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The centre need not hold

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

Perhaps because we were forced to memorize rather than learn, I recall nothing of the SLC English-language curriculum. As for literature there was none. But we schoolboys had our stocks of pulp fiction, gradually supplanted by the slower, profounder pleasures of the Victorian classics.

With O-Level Literature, an entirely different proposition. “Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements”, began the slim novel we were assigned, at first glance not too different from an SLC English reader. But Chinua Achebe (an exotic name to those of us accustomed to Toms, Dicks and Haris) quickly eased into a unique idiom, the deceptive simplicity of his language camouflaging a fluency imbued with the richness of Ibo culture. Here were wrestlers named after cats, and men who battled spirits of the wild. Like Okonkwo’s fame, Achebe’s masterpiece fanned through our sensibilities “like a bush-fire in the harmattan”.

Things Fall Apart provided perhaps the clearest articulation of how colonialism obtruded upon traditional society. In a country that had never been colonized, we were nonetheless passable students of history. We could empathize with the agony of Okonkwo and his people, the fabric of their society shredded by the likes of the Commissioner, who imagines summing up the experience in a “reasonable paragraph” to be inserted into a book titled The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.

Okonkwo was by no means a virtuous warrior, but Achebe framed his argument in a straightforward manner, and Things Fall Apart was the perfect primer for the flood of post-colonial literature that was to follow. There was something liberating and thrillingly relevant about Marquez, Llosa, Rushdie, Rhys and Coetzee that Dickens and Hardy (and even Stephen King) couldn’t quite match. Edward Said furnished the theory to counter the whole edifice of colonialism and then, of course, we had to reconsider which side Achebe and his English-penning brethren were on. Famously challenged by Nigerian critic Obi Wali, who declared that African writers who eschewed African languages were heading up a dead end, Achebe maintained that one could use the language of colonizers to infiltrate their ranks, but that in any case he had no choice, having English at his disposal. And how he disposed of it! The power of his writing, sparse and evocative, was instrumental in convincing generations of writers that it was possible to master a language not wholly one’s own, or at least not exclusively. The debate surrounding his choice, fuelled by such luminaries as the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o (who began in English but later switched to his native Gĩkũyũ), sensitized us to the pitfalls.

Achebe actually had a practical reason to use English (if he needed one), given that he did not have what he considered a satisfactory version of his native, orally rooted Ibo to work in. Nepalis writing in English face no such lack, but English-medium educations conspire to limit them to oral Nepali. And writing the Nepali experience in English is no cakewalk, as much as those on the safe side of the barrier berate them for their failings. You dwell too much on cultural detail, and you’re accused of ethnographic writing. You transliterate to preserve the essence of the original, and it comes out pleasing no one. You import words wholesale – swearwords, yes, for who can translate the meat of the language – and you’re faced with either incomprehension or approbation. The Angreji bark is a mongrel one, and one that must build an architecture specific to the cultures it straddles. Chinua Achebe, among others, showed us the way forward. We’ll never forget how Things Fall Apart, somehow, brought it all together.

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