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Memory of Departure – Abdulrazak Gurnah

by Venky

A vast, rich and diverse body of colonial and post-colonial writing has embellished the global literary landscape. Educational in content and introspective in value, these works are invaluable, not just from the perspective of readers who have personally experienced the vicissitudes of colonialism, but also from the viewpoint of those who have been spared such misery, fortuitously so. In fact both the colonized and colonizer alike, would immensely benefit from an impartial assimilation of such literature. Hence one learns as much (if not more) from a critical reading of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” or “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe, as one would, from attending a course on colonial literature in any hallowed University.

The 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature went to the well renowned Zanzibari writer, Abdulrazak Gurnah. According to the jury, the honour was bestowed upon Gurnah for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”. ‘Memory of Departure” represents the very first foray of the author in his chosen sphere. Exploring the subtle and delicate theme of colonialism and migration, Gurnah narrates the internal convulsions and external conurbations that rack the existence of Omar Hassan, a fifteen year old living a life of squalor in a costal town in Africa.

Seeking liberation from an extraordinarily abusive father – a man of God by day and a scourer of whores by night – and a wretched life led in abject penury, Hassan dreams about escaping to the more benign and benevolent environs of London. Fate however contrives to put paid to his hopes every single time he seeks the lure of freedom. However, there remains one optimistic avenue hitherto explored. A potential largesse, courtesy a maternal Uncle making his living in Nairobi. Bwana Ahmed bin Khalifa wallows in opulence, a direct outcome of a flourishing business that is a mixture of both correct and crooked. However the pathway to richness was laid when the proceeds of the sale of a family business was inherited by Ahmed alone, when ideally the money ought to have been shared between him and his sibling, Hassan’s mother. Thus Hassan’s redemption lies totally in the hands of his prosperous Uncle. But is Ahmed’s heart as large as his mansion?

While the treatment of the subjects of migration and colonialism themselves are bold, the book seems to revel in the portrayal of filth. Cringeworthy and at times even retch inducing, the pages contain uninhibited and repeated references to body fluids and sodomy. Hence you find page after page after page where a small and helpless schoolboy is being violated by a bully from his own class, or where a geriatric is squatting to complete his ablutions. Hassan’s older brother Said, who meets with an untimely and unfortunate end, almost makes it a hobby to ‘fuck kids in the arse’, while Hassan’s abusive father has served a prison sentence for ‘rupturing’ a small boy.

Repeated references to excreta, and sodomy dilutes to a great extent, the larger message intended to be parlayed by the author to his readers. Even Hassan’s grandmother is not spared. Ravaged by senility the elderly woman resorts to storing her urine in a bucket by her bedside and once it is filled, taking it and throwing the contents at a goat belonging to an old owner of a brothel. This nauseating act is devoted quite a bit of coverage, while the storage containers alternate between buckets and paper bags.

Maybe these sickening references are contextual. Maybe such graphic descriptions are nothing but a fictional representation of the unfortunate events that actually play out in many parts of the world. Either way, the treatment of the same could have been exercised with better assiduousness and  discretion. The author could have perhaps refrained from elaborating on how the most sodomised, and by logical extension, traumatized kid in school gets his shorts pulled down at random by teasing and tormenting bullies, before getting small stones shoved up his rectal passage. There could have been avoided recurring references to people relieving themselves and their preferences in executing and exercising such natural acts.

Hassan’s journey, his successes and defeats, his determination and despair, all make for some important reading from the perspective of understanding, absorbing and appreciating the abject miseries staring the face of millions in underprivileged and underdeveloped countries that have shrugged off the yoke of colonialism. The way in which Hassan’s mother and sister Zakiya choose to meet their fate speaks volumes about the sheer lack of options for the once oppressed and newly liberated. While Hassan’s mother is the epitome of resignation, choosing to meet the blows of both unforgiving fate as well as cruel husband with silent reconciliation, Zakiya determined to rebel against an unjust society chooses to make a statement using her own body. Strutting around with swaying hips, she offers herself to all who can afford her thereby not just bringing disrepute to her family, but also wrecking her life in the process. But what Zakiya does is not much different from what her father has been doing all along. If she is the perpetrated, then her violent father is the perpetrator. Giving himself in with gay abandon to drinking and every other act of debauchery possible, Zakiya’s father is the cause that spawns all unfortunate consequences.

While Independence for many erstwhile colonies, represents a tangible and symbolic disengagement from the tyrannical yoke of colonization, the liberated nations often find themselves inextricably, interminably, and innately wedded to the constructs of colonialism. Hence, the urgent and indispensable need for them to transform as nations imbued by a decolonial conscience rather than being misled by the smug and false comfort offered by post-colonial philosophies.

While Gurnah’ s book attempts to deal with the above in a courageous manner, the perfectly avoidable obsession with filth takes away the nub of the message intended to be conveyed, a message that is most important and is the need of today.

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