Lear" and while the protagonist wandered blindly through a storm with Edgar, the Get Ready man added to the mayhem..King Lear would have lent a helping hand to fulfil GRM's dire predictions.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!  (King Lear, Act III, scene ii)

I think the play would have lost its appeal once the old gentleman was ejected.
Read more »

Sunday, May 16, 2010

"Midaq Alley" by Naguib Mahfouz

I start my new blog with a review of a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize winner for Literature in 1988.  Midaq Alley was one of his early novels set during the Second World War.  The novel is about the residents in Midaq Alley, an impoverished part of Cairo city. The World War has wrought changes in the city: It  brought electricity (the new radio in Kirsha's cafe), it brought money (mercenary soldiers) and it brought a collapse of the traditional value systems.  And no one in Midaq Alley escapes these influences. There is no single protagonist in this novel, but one dominant theme--self-indulgence at any cost. It is no wonder then that these people face the tragic consequences of their desire for money and sensual pleasures.  Critics claim that the novel is about the conflict between the past and the present and the ever changing value system.  But I disagree.  It is about human failings, and about overreach.
Midaq Alley is home to Kirsha's cafe , Uncle Kamil who has a sweet shop,  Abbas the barber, the baker Jaada and his wife Husniya, Umm Hamida a marriage broker and her foster daughter Hamida, Zaita a beggar maker, a "dentist" Dr. Bushi, Salim Alwan a perfume merchant and Mrs.Saniya Afifi the landlady.

Of these, Hamida occupies quite a large role in the book. An adopted daughter, growing up in a lower middle class environment, she feels no particular attachment to her mother or to any of her neighbors.  She dreams of wealth and control over men.  She knows she is attractive and wants to ensnare the right kind of men--those that are rich and powerful.   Initially, she latches on to Abbas the barber, as a stop gap solution no doubt caught in his enthusiasm and his earnest promise to earn more money.  But visions of slaving over a hot stove, leading the dull life of a housewife with nothing but the next pregnancy to look forward to, quickly cures her of her love for Abbas.  While the naive Abbas is away in the army making an honest living, she transfers her attention to the rich Salim Alwan who is lusting for her anyway.  A freak heart attack forces Salim out of her life and into a life of an invalid.  However, that works in Hamida's favor too because she now realizes that prostitution is her calling; she is a "whore by instinct"(205).  Seduced by the pimp Ibrahim Faraj she embarks on her new fulfilling career.  She will not be completely happy, though, till she has subjugated the pimp and given herself emotional power over him.  She appeals to Abbas,   Now a rejected, angry and jealous suitor, he agrees to defend her "honor" only to learn that her honor has been bought and sold several times to the British soldiers.  Totally out of control with rage and frustration, Abbas hurls a beer bottle at her face wounding her.  He is beaten to death by the  soldiers.

Read more »