The master story teller who decolonised our minds

For so long has Ngugi wa Thiong’o been in the mix at the annual Nobel Prize conversations that many believe he has already won the prize. But the Kenyan, who turned 80 last year, has consistently missed out while even Bob Dylan and Kashuo Ishiguro have been honoured.

At an intimate, animated, worshipful gathering in Bengaluru recently, I toyed with the idea of asking him how he felt about this. Midway through the session I suddenly knew what he would say:Success is the work itself, not the prizes it attracts. The greatest writer of our generation might, like, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Joyce and Nabokov miss out. It would be an honour, though, for the Nobel to have him in their list.

Ngugi has changed the language of discourse in African literature, written the textbook on decolonising the mind and language as power, but he remains in essence a teller of stories and a monument to the undying spirit of man. “What’s good about writing is that when you write novels, people can see that the problems in one region are similar to problems in another,” he told a rapt audience.

Some four decades ago, Ngugi, who had written his early plays and novels in English, decided – while in prison – to write only in his native language Gikuyu. It didn’t limit his audience; it gained him the admiration and gratitude of his own people. Language is not merely a tool of communication, he said, it is a carrier of culture. It wasn’t commercial suicide as widely anticipated; instead his works were absorbed into popular culture, as a reviewer pointed out.

It scared the authorities. President Daniel arap Moi even ordered the arrest of Matigari, one of Ngugi’s fictional characters, the asker of troubling questions!

The prison followed a play (I Will Marry When I Want) and the questioning and satirizing of local oppressors who had replaced the colonial oppressors. “One day, I was this successful author, next day I was in maximum security prison,” Ngugi recalled. “The walls were grey all around; it was meant to break our spirit.”

Ngugi wrote Devil on the Cross while in prison. Secretly, and on toilet paper!

Great writers have passion and energy; Ngugi, a generous man, has more: an enormous gift for happiness. He was the one who was sent to school (thanks to his mother), he was the one who was chosen to write an original play in an inter-collegiate competition, he was the one who survived a horrific physical attack in Kenya. The gratitude shines through. His eyes have an unusual mix of sadness and gaiety; it hints at a profound understanding, which his books confirm. He could be bitter and cynical, he has chosen instead to be gregarious and affable.

“Time always extends itself to accommodate what you want to do,” Ngugi said in response to a question. Will time extend itself to accommodate his Nobel? Perhaps we need him to win – if only to restore our faith in the rightness of things.

Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 10:11:41 PM |

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