Chinua Achebe- the father of modern African literature- is no more. He is important, to all of us, not just as an author but also as a voice. His works not just broadened the world of literature but also broadened the meaning- inclusive of role and responsibility- of a creative artist, viewing novelist as teacher.
In one of his essays on language he says that man in his long evolutionary history has scored few greater success than the creation of human society. He, in the same essay, later says that the key to formation of human society is language. Because he realized this power of language he could spot the reverse of it i.e. language creating hierarchies in the mind and thus dividing the world into highs and lows. He not just spotted them and critiqued them, like in his famous talk critiquing Joseph Cornard’s novel Heart of Darkness and its colonial view of Africa exposing the blindness of the west that calls Africa dark, but also used language as a counter force through his creative and critical works. His words were not just speaking for Africa but also to Africa and also the West, teaching it to view history from the below. Being the father of modern African literature he began the re-imagining of Africa and fighting the western image of Africa with and within the language of the colonizer i.e. English itself. He used the master’s language against the master, thus inviting liberation of both the colonizer and the colonized from the baggage of colonialism, colonial images and thus humanizing both.
This use of master’s language was criticized by Ngugi-Wa Thiango in his powerful work ‘Decolonizing The Mind‘ holding the opinion that the mind gets colonized also by the language as it “is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture” and hence suggesting abandoning of the English language, inviting authors to write in native language. Ngugi later wrote all his works in Gikuyu and gave up English as a medium of expression, completely. Though it is a highly valid argument by Ngugi the limitation came in terms of Ngugi not being able to reach- his creative works, his message, his image breaking and image making- to a larger world, while Achebe reached a larger mass and thus altered the dominant image to a large extent. Though he used the language of the colonizer, for Achebe it was necessary that in the usage of English one did not forget the true expression and experience of the soil. He was of the opinion that, “The African writer should aim to use English in a way that brings out his message best without altering the language to the extent that its value as a medium of international exchange will be lost. He should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.” His view had a dream of decolonizing even the colonizer’s mind and the language of the colonizer too.
In the year 1984, Siddhi- a tribe of African origin (brought to India by the Portuguese), in Manchikere (Karnataka) performed a play titled Kappu Janara Kempu Neralu which was an adaptation of Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. This play opened the communication between the Siddhi tribe and the world outside and made it possible for the Siddhis to fight the stigma attached. It, while liberating the Siddhis from the stigma, it also liberated the world outside from their bias and their misconception. The politics and creative power of Achebe reached to his long lost separated brothers too.
When he visited Mysore once the Dalit activists took him to the Dalit colonies. He was very disturbed seeing the condition of the Dalits which made him say, “In Africa it is considered sin if the blood of God’s children is spilled on the ground. Looks like here it is considered to be virtuous to spill the blood of Dalits on mother earth.” It is no mystery to understand how Achebe was able to understand the plight of Dalits in India and how the tribes in India could relate to the creative work of Achebe. As Faiz said, “Badaa Hai Dard Ka Rishtaa…” Hence when Wole Soyinka says the loss is “personal” it is personal for us too and when he says he has lost a brother, we also realize that we too have lost a brother.
Rest in peace Chinua Achebe.
[The title is borrowed from Chinua Achebe’s essay of the same title]
While travelling on Facebook this evening eyes fell on a status update by a food certifying team named The 3 Hungry Men. It was regarding them hosting a competition at the annual fest of National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal. The status update read thus:
Incident 2013 NITK Surathkal on 16th & 17th of March where over 5000 Students all over INDIA will be Witnessing the HUNGRIEST PEOPLE OF INDIA !
Just for clarification when checked the website of Incident 2013 and found them having advertised about it in their website as: “This INCIDENT we are calling on to all those foodies. Forget those low-carb diets and develop into having some frivolous fun and frolic.”
This competition is nothing but vulgar, to say the least, especially in a country like ours where hunger is the living reality of millions, where every second child born is malnourished as reported by the 2010 global hunger index.
In a country like ours where ‘deaths without food’ is a day to day reality, holding a competition of food eating and calling it ‘death by food’ is, as cliched as it might sound, an insult to the actual hungry people or to be more specific the actual ‘hungriest people of India’.
It is disturbing to note that the participants are being referred to as the “hungriest people of India” to mean those who can consume the most is the hungriest. This redefinition of hungry is a step further in making the already invisible hungry non-existent in the consciousness of the people.
In his fortnightly column titled Barefoot (in The Hindu) the Gandhi of our times Harsh Mander did a series of articles on hunger. One can never forget the stories of mothers training their kids to live with hunger, how to sleep hungry, mothers dipping their fingers in tobacco or some other intoxicant and keeping it in the child’s mouth when the child cries out of hunger and thus putting the child to sleep forcibly when hungry, or beating their kids until they sleep when they cry out of hunger, of women searching for undigested grain in the dung and burrowing in the stores of field rats.Harsh Mander’s team researching on hunger also came across a women from the Dalit Madiga caste in Andhra Pradesh who died of hunger. When she died the greatest regret of her son was that he couldn’t follow the custom of their caste i.e. to tie some grains of rice to the edge of the saree of a women who dies before she is buried in an unmarked grave. His mother was buried as she had lived- without a handful of rice.
Amidst such harsh and cruel realities how can a competition of food eating be held or even be conceived as an idea? When millions go to sleep hungry every night in our country how right would it be to have competition over eating and considering the competitors as the hungriest? It is indigestible. Harsh Mander in his recent book Ash In The Belly rightly writes, “India’s surging middle class is often dismissive when reminded that it coexists with a much larger population with stagnant or falling living standards and millions who struggle daily to feed their families and themselves.”
The battle against hunger needs an atmosphere of empathy. These vulgar competitions will, if not anything, move us further away from sensitivities and sensibilities including empathy and will weaken the battle against hunger by making the real hungry invisible and non-existent in the collective consciousness. The battle against hunger demands, apart from fights for a law on food security, protest against such vulgar competitions called ‘death by food’ for deaths without food stares at us.