This is the first of five posts in a series reviewing the shortlist for the Caine Prize for African Writing. This week’s short story is “Bombay’s Republic” by Rotimi Babatunde of Nigeria. You can download the story as a .pdf here. Like last year, you can find links to a growing number of fellow bloggers’ posts at the bottom of this one.
This story starts off about an African soldier’s experience fighting in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War and after he returns. But the story’s motif is the expansion (and disruption) of his perception of reality. Bombay, the soldier, encounters numerous realizations that confound and expand his understanding of what is feasible. Some of the villagers in Ceylon visit the African soldiers in their showers to see if they really have tails, which Bombay finds to be absurd. The Japanese soldiers flee his platoon because they do not want to be eaten. Others dismember the bodies of dead African soldiers so they don’t come back to life. Time and again Bombay hears things about his people that he can’t even fathom. He seems to take it all in without comment, simply digesting the new ideas.
But another thing that he couldn’t fathom before war is the vulnerability of the Europeans. The story opens with a reference to the black Native Police constable saluting the white District Officer. “This was how the world was and there was no reason to think it could be otherwise,” Babatunde writes. But after Bombay’s captain goes mad when their search party comes across the tortured remains of his lieutenant, Bombay’s reality expands again. Bombay realizes that the captain had been transformed into nothing but an animal, and that perhaps the white District Officer back home could also be reduced to such a beast. War is constantly reshaping his understanding of reality. Driving this point home is Bombay’s killing of a rogue white soldier. Bombay imagines a scenario straight out of Things Fall Apart, but instead he is applauded for his quick action – flipping the traditional colonial reality on its head. The war ends, and Bombay goes home with new perspective.
But Bombay’s perceptions reach beyond reality, and he follows a different path than you might expect. While we expect his new take on life to disrupt the status quo of society, Bombay turns in on himself. Instead of joining activists after the war, he eventually calls the old jailhouse home and unilaterally declares his home a sovereign nation. The adults in the community mock him and ostracize him as he crafts busts of idols for his new country. He spends the rest of his years considering himself as the head of state of one of the first independent African nations, winning dozens of elections.
It’s no coincidence that his “independent” residence was an old jailhouse. Before leaving Asia at the war’s end, his platoon leader lamented that they were on the Forgotten Front of the war. Indeed, much of the fighting in South Asia is marginalized when compared to the rest of the Pacific. Bombay says that he doesn’t need memory, but his return to his home country is marked by his self-isolation from the changes around him. His reality becomes distorted upon his return, as he acts less and less like a decorated veteran and more and more severed from society.
I was expecting his encounters at war to shape his life back home – perhaps as a dissident or at least a sympathizer to the revolution. Instead, they changed him into a man who spends his time telling stories (to children about leeches instead of to adults about the Europeans’ war), until he finally sequestered himself in his jail. There’s a direct clash with what his experiences should have taught him, and what he did with the new knowledge. After freeing himself in Asia from the constricting realities of colonial life, he became constrained to his own jail in his own country.
And after seeing that a white man could be reduced to a creature and hearing that some people believe Africans have tails, Bombay transforms at home. He sees himself as turning from a veteran into a head of state, but those around him see him turn into a beast. His skin is dotted with burn scars from leeches. When tax collectors bother him at his house, he urinates on them. People even begin referring to him as a leopard. Ultimately, Bombay does change the status quo back home, but only for himself and his republic, not for the society around him. As the final sentences point out, he considers those of his birth country to be foreign, because he has separated himself from them (and they have kept their distance from him). To them, he’s just a memory, something which he never really cared for anyways.