Reading Rotimi Babatunde’s “Bombay’s Republic”

By | May 10, 2012

Caine Prize

Caine Prize (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I decided to pretend that I know something about literature and join the Caine Prize blogathon this year. For an introduction to the blogathon, see Aaron Bady’s post here

My commentary on the first story, Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic (pdf), is below. Other bloggers’ reviews are at the bottom of the page.

The first two-thirds of the story is in some sense a coming of age story. A young man who has probably never left his hometown is made to go and fight a war on behalf of the British Empire in faraway Burma. Though he witnesses brutalities, he comes out of the war with the knowledge that the fantastic was indeed credible. He finds the racist stories that the British had propagated about the savagery and cannibalism of Africans amusing. He had not thought it possible that anybody would think that he could eat human beings, or have a tail. He was surprised that it was possible to be awarded a medal for acting out of fear and not bravery, or that he could be praised for killing a white man. Stephen Derwent Partington describes these ‘surprises’ as ‘a series of miniature rites-of-passage’.

Entangled in the coming of age story is the now well-worn tale of the discovery of the humanity – weaknesses and frailties, actually – of White colonialists. In this story, this is particularly played out in the case of a Captain whose mental health deteriorates in the face of the brutality of war. This general trope is scarcely an original one, at least not since Biyi Bandele wrote Burma Boy. Even before that, in popular discourse, Burma boys were said to have returned with the knowledge of the white man’s weakness and the awareness that they could fight those mere mortals for independence. The veracity of this standard story is not as important as the place it holds as part of the independence struggle lore. I grew up in Nigeria hearing this story. It is therefore refreshing to see that Bombay’s life, in the latter part of the story, does not repeat this cliché but moves towards the fantastic. Bombay, who had learnt that everything is possible, and witnessed the jumbling together of things, the transcendence and unsettling of categories, returns from Burma to inhabit a jailhouse, from which he declares independence from the state in which he was born – a state that was at that particular time in formation, struggling to gain its own independence from the colonial authorities. Actually, in some sense, this is pushing the limits of the boundaries of the possible. Only a person who knows that everything is possible would imagine a jailhouse to be a republic, and one person its entire citizenry.

Bombay’s life, in the latter part of the story, reminds of Fela Kuti’s. It is a life in which the stuff of legends is created in the meeting of the fantastic and the banal. Fela, known as a teller of tall tales himself, had a Republic that he declared as independent of the Nigerian state. He too spent time in prison, and his cell at the Alagbon prisons was called Kalakuta Republic, after his ‘outside world’ Republic.

Even though he does not repeat the Burma returnee cliché Bombay is still recognisable. He is a Big Man who spins wealth out of political power, and whose political sovereignty and legitimacy is fully acknowledged only by himself. In that sense, one can read Bombay’s inhabitation of a jailhouse as a metaphor for the alienation that high political office sometimes imposes on office holders, especially those whose legitimacy is questionable. Over a decade ago, when the wives of Nigerian state governors visited Mrs Mariam Abacha in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja, she remarked that they – the governors’ wives – should endeavour to regularly update the president and first lady about what goes on in the country. For, according to her, it is difficult to keep abreast of happenings in the country when one is in Aso Rock. In the latter part of his life, her husband, Sanni Abacha, rarely left the Villa, trapped in the prison of his own making. The fact that Bombay, whose ‘eyes were opened’ and world expanded, went and lived in a prison also invites reflections on intellectuals who succumb to the trappings of power and delusions of grandeur. Think of Robert Mugabe and Yoweri Museveni.

This story is a good and refreshing departure from the kinds of stories that won the Caine Prize in recent years.

The Caine Prize shortlisted stories:

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