Friday, May 31, 2013

Being Americanah in Bangalore: Not a Review of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's latest

This post was meant to start in a very different manner. But then, it rained yesterday in the city. Crawling through the CBD area traffic in an auto with a complaining driver, I saw a car registered with in Madikeri. A KA-12 number plate. And it made me miss home more than I ever have in the last 7-8 months or so. The thought of home. The innocence of home. The mythologies of home. 

I borrow that last line from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's new book Americanah. You know how once in a while you happen upon a book that nearly takes your breathe away? Not just for the sheer brilliance of its writing, but just as much for how timely it is in your life, how much you can relate to it at that particular stage in your life. Americana has been such a book. As was Benyamin's Goat Days, but that book is for another day. 

I have read all of Adichie's books. Found all of them superbly written, but complained that she was getting a bit repetitive in her theme, in her nostalgia, in her meals of warm yam in the houses of Nsukka University. Her latest, thus, did not seem as exciting until I got past the first page. After a long time, here was one book I couldn't put down. I sat up nights, I read on commute, I pushed away work to finish it yesterday. And yesterday, as if to water my own nostalgia for my meals, my land, it rained.

"Nigeria became a place where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil." There was something about reading this line that harked at thoughts I have been trying to not deal with off late. Escapism is a happy enough place. What is home now for me?Where is it? Once you leave, can you ever go back 'home'? Or is it just the memories of home that you go back to. One fine morning it must have been that I woke up to see these questions, lurking by perhaps for a while, suddenly stare me down until I cowered and shrunk under their glare. Then I discovered I did not have to cower as much when I could turn the other way. Not now, I don't have to answer them now.

In the light of this sense of  uprooted-ness, of questions and conflicts, it stung a bit to read Americanah. Adichie's story of Obinze and Ifemelu, their loves and lives spans three continents and many years. It is a tale of loneliness, of moving elsewhere, of looking back, of inventing memories and building myths around old times, of loves and losses, of race and African hair. In the end it is a bit of a fairy tale. I would have liked tragedy, much as I love happy endings. It is about being black and different in America. About bad relationships, deadening jobs, conflicts, growing, in all its drama and routine really. To Adichie's unwavering genius, the heavy handed topic of race and discrimination never overwhelms. It is fantastic storytelling. It is also a study into the conflicts and prejudices of countries and people. Somewhere, in different ways, we all face that. Conflicts of cultures, of city versus small town, of man versus woman, of choking control in relationships. 

Ifemelu starts a blog in America to write about race. It becomes a hugely popular blog. The book could have had a little less of her blog posts, I admit to have skipped over a few. At nearly 500 pages, it is a long book and does stretch a bit in places. But such poetry does Adichie infuse in her sentences that you don't mind. For there are passages you want to read again and again for how they sound in your head. You want to find out what happens when Ifemelu and Obinze meet again, but you also want to read it slowly, savouring, lingering, pushing the end of the book from coming soon. 

In Americanah, I found many questions I have been asking myself. I found some answers too. More importantly, I found that Ifemelu could well have been me, in parts. We all could have been Obinze or Ifemelu. Americanah is a human story after all. It reminds you yet again why you love language, why you crave stories so much. 

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