Rotimi Babatunde, “Bombay’s Republic”

I am blogging about the stories shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize, alongside a number of people. There’s a list of links to their thoughts on this story (I’ll be adding to it as more people publish their pieces) at the end of this post. Babatunde’s story is available here, and there’s a discussion at the twitter hashtag #CainePrize.

 

Midway through “Bombay’s Republic” a white soldier explains to Bombay why the Japanese soldiers have been dicing up the bodies of the fallen black soldiers but leaving the white ones intact.

The Japs are convinced black soldiers resurrect,  said an officer, so they dice the corpses to forestall having to kill them twice.

Bombay was incredulous. You mean… they believe it is possible we rise up to continue fighting them after we are killed, he asked.

Yes, the officer replied, chuckling.

Every one of us?

Yes.

Just like Lazarus?

Why?

And like Jesus Christ, your saviour?

A scowl had replaced the smile on the officer’s lips. Yes, he said.

 

I think this exchange is crucial. We’ve already learnt that the Europeans have purposely spread stories about the Africans for their own benefit. “We fuelled those rumours by dropping leaflets on the enemy, warning them that you will not only kill them but you also will happily cook them for supper.” In addition, it’s clear that the officer’s amusement is in part meant to wound. Bombay turns the exchange around by comparing himself and his people not to undead monsters, but to the central figure of the white man’s faith – “your saviour”. It’s the first time we see him using stories to his own advantage.

People who read this blog regularly will probably roll their eyes now, but for me, “Bombay’s Republic” is very much a story about stories and how they are told, and the relationship between stories and the world. In the beginning, Bombay (I’ll return to the issue of his name later) appears to take the world pretty much at face value. The narrative itself shares some of this naïveté.  When attempts to get the young men of Bombay’s town to volunteer for the war fail, reports follow claiming that Hitler himself is at the border. There’s nothing in the text to suggest that these reports are false, other than the reader’s own knowledge of how propaganda works.

Bombay is one of those who volunteers to protect the country. The pages that follow find him constantly coming across new ideas and greeting them all with a sort of innocent-abroad-ish, wide-eyed acceptance. “Bombay’s discoveries of the possible would come faster than the leeches in Burma’s crepuscular jungles”, says Babatunde; he learns that white men can be as vulnerable to death, sickness or madness as any others, that other people manipulate truth for their own gains and that he can do the same. There are a couple of very deliberate literary references made – one of them to H. Rider Haggard, whose stories of Africans are compared to the tales of African savagery that have been fed to the Japanese. The other reference is to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Bombay is reminded of “his countryman Okonkwo whose story would become famous some years after the war”. In referring to the subject of a novel that has not been written yet, Bombay (and Babatunde) claim Okonkwo’s story as history and bestow upon it the status of truth.

It is after he returns from the war that we really see Bombay applying his newfound expertise with stories. In the first paragraph we were told that Bombay went to war a man and came back a leopard (“Before Bombay’s departure when everything in the world was locked in its individual box,  he could not have believed such metamorphosis was possible”) and now learn that the leopard-like rosette-shaped marks on his chest come from leeches. In his accounts of his journeys, he claims to have been stalked by an obsessed jinni. He has wrestled crocodiles with eyes of diamonds and gold in the Irrawaddy. He has been to the Black Hole of Calcutta and found it a bottomless pit, and gives the city of Bombay a new etymology – its streets are littered with bombs.

We’re not told what about the city made Bombay adopt it as his new name. But I think it’s significant that at no point in the story are we told what Bombay’s name was before he claimed this one. Babatunde gives us no other name with which to associate this character and so forces us to accept Bombay’s adopted name as his “real” one, giving this story that he tells about himself the status of truth as well.  To name things is also to un-name them in some ways; if Bombay is to be properly, undisputedly “Bombay”, he can no longer be “*whatever he was called before*”. It’s tempting, as an Indian reader, to digress here and talk about the real city of Bombay, and the reasons behind its renaming to Mumbai. That is as much story about narratives and history and nationalism and authenticity as the one we’re discussing, and I wonder if Babatunde was thinking of this.

Equally, when the District Officer is called “Charles” instead of “The District Officer”, as Bombay stubbornly insists on doing towards the end of the story, he becomes not Important White Officer, but just another person with a first name.

There are other noteworthy things about this story. I’m not sure I’m a fan of Bombay’s complete innocence at the beginning of the story (surely people in Nigeria also knew how to manipulate the truth?) but I love the detached wonder with which he accepts each new revelation. There’s no outrage at his own misrepresentation (a valid response to one’s own misrepresentation, of course, but not the only one); there’s a sense that understanding that this can happen has given him tools.

The “Bombay’s Republic” of the title is an abandoned prison into which Bombay moves, and which he declares an independent republic, population: himself. It’s easy to read this section as either a reference to Fela Kuti’s Kalakuta Republic (“Kalakuta” being derived from “Calcutta”). It’s probably also easy to read it as an allegory for statehood in general – where at first Bombay seems to be a conscious manipulator of his own stories, more and more one gets the sense that he’s succumbing to them as well. He gives himself a series of over-the-top titles, all of which sound like parodies of a certain sort of dictator: “Lord of All Flora and Fauna. Scourge of the British Empire. Celestial Guardian of the Sun, Moon and Stars. Sole Discoverer of the Grand Unified Theorem. Patriarch of the United States of Africa.  Chief Commander of the Order of the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean. Father of the Internet” (though- note that last one). But it’s hard to be sure – until his death Bombay makes a living out of being an independent state, so who knows?

 

What other people had to say about “Bombay’s Republic”:

Accrabooksandthings
Method to the Madness
The Oncoming Hope
Bookshy
Stephen Derwent Partington
Backslash Scott
Zunguzung
aaahfooey
The Mumpsimus
Ikhide
Loomnie
To Make Poesis
The Reading Life
Inkdrops
Cashed In
ndinda
City of Lions
Black Balloon

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