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Category Archives: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Finger Puppet – Anu Jayanth

Reading The Finger Puppet on the heels of Lost Flamingoes of Bombay,  was very reassuring – all is not lost with Indian writing.  Which brings me to my pet peeve – that authentic and deserving writers rarely get nominated for those awards. Shashi Deshpande’s In the Country of Deceit was the Indian nominee for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize recently and Siddharth Shangvi’s book has also been nominated for some vague award.  I can see why Aamir Khan doesn’t believe in awards now.

Sorry for the digression, and let me get on with my views on this superb novel. The Finger Puppet is a brilliant book, period. Anu Jayanth knows her craft well which, to put it simply, in the case of a novelist is having a story to tell and saying it well. This is a coming of age book and deals with some uneasy truths and questions several conventional mores. Set in Trichy, the plot revolves around young Tara and her middle class family. Lonely and suffering from a speech impediment Tara creates a finger puppet, Gayatri who becomes her doppelganger and the narrator of the story. The story traces the struggle of Tara to find her identity – from  a timid and diffident pre-teen who is dependent on her puppet to give voice to her feelings and emotions to independence and freedom.

The characterisation is very well done. Gayatri obviously is the most distinctly developed of the lot. However the others are also well drawn, my favourite is Padma as the strong and upright older sister. Haughty Cordelia as the enfant terrible is involuntarily playing the sutradhar. (Anu has created a twist using the name Cordelia, this one is far from long suffering as compared to the original, though she is willing to state her point even in the face of abuse). I am quite impressed at the way Anu has created the character of the abusive Appa. through the eyes of Gayatri. And by that what she has effectively done is create an aura of terror and dark mystery around him. Amma is the weak character and at times is not consistent.

If I thought that God of Small Things and Purple Hibiscus had striking similarities, Anu Jayanth’s book and Adichie’s novel share several more – Tara and Kambli, the relationship between Kambli and Jaja echoes in the one between Tara and Gayatri, Tara’s infatuation with Vedprakash is similar to Kambli’s feelings for Father Amada.  Amma and Mama as the long suffering spouses, the abuse, the abortions, the trauma. And above all the abusive patriarchs Eugene and Mr. Ramakrishnan. I will concede that Anu’s characters are better etched.

Now my criticisms about the book. Anu has tried to pack too much into one book and therefore at times loses grip on an otherwise strong and gripping narrative. It does meander a bit at times and I did skip a few pages. There are instances where she has not effectively connected the dots and some characters and instances hang limply. Also having a twelve year old talking or even thinking on deep philosophical matters is a little far stretched.

My advice – read and be proud of Indian fiction.

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Purple Hibiscus – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Evening Standard said the ‘Purple Hibiscus’ is as revealing as Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’, which I did not really believe. To my amusement I found that the likeness grew stronger as the novel progressed. There are so many striking similarities that at times you wonder if Chimamanda had read Ms. Roy’s book. The sibling attachment, the abusive fathers – Papa and Pappachi, the silent suffering Mama and Mammachi, the biscuit factory and the pickle factory and even the use of the local dialect in both the books. To me the biggest similarity is the relationship between Kambili and Jaja and the asusu anya, the non verbal language of the eyes they share. This is so similar to the ties between Rahel and Estha. Well the differences are in the intensity of the plot and the narrative. While Ms. Roy’s imagery and language have layers and layers of meaning Chimamanda is strikingly simple and direct.

There are several critics that say it is the story of the sexual awakening of a 15 year old, I disagree vehemently. This is more a story of exploitation and liberation; of abuse, domestic and religious; of clash of faiths, of love and responsibility. Kambili and Jaja are the children of Eugene, a rich neo convert, and live their lives in fear and unquestioning obedience to their father. Their lives are dictated by the daily schedule handed down by Papa. Kambili lives in constant terror of her father and does everything to please him and so does her mother. Everything changes when the siblings go to Nsukka to visit their university lecturer aunt, Ifeoma and her children (here again the initial rivalry between the cousins and the final camaraderie is similar to the visit of Sophiemol in Arundhati’s book). In Nsukka they learn to be indepedent and understand the value of tradition and heritage. Here they learn to be free with their thoughts, their fears and their joys. They also learn to question the way they have been ill treated and tortured by their father. In a matter of five days Kambili metamorphises into a woman capable of knowing what love is and Jaja becomes an adult with an acute sense of his responsibility to his family. In death and loss the family is united and hopeful of better times.

Chimamanda’s characterisation is her biggest strength as shown in ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.  She says that she wanted Papa to be a character who did horrible things but was not a monster. Eugene who towers in the book is a fanatic and a sadist. He rules the lives of his family and is a benefactor to all those who live by his tenets and laws. And like all power hungry and egotistical characters, he feels undermined when someone stands upto him be it Papa-Nnukwu, Aunt Ifeoma and finally Jaja. Ifeoma is a brilliant creation, strong, unafraid, practical and very loving. Mama is pusillanimous and irritatingly subservient but ultimately surprises everyone. Kambili is a cloistered teenager who does not trust her feelings and her needs. Jaja is a very strong character – sensitive, rebellious and sacrificing. The relationship between Father Amada and Kambili is a let down  – almost like a chick flick.

I would recommend that readers ideally should try this book before reading her other celebrated novel. ‘Purple Hibiscus’ wilts under the brilliance of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.

 
 

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Half of a Yellow Sun

A stunning book that I hesitated to buy because of all the hype around it. Pardon me, I am a little sceptical when there is a lot of buzz around new books. I regret having bought Red Carpet, Inheritance of Loss, House of Blue Mangoes, Babyji among others. S had picked up the book and convinced me to read it, I agreed half heartedly.

There has been so much written and said about the book and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that I will not attempt too much more. I think she is a brilliant, brave and sensitive writer. The writing at times is so poignant that one is certain that this one developed from personal experiences and personal tragedies. She mentions in one of her interviews that she lost her grandparents and that her father had to flee from the University town during the war.

Half of a Yellow Sun deals with love, relationships, betrayal and distrust. The characters are human and appealing in the fact that they are all grey. Above all, the war is like a character in itself, the puppeteer who controls destinies and actions. The plot develops through the eyes of Ugwu, Olanna and Odenigbo. The novel motors along, almost idyllic at the beginning and the war turns everything topsy turvy. The naive boy Ugwu becomes a soldier and participates in a heinous gang-rape and it signals his passage from innocence to depravity. And interestingly he is the one who finally writes a book on the war and not Richard, the English writer.

Olanna, the beautiful and sensitive heroine goes through love, pain and insecurity and finally loss. Odenigbo is larger than life at the start and ends with a whimper, a far cry from the rebel and activist that he once was. For me Kainene seemed a very interesting person. She is inscrutable and self-absorbed but she also is caring and forgiving in her own way. I like the way ‘the incident’ between Richard and Olanna is kept in suspense and the narrative revolves around it.  The theme is universal and is relevant in any setting.

Just the kind of book one would like to gift to someone. Happy reading.   

 

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