HomeArts & EntertainmentBooksHT reviewer Farzana Versey picks her favourite read of 2021

HT reviewer Farzana Versey picks her favourite read of 2021

On the very first day of his employment, even before he has started on work, 13-year-old Ugwu has a fair idea that his master Odenigbo is a crazy intellectual, but he’ll always get to eat meat in his house. Biting off chunks of chicken and bread, his hunger satiated he stuffs some more into his pocket to send to his sister.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun was a palpable, even tactile, experience. I could taste the soup and become nauseated at the sight of rats being roasted, and then feel the shame of not understanding tribal sentiment and hunger.

Hunger runs throughout, be it to secede from a country or to fill the belly during a famine, whether it is for love or for revenge. I had no knowledge of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict of the late 1960s in which two million civilians died of starvation alone, but the storytelling wasn’t about that. It took me to the heart of the characters that people it; their acceptance/denial of identity, their exploitation and predation. And about words, said and unsaid.

Igbo, the language, takes on a life of its own, be it Master’s Igbo that “felt feathery in Ugwu’s ears. It was Igbo coloured by the sliding sounds of English” or the dialectical discussions on the Igbo people. As Kainene says, “Socialism would never work for the Igbo. Ogbenyealu is a common name for girls and you know what it means? ‘Not to Be Married by a Poor Man.’ To stamp that on a child at birth is capitalism at its best.”

Farzana Versey (Courtesy the reviewer)

There are moments when the grotesqueness gets enhanced simply because it is portrayed in such a normal fashion. Like the time in the train when a woman beckons the passengers to “come and take a look” into the calabash. It contained her daughter’s head. “Do you know it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair…” she says drily.

At the refugee camp as somebody tunes into Radio Biafra to listen to His Excellency’s speech, Ugwu asks him to switch it off: “I want to hear the birds.”

“There are no birds singing.”

That Adichie made Ugwu, the houseboy, into the chronicler of those times suggests that history can be imagined hope.

Farzana Versey is a Mumbai-based writer. She tweets at @farzana_versey.

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