Thursday, September 28, 2006

Coming up

in the next few weeks, or fortnights maybe: some thoughts on VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River; critical reviews by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, famous most for his 1959 classic, Things Fall Apart, but also well-known for his taking apart of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which is generally regarded as one of the classics of English literature; and finally, thoughts on a couple of chapters of what I feel is a remarkable recent book of narrative historical non-fiction, Middle Passages: African American Journeys, by James T Campbell. And I hope I can also say something – though I am not sure – about this PBS documentary, especially in the context of Campbell’s book.

So I guess I’ve got my work cut out now :)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Lost Boys of Sudan


Lost Boys of Sudan is a documentary that follows the stories of two orphaned Sudanese refugee youth, Peter and Santino, from the time just before they left Sudan, to twelve months after their arrival in the United States. Both Peter and Santino, like many other young men and women, were orphaned by the protracted civil conflict in Sudan. The documentary presents selected day-to-day occurences (mostly in the United States) as they happened to Peter and Santino. The method is an effective one; it captures the refugee experience very well; and, judging from its reach and its popularity, the movie appears to have touched a chord in audiences all over the United States.

I saw the movie two years ago in Tempe, Arizona, at a local coffee shop. A refugee help group, consisting of mostly young volunteers, had organized the screening. The small room in which the movie was shown was packed. And at the end of the screening the audience could meet and talk to three Sudanese youth who had been through experiences similar to those shown in the movie, and were now refugees in the Phoenix area.

The Sudanese young men stood out in the crowd. They were thin and very black. It was one of things that Santino had talked about in the movie: his blackness and appearance set him apart from everyone, even African Americans. (In the movie, there are several pronouncements on African Americans: even before leaving Sudan, Peter and Santino are advised to avoid blacks who wear baggy pants and do “all the bad things in America”).

The Sudanese men were like celebrities that night at the coffee shop. But they took the attention very well; they seemed almost to bask in it. And for a moment – seeing their big smiles, hearing their confident answers to questions, hearing of their eagerness for education and degrees – it was easy to forget the tragedies and difficulties they had been through, and continue to go through: the loss of their parents, the break-up of their tribal communities, the uncertain political situation back home, and their solitude in America.


I somehow had the mistaken notion that there were different versions of the movie; I thought that each version would focus on a different set of Sudanese refugees. This was why I attended a screening of the movie at the public library, just two days ago, in Rochester, Minnesota. It was the same movie, but in other ways the experience was different.

At the screening, I met Gabriel, a Sudanese refugee - yet another of the many "lost boys", to use the movie's term, in the United States. I thought that Gabriel – and perhaps others who would shortly be there – had been invited to meet and discuss with the audience, just as at the Tempe screening. But it wasn’t so. Gabriel was the only Sudanese refugee at the library that night. He had come with a notebook; he had come because the instructor of one of the classes he was taking at the local college had asked him to attend the screening. In a way, it was ironic: Gabriel would see in the movie what he knew very well; and even without seeing it he could probably have written just as vivid an account.

Gabriel too was lean and very black. He was dressed plainly in dark pants and a striped, full-sleeve shirt that he hadn’t tucked in; he wore white sneakers. And because he was shy and reserved, he seemed to be quietly carrying the grief of his past within him.

Gabriel hadn’t seen the movie but he knew some of the refugees in the movie; he had come to the US with them at the same time, just a week before Sept 11, in 2001. At a couple of points during the screening, he turned to tell me (I was seated next to him) of the people he recognized in the movie. Some of the scenes – such as the singing of Sudanese songs and slogans of liberation; the dances of the villagers; the reunion of the lost boys at a retreat in Washington a year after their arrival, a retreat that Gabriel had been unable to attend – some of these scenes would have been powerfully nostalgic and painful to him. And I felt it was just as well that he had an assignment to finish that night and could not attend the post-screening discussion: it might have been awkward for him; all the politeness and empathy around him might have made him very conscious.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra

After Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, a wide-ranging work of non-fiction on the city of Mumbai, Vikram Chandra’s voluminous Sacred Games traverses the same terrain differently: the 900-page book, as the review in Outlook describes it, is “a vertiginous crime thriller in the style of a Hindi potboiler”; the book “has two heroes but its true star is the impossible and impossibly seductive city of Bombay.” See the full Outlook review of the book here, and Chandrahas’s review here.