NOT TO BE MISSED
"L'Odeur" (Smell), a novel by Radhika JHA
Translated in French by Dominique Vitalyos.
Arles [France]: Editions Philippe Picquier, 2002. 352p.
Ce compte rendu en français
Hundreds of novels have been written in French by African women authors over the years and many of these books would have provided an auspicious beginning to the new book-reviews section proposed on this website. Why then, did I choose Smell, a novel by Indian writer Radhika Jha who, apparently, has scant connections with the African continent ?
According to http://www.thesusijnagency.com/authors/jha.htm (sighted 19 October 2008) "Radhika Jha is from India (born Delhi 1970), studied anthropology at Amherst College, did her Masters in Political Science at the University of Chicago and lived in Paris as an exchange student. She writes for and performs Odissi dancing and has worked for Hindustan Times and Business World writing on culture, the environment and the economy. She has also worked for the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, where she started up the Interact project for the education of the children of the victims of terrorism in different parts of India. She now lives in Tokyo with her husband and two children".
Given that background, how can we justify bringing Ms Jha into the bosom of African literature ? The realistic answer is clearly "we can't". On top of that, her novel tells the story of a young "Indian" woman, and it does not take place in Africa, but in France. It begins when the main character, Lîly, leaves Nairobi after her father's death and arrives at her Uncle and Auntie's home in Paris. There, she set about a difficult journey towards adulthood. The rocky path to emancipation awaiting Lîly in the French capital is laid with obstacles, ranging from extreme loneliness and painful uprooting, to sexual exploitation, bashing and the elusive quest for a French residential permit.
Clearly, Smell is not an "African" novel written by an "African" author dealing with an "African" theme or story; yet, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, Africa is, to me, at the heart of the narration. It is the submerged part of the iceberg that is not readily visible but supports everything the eye can see.
Lîly's story is familiar but rooted in an idea of Africa which do not fit a common perception of the continent. It shows the challenge of being oneself against others' assigned identity: in this case the fact of looking "Indian" and blending into "African", "French" or for that matter any society outside India. A further hurdle is added to Lîly's woes as she tries to build her own identity on the remains of shattered myths that did not survive her uprooting from Africa, the onslaught of experience and the vagaries of life.
Lîly is born in Nairobi to Indian parents, but it is her ties to her native land rather than her parents' origins that provide the cornerstone of her identity. She looks "Indian" but she feels "African", and none of her friends, family and acquaintances are ready to admit that. Her Auntie expects her to become a submissive Indian girl; her friend Maeve frowns at her when she argues that she comes from Africa, not India, and her lovers reduce her persona to the exoticism of a lascivious body. Besides, the murder of her father and the dramatic departure of her family from Nairobi taught her that "Kenya did not want [her] there with [her]family". One may argue that the family's exile from Kenya cannot compare with the mass expulsion of "foreigners" from a variety of African countries in years past; but from a individual point view, Lîly's uprooting and ambivalent feelings toward the country of her birth is quite the same as that experienced by, for example, the 50.000 Africans of Asian background (mostly Gujaratis of Indian origin) who were expelled from Uganda in 1972 by Idi Amin.
Lîly may look "Indian" but she is well and truly "African" at heart as one of the characters of the novel points out : " Oh, yes, the shores of childhood... everyone goes back to them at some point". For Lîly, this trip down memory lane takes the form of brief but vivid flashes of her African life pitched against other's vision of the world. That allows her to find her bearings because, as she suggests, finding who you are, is never akin to negating past experiences but rather to finding the thread running between disconnected times and geographies. For example, the lyrics of an English tune she heard on the streets of Nairobi reveal all their meaning in Paris. The song talks about a man walking aimlessly on the street and it comes to Lîly's mind at the very time she is cutting loose from past friendship and family ties and overwhelmed with the mixed emotions. There are always two sides to a coin and she is not sure if she should celebrate her new-found freedom as "Souvenirs are the seeds of fast growing trees that block the view toward the future", or lament a loss that may well lead towards aimless wandering, loneliness and despair.
Smell is also interesting as it draws readers attention to the ugly and pervasive nature of racism. Lîly's family is the victim of racial attacks and harassment in Kenya, and she experiences a similar hatred of foreigners in France. There, she is verbally harassed by stall-holders in provincial markets, confronted with ugly scenes in the Metro, her best friend's sister mistakes her for the cleaning-lady because the colour of her skin; renewing her carte de séjour is a recurrent nightmare and crossing the border a harrowing experience; yet, a short passage of the novel shows also that Lîly's parents were not without their own racism and prejudices. As she learns that her upper-class "Indian" friend Lotti is in love with an "Arab boy" who works as an assistant in a butcher shop, she gasps for air and her brain brings her back to Kenya. "Yes, there were Arabs there, she remembers, but, she says, we did not know any of them. They were even more foreign to us than the Africans". Although it comes only occasionnaly to the surface throughout the narration, racism is one of the main elements of the miasma that periodically submerges the narrator and destroys her self-esteem. In this respect, Lîly is no different from millions of other immigrant women in France and around the world.
A further interest of Radhika Jha is her literary acknowledgment of a long-standing presence of people of Indian descent in Africa. It is no coincidence that she mentions in passing that "Indians built the railways in Africa". Millions of Africans of Indian descent have settled permanently throughout the continent, since Indian labourers from Punjab and Gujarat built the famous Mombasa railroad, the city of Nairobi and many railway towns along the line. Women writers exploring the fate of womenfolk of Indo-African communities are few and far between and female voices from a large African population of Indian descent is still to be more clearly heard.
The advent of such a voice is justification enough to consider Radhika Jha's novel as a suitable even a necessary extension of "African literature".
(This review is based on the French translation of the novel)
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities