I decided to review the shortlisted 2012 Caine Prize stories and my first short story is Bombay's Republic by Rotimi Babatunde. I didn't choose to read it first because the writer is Nigerian (although it did help). My criteria for reading these shortlisted stories are two-fold: if they beat the "stereotypical narrative" and if I enjoyed it.
I first learned about the Burma Boys towards the end of last year when I watched Barnaby Phillips documentary on the Burma Boys with my sister at the Life House in Lagos. After the event, she bought a copy of Biyi Bandele's Burma Boy, which I enjoyed. And like I always do when I find something I enjoy, I try and find out as much as possible as I can on it. So obviously I was excited to find out there was a short story about a Burma Boy - even more because it seems that these West African (mostly Nigerian) men who fought in WWII were almost forgotten.
Bombay's Republic begins "with the return of Colour Sergeant Bombay, the veteran who went off with the recruitment officers to Hitler's War as a man and came back a spotted leopard". He now occupies the old jailhouse on the hilltop, but first, we learn his story - him enlisting, his training and his time at the war.
Before the war, Colour Sergeant Bombay believed everything had its place - "a man was still a man and a leopard a leopard, while the old jailhouse was a forsaken place .... [a] white man was the District Officer ... and a black man was the Native Police constable who saluted as the white man passed". Everything changed when he went to war.
While he found the clarity and order in military life satisfactory, there were "things he never knew were possible" - like people thinking he had a tail, that Africans eat people, and that black people could rise from the dead. As the war went on he took delight in knowing that some things were "also possible" - like "one of his imperial masters degenerating into a state so wretched", and being "praised for killing a white man". After the war ended, he like the other soldiers, went home. Unlike the other soldiers, Bombay didn't care about forgetting, as the war and his time in the jungle unlocked something - a new world of possibilities. That was what he was taking home with him.
Colour Sergeant Bombay returned a decorated war hero, but armed with his new found knowledge, what he ended up becoming was not what anyone expected. We find out how he became a spotted leopard, why he inhabits the old jailhouse, why his name is Bombay and even why the story is titled Bombay's Republic, but I won't give that away. You'll just have to read it for yourself. Instead I go back to my two criteria - does it steer away from the "stereotypical narrative" and did I enjoy it?
To answer the first question, I have to say that I genuinely do not have an issue with "The Tragic Continent" narrative. Why? Because war-torn, starving, corrupt Africa exists. What I do have a problem with is that being the only narrative people think exist (or like to focus on). Maybe I do not have an issue with it because I know "the tragic continent" narrative is only one part of the "African story". Yes, we have bad, but we also have good. I have always been aware of the many faces of Africa. Stories that reflect it all do exist, I just don't necessarily think they are all mainstream. Bernardine Evaristo asked: "What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?" I have showcased some of these genres here, which is why I know the diversity of the "African story".
If the criteria was to break away from war-torn, starving, corrupt Africa, then Bombay's Republic did because that was not the focus of the story. To me this was the story of a man who went to a war, which turned his world upside down and taught him things he might never have learned. It's interesting that Bombay never really focused on the war (as bad as it was) but on the possibilities it unlocked for him. Additionally, not that much has been written on the Burma Boys (or not that I know of) so it's nice to read a short story on it. Then again, I might be slightly biased because I genuinely want to read stories about the Burma Boys.
Did I enjoy it? I actually did. I have admitted that the one thing I do not like about short stories is their ability to yank a character away from me once I get to know them. I didn't feel that way with Bombay's Republic. I got to know Colour Sergeant Bombay. I enjoyed the ways in which the racist views of African soldiers were explored. I chuckled at the ridiculous things people thought Africans could do and at Bombay's shock at them thinking he would do things like that. I also enjoyed reading about Bombay's life after the war, particularly him occupying the old jailhouse on the hilltop and what follows after that. I know, longer than usual but all in all an enjoyable read (which is what I always look for).
*Sidenote: While writing this review I found out about Blogging the Caine Prize, 2012 hosted by zunguzungu, where a group of bloggers will read and blog about the shortlisted stories.
Update: Some other blog posts on Bombay's Republic - Mel U, Method to the Madness, Zunguzungu, Backlash Scott, Stephen Derwent Partington, The Oncoming Hope.