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Abdulrazak Gurnah and the vast world of the Indian Ocean

The 2021 Nobel laureate for literature has an unparalleled felicity for stitching together histories of Arab sultanates, Indian merchants, and European colonisers in the 19th century with moving stories of refugees in the postcolonial world

Written by Bala Venkat Mani | New Delhi |
Updated: October 23, 2021 7:24:12 am
Set in the erstwhile Sultanate of Zanzibar in the last years of the 19th century, Paradise tells the tale of a 12-year-old boy Yusuf, whose father’s hotel business is crumbling. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

“The Indian knows how to deal with the European. We have no choice but to work with him.” These short, crisp sentences that contain centuries of interlocked histories of Indians, Arabs, Africans, and Europeans are from the novel, Paradise (1994). The author is Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Britain-based Tanzanian author who received the 2021 Nobel Prize in literature.

Set in the erstwhile Sultanate of Zanzibar in the last years of the 19th century, Paradise tells the tale of a 12-year-old boy Yusuf, whose father’s hotel business is crumbling. To help repay the family debt, Yusuf must forcibly leave his idyllic surroundings and enter the workforce. With the worldly uncle Aziz, Yusuf moves and resides in towns and various ports along the Arabian Sea where Indian merchants from Gujarat have set up shops and a thriving money-lending business. They are no kinder to the local Arabs or Africans than the new kind of colonial masters, the Germans. Following the Berlin Conference of 1884-84, also known as the “Scramble for Africa,” the German empire building is in full swing. They’re building railroads and acquiring financial and political power.

To reduce Paradise to a simple fictionalisation of European colonialism would be a mistake. Gurnah tells in this novel a captivating story of a young boy’s coming of age along with the transitional moment in the history of a fast-changing economic and political landscape in East Africa. But there is something else, something precious and unique about Gurnah’s storytelling — a very palpable presence of the Indian Ocean. Through this fluid stage, Gurnah maps the commercial and trade routes that span from the Gulf peninsula through Oman and Muscat, touching on India’s ports on the Arabian sea, all the way to Zanzibar, which joined Tanganyika to become the postcolonial state of Tanzania in 1964.

Born in 1948, Gurnah was 14 when the Zanzibar Revolution took place, and the Arab Sultan Jamshid bin-Abdullah was overthrown by the African population. As Gurnah recalls in an interview he gave in 2019, the violence that ensued to replace the Arab and Indian dominance on governance and commerce respectively disrupted many lives. At 17, Gurnah moved to England to pursue higher education, not knowing whether he would return, and made his professional career as a professor of literature at the University of Kent, and his creative career as a novelist.

The hallmark of Gurnah’s writing is the unparalleled facility to stitch together histories of Arab sultanates, Indian merchants, and European colonisers in the 19th century with moving stories of refugees in the postcolonial world of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The interconnected tales of Africa, the Arab world, and South Asia that Gurnah tells grants him a unique position in world literature today. His novels are also accounts of the changing face of Great Britain and Europe at large.

Hassan Omar, the 15-year-old protagonist of Memory of Departure (1988), moves from a village by the sea to Nairobi, working his way through a multinational, multicultural metropolis full of conflicts and tensions that come with class divisions that are part of colonial and post-colonial societies. Admiring Silence (1996) narrates the trials and tribulations of life after migration, as the unnamed narrator, a professor at an English university now living in the suburbs, faces a life of marginalisation and minoritisation deep in the interiors of a colonial power. In By the Sea (2001), Saleh Omar, naïve, resourceful, but full of hope and desire for survival, tries to enter Britain on a fake passport. His story is narrated by Latif Mahmud, a student who has an (East) German visa, thus also giving glimpses of life behind the iron curtain at the height of the Cold War. Afterlives (2020) returns to the colonial roots of multiple displacements and divisions, picking up strains of Paradise. The novel is set in the years of the Maji Maji uprising in German East Africa in 1904, the first genocide planned and executed by Germans to quash the Nama and Herero uprising, a blotch on German history that has yet to find a narrative as compelling and urgently written even in contemporary Germany.

Gurnah is the storyteller of a global history of the Indian Ocean. The award underlines the significance of refugee narratives and grants due recognition to African literatures, especially literature from Tanzania. But his works also draw attention to a part of the world often unknown or wilfully ignored despite its global connectivity. Akin to Abhimanyu Unnuth (1937-2018), the foremost Mauritian Hindi novelist who captured the lives of Girmitiya in Lal Pasina (1977), or Amitav Ghosh who follows their voyage in Sea of Poppies (2008), Gurnah’s novels open passages of regional historical entanglements, of centuries of migration to and from East Africa, and the post-1960 history of white- and blue-collar migration of Indian and East-African immigrants to Oman, Muscat, and the Gulf Peninsula.

Peaceful co-existence of multilingual, multi-religious, multicultural communities, which is often punctured by strife based on religious, racial, and class-based discriminations are as much part of Gurnah’s stories as universal human emotions such as friendships, families, love, betrayal, deception, and isolation. In Gurnah’s novels, the Indian Ocean acquires the stature of a Kathasaritsagar, an ocean of streams of stories in which the past collides with the future, at times turbulent, at times calm.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 22, 2021 under the title ‘Gurnah and the sea of stories’. The writer is Professor of German and World Literature, former director of Center for South Asia, and a Race, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity Senior Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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