Posted On : February 16 2018
Writer : Sucheta Chakraborty
Bookaholicanonymous thanks Sucheta Chakraborty for agreeing to write this piece especially for us, and for introducing us to one of the most prolific writer and thinker of our times.
“Listening to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the renowned Kenyan writer and Marxist thinker, as he spoke on colonising of language in Kolkata, was a Valentine’s Day treat” Sucheta
Sucheta Chakraborty completed graduation with Philosophy (Hons) from Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata. Then she pursued PG Diploma in Journalism and Mass Communication from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. She has worked with ‘Indian Express’ and ‘The Telegraph’ as a political correspondent. She loves music, gardening, reading books and thinking and is a trained Rabindrasangeet singer too.
Listening to post colonial theorist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o live is a treat, a treat to the mind and to the soul. The legendary Kenyan writer and Marxist thinker was in Kolkata on February 14, 2018, to interact with Kolkatans about his novels, particularly his last novel ‘Secure the Base’ published in 2016, at Victoria Memorial Hall. Moderating the show was Sudhanva Deshmukh, a well known theatre activist, actor, publisher and a cyclist. The talk show was organised by Seagull Foundation.
The conversation kicked off with Sudhanva enquiring about James Ngugi and what all has happened to him. “I changed my name when I saw the light. How can I go back to darkness after seeing the light? It’s impossible. Am not here to please anyone,” said the Kenyan novelist with non-chalant ease. He talked at length about colonisation of language and identity. Initially he wrote in English under the name of James Ngugi. He wrote ‘Weep Not Child’, ‘The River Between’ and ‘The Grain of Wheat’. But things changed when he was invited to attend the International Pen Conference in 1966, in New York when he was a post graduate student at University of Leeds. “In one of the sessions, where Pablo Naruda of Chile was on the podium, one of the invitees, an Italian writer who authored ‘Bread and Wine’ was complaining about lack of Italian books translated into English. He said Italian is not like one of those Bantu languages where there are one or two words in the vocabulary. I was so disturbed after hearing it. I decided to protest and raised my hand. I was representing Africa. Africa has been attacked on several occasions. I said Sir I can assure you that there are more than one or two words in the vocabulary.” This incident set the ball rolling. Serious struggle over the language and identity started. The final blow came when Ngugi was imprisoned. “There is an Indian connection to it. I heard a story about Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore had said that if one does not know his mother tongue then he doesn’t know any language. I was so motivated. I wrote ‘Decolonising the Mind’ in my native Gikuyu language and under the name of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o,” said the 80 year old Kenyan essayist. He wrote on toilet paper from prison. “I used resources around me in confinement. I used all of them. Everything that was used to put me down was used by me as my strength. I didn’t have an alternative but to be strong,” said Ngugi.
He talks about how a coloniser first attacks a colonised country by asking them to forsake their own language and then change individual names. “Name is an identity. It represents who we are. When Japan attacked Korea, it had asked Koreans to forsake their language and then ordered them to take up Japanese names. It’s how your identity, your language is colonised. People then feel embarrassed to speak their mother language. It’s a question of power. The colonised people are using the language of the coloniser to create an identity for themselves,” said he. Ngugi talks about ‘Devil on the Cross’, which is a satire. It’s a funny story about thieves and robbers and how a robber became a philosopher. “I was using the negative to create positive,” said Thiong’o.
The most venerated African writer who is a Marxist intellectual talked about his much acclaimed political write up ‘Penpoints, Gunpoints and Dreams’, an essay published in 1998 that deals with space. It raises the issue of art and political power in society. It raises the issue of the relationship between the state of art and that of State particularly their struggle for the control of performance space in territorial, temporal and social and yes psychic as well. “Space can be contested. It can be claimed, reclaimed. Can be filled, they are charged spaces having history. There is no empty space. Space is most contested, even body space.”
Talking about his latest novel ‘Secure the Base’ published in 2016, he said that though Africa has not played an active role in the history of nuclear race but nonetheless it plays an important role in the development of nuclear machinery. “Africa is abundant in natural resources and West has always taken African resources without giving anything back to Africa. Outflow is always greater than the outflow. Thus it has created a divide, a rift that has widened and deepened at the same time. And therefore there is inequality. There must be equal give and take. ‘Secure the Base’ is also about contempt of other lives, particularly black lives. It’s very much like that of body shamming or bullying where the subject is bullied so much so that they start to hate their body, their self. So it’s time to come out of such colonial set up and secure one’s base.” It’s a struggle of one’s identity, of collective self.
Listening to Ngugi Wa Thiong’o nourished my mind, he stirred my thoughts. Thank you Ngugi Wa Thiong’o for helping me to get to know a completely different perspective of ideas, of language, identity, space, and body.