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‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ by Chigozie Obioma: Minority report

This Booker shortlisted novel interweaves post-modern Nigeria, its chequered past and its traditional beliefs to create a tragedy that is all-too familiar to us in India

A poultry farmer with a secondary school certificate cannot marry the college-educated daughter of a wealthy family and expect to live happily ever after. It is simply not allowed. Not in India and not in Nigeria. Two different nations that bear the scars of their colonial legacy with varying degrees of unease. In his second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, Chigozie Obioma weaves this trope of ill-fated love into an intricate tragedy where the weft of post-modern Nigeria interlaces with the warp of traditional Igbo beliefs. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the novel holds its own against offerings from heavyweights like Salman Rushdie.

Across the chasm

While driving to his farm in Umuahia in south-east Nigeria with eight newly bought fowl squawking in the back of his van and insects dashing against the windshield to “burst like miniature fruits,” Chinonso Solomon Olisa encounters a woman attempting to jump off a bridge. He talks her down by blindly flinging two protesting chickens over the fecund river Amatu. As they listen in the darkness to the birds hitting the water, Chinonso feels an indescribable link to the young woman, “as if they had

‘An Orchestra of Minorities’ by Chigozie Obioma: Minority report

both become lone witnesses to some inestimable secret crime”. The two go their separate ways, one perhaps to her mansion with its marble floors, and the other to his squalid farm.

A second encounter cements their relationship, the kind that 26-year-old Chinonso — who lost his mother as a child, buried his father recently, and is estranged from his sister — has never experienced before. Ndali is the daughter of a prominent family. She was born abroad. She drives an Audi. Her parents plan to send her to the U.K. for her M.Phil. Their romance lays bare the class divide, marked not just by wealth but also by Ndali’s ease with the “White Man’s language”, a description of English that Obioma uses throughout the novel as if to stress the chasm that colonialism introduced and society nurtured.

Chi’s story

For his temerity in breaching this divide and his desire to marry her, Chinonso is punished. A victim in this Hardyesque tragedy, he is humiliated again and again and again. In a sequence of events that’s all too familiar in classist and casteist India, he is rejected by Ndali’s parents at their very first meeting, and later beaten up at her father’s birthday party.

Unwilling to give up, he decides to get a degree so that he will become worthy of Ndali. A friend, Jamike, convinces him that a foreign degree is the answer. He sells his ancestral property and gives the money to Jamike, who organises his enrolment in a college in Cyprus. Chinonso learns too late that he has been cheated. In Europe, where the colour of his skin and unfamiliarity with the language set him apart, he becomes a victim of racism. He is falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned.

These trials are narrated by Chinonso’s chi, the guardian spirit who bears witness to his life. In Igbo cosmology, while humans exist in material form, they do not stand alone. Nigerian author Chinua Achebe describes the chi as a human being’s other identity in spiritland — his spirit-being complementing his terrestrial being. The novel opens with the chi’s supplication to the creator asking for mercy on behalf of his host, who has done what the mother goddess forbids: harm a pregnant female. This literary device saves the novel from becoming a cliché. The chi, who has lived many lives through hosts, often digresses to shed light on slavery, the Biafran war, the spirit world... glimpses into the tapestry of modern and traditional Nigeria, much more than just the novel’s central characters.

Benign spirit

Last year, the Igbo-Tamil writer, Akwaeke Emezi, took on mental illness in her debut novel, Freshwater, to give voice to a more malevolent spirit inhabiting the protagonist’s body. Fragmented and harsh, but no less beautiful, Freshwater delved into the merging of the spiritual and physical worlds. Obioma’s chi is benign, more lyrical in comparison. Like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, it narrates the events in Chinonso’s life, and its inability to lead its host away from a path that ends in flames.

For while Chinonso may be a good man, he is also capable of extreme violence, which for some reason does not repel Ndali. During their courtship, he recalls how he protected his flock from a hawk. Not content with maiming it with his catapult, Chinonso bound its wings, tied it to a tree, and struck a nail into its throat. Ndali sees this act of crucifixion as a testimony of love for his flock.

Obioma does little to justify her love for Chinonso. She seems content to tend to the fowl. Another jarring note is his insistence on calling her Mommy. “Every good woman is my mommy,” he says. In some ways, she is diminished, her purpose reduced to a vehicle that takes him down the road to hell.

If Obioma’s first novel, The Fishermen, was a modern-day retelling of the Cain and Abel story, then Orchestra is a more ambitious endeavour. Chinonso’s father describes the crying of the birds, the burial song for the one that was taken by a hawk, as an orchestra of minorities. In the end, it is the wails of the downtrodden that reach a crescendo. In the words of the chi: “All those who have been chained and beaten… who have been silenced, raped, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.” Obioma’s tale is uncomfortably close to home.

An Orchestra of Minorities; Chigozie Obioma, Hachette, ₹599

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 11:20:26 AM |

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