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ISSN: 0974-892X

VOL. XIII
ISSUE II

July, 2019

 

 

Going back to the ‘Roots’ in Search of One’s Identity

Dr. Neha Arora, Assistant Professor of English, Central University of Rajasthan, NH-8, Bandar Sindri, Dist. Ajmer

 

Abstract:

The present paper focuses upon those African natives who were initially drawn to the misconstrued idea of perpetual Western opulence and comfort and left their homelands en masse only to be forced to suffer from exploitation, negligence, and, more importantly, pangs of exile. Taking the martyred Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo’s “Heavensgate” (1962) and the Malawian poet David Rubadiri’s “A Negro Labourer in Liverpool” as the case study, I intend to deliberate upon the desperation of the native to return to his roots and also the impossibility of complete assimilation. Okigbo’s persona is the ‘newcomer’ who turns to his motherland, seeking forgiveness for his ‘betrayal’ to her, repenting and expressing desire to be taken back into the warmth of the mother while Rubadiri’s  ‘negro’ exposes the paradox of living in eternal darkness in the predominantly-White English city of  Liverpool.

In projecting the trauma of the migrants, the paper emphasises upon the ‘nowhere class’ created with the crossing of the boundaries. Rubadiri’s bewilderment in ‘the land of the free’ questions the false promises of globalisation as the blurring of geographical thresholds fail to adopt/ amalgamate the migrants. Similarly, despite returning physically to his native place, Okigbo’s protagonist finds himself being progressively distanced from his fellow brethren. My discussion will probe into some pertinent issues such as: Is coming back to home possible/easy? Will the route to native place enable them to re-gain the roots? Will everything lost in the bygone period be compensated? And above all, can we equate the ‘physical re-turn’ with the ‘emotional and psychological return’?

Key words: homeland, exile, assimilation, newcomer

 

How does one define ‘exile’? Is it merely the physical absence from one’s homeland and hence bearing some sense of loss of place? If so, then will the return journey be able to compensate for everything lost in the bygone period? And will the coming back to ‘home’ be so easy? And above all, what if the sought after ‘home’ does not extend warmth of acceptance? For Ashcroft et al, the concept of ‘exile’ involves ‘the idea of separation and distancing from either a literal homeland or from a cultural and ethnic origin’ (2009: 92). But do these words completely encapsulate the agony of the one in exile? It is not a phenomenon to be confined theoretically, it has psychological implications too. In fact, ‘exile’ is a vast term having many layers of meanings. Firstly, being in exile does not necessarily mean only physical displacement from one’s native land, it reflects more of a psychological separation. Secondly, ‘exile’ incorporates those miserable people too who are ‘exiled in their homeland’ due to some irrational political policies.In both the instances, their ‘roots’ are attacked, the umbilical cord is severed and the child is separated from his mother (read motherland). This leads to the problem of feeling alienated, homelessness, sans identity, a mere wandering island drifted away by the current.

Every discussion boils down to the presence/ absence of ‘home’ but what is a ‘home’? A ‘home’ is the origin of our life, the shelter for the tired heart, the succour to the troubled soul – something that lends meaning to our existence, a place where we feel complete, in brief, a ‘home’ is the very root of our being. The presence of our people and of the familiar environment provides nourishment for the healthy development of the tree of our personality. It is a commonly observed phenomenon that a plant, if uprooted from its place and planted elsewhere would not survive. Nature too does not permit any one to fiddle with her working. Transplantation or migration in case of human beings is easily thought of but the adaptation to the new environment is the real test – and it is here that everything fails (sooner or later). Hence, ‘home’ forms the pivot for our survival – without it we are maimed.

Africa as a nation offers various instances whereby the process of colonization sent the natives into external or internal exile. Daring to speak out for the natives’ claims over their land, Dennis Brutus was jailed and later he fled South Africa to spend some time in Britain while disturbed with the racial segregation in South Africa, Peter Abrahams chose to ‘leave’ his country to settle in England.  These are just a few examples to reiterate the prevailing inhuman conditions in Africa.

In the present paper the main argument is to co-relate the trauma of such characters, placed in different situations but suffering the same sense of ‘loss’. The issues of ‘home’, ‘belongingness’ and ‘my people’ are etched on the minds of these displaced characters. Okigbu and Rubadiri project the mental turmoil of the protagonists, encompassing both, the physical and the psychological aspects of exile. Okigbu’s persona is the ‘newcomer’ who turns to his motherland, seeking forgiveness for his ‘betrayal’ to her, repenting and expressing his earnest desire to be taken back into the warmth of her affection while Rubadiri’s ‘labourer’ has surrendered his fate in the alien land.

The issue of ‘home’ is the centre of all discussion. The attachment to ‘home’ and the ‘locale’ forms the undying connecting thread in the psyche of the natives.  It is the uprooting from one’s ‘home’ that imbues the feeling of isolation, that makes one feel imprisoned in an alien environment. The charm of the new land ends in a sense of alienation once the migrants understand the intrigues of exile. They leave their natal home as an ‘escape’from the hardships they encounter there but the ‘relocation’ is not complete, ultimately ending up in their ‘dislocation’. But what is it that dissects ‘home’ and ‘exile’? It is the sense of belongingness, the feeling of acceptance/ assimilation, the confidence of being rooted in the cultural heritage. These are the cardinal elements that give shape to our personality and meaning to our existence, and define our identity. The ‘literature of exile’ studies the frustration that is a by-product of this dissection and eloquently articulates the dilemma and predicament in which the victims are caught. George Lamming, in The Pleasures of Exile expressed that ‘the exile…a universal figure…and to be in exile is to be alive’ (1960: 24). Mostly ‘exile’ is dispersal against the wish of an individual/ community and is usually necessitated by various factors such as war, politics etc. However, in some cases it is voluntary too where people undertake the journey to the new land in search of perfection. But the initial excitement of finding a utopia soon comes down when confronted with the challenges of the new conditions of exile. The cultural drifts result from the indiscriminate policies of Western culture and hence, despite embracing the ‘West’, the natives find themselves marginalized and thus, homeward bound. But the truth is that the thought as well the process of ‘return’ is complex and heavily loaded with the sense of guilt which prevents the complete assimilation of the returnee by the motherland and also of the motherland by the returnee. There remains only the ‘hope’ of complete ‘return’.

‘Exile’ is not merely a punishment for a said period; the effects are everlasting. It must be borne in mind that exile affects one psychologically more than it does physically; the bruises felt on the soul are never healed up. Forcibly taking away the child from the mother’s bosom, leaving both of them wailing and craving for each other is the gruesome reality of exile. The deep urge of coming back, of re-union, of home, of belongingness perpetually hovers upon the child. However as aforesaid, exile is not always forced upon, it is voluntary too. Again the intentional movement can be for two reasons, (a) out of frustration over the illogical rules that make one feel claustrophobic, (b) out of temptation for the unseen, unknown land where one dreams of success. Whatever be the type of Exile, they all are united by one fact – i.e, how it affects them all.

Christopher Okigbo, a well-known Nigerian poet, was actively involved in the independence of Biafra. He died fighting for the same cause. His poem ‘Heavensgate’ is a kind of spiritual quest and the autobiographical elements can well be experienced in it. He talks about the ‘prodigal’ who stands ‘naked’ before mother Idoto (the local deity and personified in a river), beseeching her to listen to his ‘cry’ and to embrace him once again. His illusionary world of glitters has ditched him and he takes a U-turn to his roots. Okigbo’s another poem ‘Distances’ talks about the completion of his return, physical and spiritual: ‘I am the sole witness to my homecoming’. The concept of ‘home’ is quite significant in the lives of the people living in exile. ‘Home’ is a metaphor for their identity, their being complete, their roots. Okigbo does not fail to call the persona ‘a prodigal’. The prodigals refers to the lot of people/ natives who, for their selfish gains, turn their back towards their motherland, but having tasted the bitter isolation in the foreign land, come back hesitatingly, with the keen desire of being accepted and forgiven by the Mother. The choice of this poem is deliberate to contrast the voluntary migration of the natives as against the forced one. In both the conditions, the pain and suffering of loneliness is the same.

The poem is divided into parts, and the section ‘The Passage’ unfolds the dilemma of a ‘newcomer’ who is standing at the ‘gates of heaven’, waiting for his ‘passage’ from exile to heaven (home). He claims of standing ‘naked’ and ‘barefoot’ before the mother, the state implies the purest form, that is, he has removed all the trappings of the ‘new world’ he was living in and has now come back in his original form. One can find many Biblical references in this poem. ‘Passage’ itself is heavily loaded with deeper meanings – the passage from earthly to heavenly, the passage from troubles to haven, the passage from unknown and strange to known and own. The ‘passage’ also indicates element of quest for completion. He feels the ultimate loss of the inherent bonding with his cultural heritage. The longing to once again amalgamate in the native/traditional culture is echoed in the use of words like ‘naked’ and ‘barefoot’. But this process is not easy; he is standing at the threshold of paradise but is incapable of stepping in. Here begins the introspection and the going back down the memory lanes. Okigbo has beautifully juxtaposed the desire and dilemma of the persona, the happiness at home and the pain suffered abroad. He has a ‘tangled-wood-tale’ to tell about his confused identity into which the experience of the new world has landed him. His standing on ‘one leg’ is symbolic of paying reverence to the Mother and also of his atonement. How he became one in the ‘long black column of ants’ and how the entire ‘festivity’ turned ‘black’ brings out the pathos of the persona.

T. S. Eliot’s motif of ‘water’ (in The Waste Land) as a purifier too echoes in Okigbo’s poem. Okigbo presents the persona

“standing above the noontide,
Above the bridgehead;
Listening to the laughter of waters
That do not know why;
Listening to incense –
I am standing above the noontide
With my head above it;
Under my feet float the waters
Tide blows them under…”

Here the implication is to the purging tendency of the sacred water of Idoto (something similar to river Ganges in India). The ‘watery presence’ of the mother Idoto signifies the weeping eyes of the mother who sees her child after a long time and is unable to control her emotions. Also the prodigal’s confused state of mind is depicted in the lines quoted above. Although he is standing above the ‘bridgehead’ (a good position in the enemy land from where it can be attacked), he finds himself incapable of immersing into the pure water of Idoto. The ‘mask’ on his face forbears his complete identification with his motherland and he thus gets onlya ‘painted smile’ and the ‘synthetic welcome’. There is no denying the fact that a psychological distance comes up between the returnee and the motherland.

“Rain and sun in single combat;
On one leg-standing,
In silence at the passage,
The young bird at the passage.
SILENT FACES at crossroads:
Festivity in black…”

Very beautifully Okigbo describes the brain drain process of the natives, how they were lured into the glamour of the alien world, leaving their own land. However, the veil of illusion does not take time to lift and to reveal the real ‘festivity in black’. The phrase can be interpreted to be the funeral ceremony of African culture as the result of the betrayal of its sons. Now they have been reduced to ‘silent faces’ standing at the ‘crossroad’ – willingly to come back but unsure of them being pardoned by the Mother. All that is left to them is ‘solitude’ and mourning over the lost past, the lost connections, the lost values.

The painful beseeching of a son to be heard by the mother indicates that all is not lost in him. The feeling of alienation and isolation is heightened with the repeated use of the words like ‘crossroads’, ‘hinges’, ‘alone’, ‘solitude’ etc. He begs to his mother:

“O Anna at the knobs of the panel oblong,
Hear us at crossroads at the great hinges
Where the players of loft pipe organs
Rehearse old lovely fragments, alone –
Strains of pressed orange leaves on pages,
Bleach of the light of years held in leather:
For we are listening in cornfields
Among the windplayers,
Listening to the wind leaning over
Its loveliest fragment…
Newcomer”

The migrants are well aware that the period of exile has taken away something integral of their personalities. They confess of wearing a ‘mask’ now, ‘My own mask, not ancestral’; they have full cognizance that their identity is now diluted and to regain that lost touch of the native soil, to once again strengthen their roots, they express their remorse and beg the Mother to take them into her embrace, lest their identity is erased forever. Desperate is their cry:

“Time for worship –
Softly sing the bells of exile,
The angelus,
Softly sings my guardian angel.
ANNA OF THE PANEL OBLONGS,
PROTECT ME
FROM THEM FUCKING ANGELS:
PROTECT ME
MY SANDHOUSE AND BONES.”

The poem can be labelled as one of self-discovery. It reflects the time when Africans were groping in darkness – where to go/ turn was their confusion. They were either severed from their roots using the scythe of colonization or they, under the charm of the ‘white land’ left their ‘dark continent’ but failed to find any happiness there too. With the unsatisfied hearts, they finally return to the native land in search of some succour. They have realized that haven and heaven both, are ultimately only in the loving warmth of a mother’s lap. Hence the penitent hearts (as this poem is about the voluntary migrants) want the Mother to absolve and restore them. The poem is a metaphoric journey of the natives to embrace (or rather re-embrace) the traditional Igbo religion and culture. It highlights the transformation of the native from a prodigal to a returnee to his traditional culture/ roots.

A very pertinent imagery of ‘rainbow’ is used to lay thrust on the destructive process of migration. In Igbo community, rainbow announces the death of something/ someone important. Scientifically a rainbow is formed when rain is followed by the clear sky and sun but here there is no clear vision, rather everything is blurred by ignorance. Elaborating the biblical imagery, ‘rain’ stands for the sacred water at baptism i.e something Christian, and ‘fire’ is the passion and aggression, the liveliness of the natives. But the mingling of the two cultures/ religions, nay, the dominance of Christianity over the natives has created a ‘rainbow’ that is not at all beautiful. The persona aptly sighs that it was the ‘DARK WATERS of the beginning’. The uncertainty of the future could well be realized now that he has tasted the water abroad, resulting into a frustrated personality with fractured identity. Falola & Afolabi comment in this regard that:

For the New African immigrant, the primary factor motivating migration is the desire for a better life, whether fleeing political persecution, economic disaster, refugee crisis, or a combination thereof. The overall consequences include displacement, alienation and the not so enchanting reality of exile. (2008: 6)

Okigbo dwells on the same theme of homeward bound frustrated native but his atonement is difficult as he has consciously ‘exchanged’ his African culture with that of the Western beliefs. Okigbo efficiently links the personal experiences to the public themes. As a man of culture, he accepted the superiority a culture exerts upon its people and thus, the loss of indigenous culture is dubbed as the loss of ‘innocence’, as disaster, the ‘sunbird’ sings of their woes, of their quotidian sufferings and the indignities to which they are routinely subjected.

The technique of Capitalization is used to emphasize upon the pain and agony, to show emphatically the racial segregation. Okigbo brings out the desperate heart in ‘DARK WATERS’, ‘SILENT FACES’, ‘ANNA OF THE PANEL OBLONGS/ PROTECT ME/ FROM THEM FUCKING ANGELS:/ PROTECT ME/ MY SANDHOUSE AND BONES’. A similar example we find also in Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’: “ARE YOU LIGHT OR VERY DARK”, “HOW DARK”. Another device repeatedly used by Okigbo is the Ellipsis. In the entire poem much has been left unsaid, yet the unsaid has been forcefully said/ understood in the ellipsis. The form and the content come together to lay thrust upon the feeling of nostalgia that pulls the prodigals back to home.

David Rubadiri, a Malawian poet, was exiled after falling apart from President Hastings Banda. One of the foremost writers of Africa, he was critical of the Banda regime and exposed it in his only novel No Bride Price (1967). His poem “A Negro Labourer in Liverpool” evokes empathy for the protagonist who drags himself slowly ‘on dark backstreet pavements’. The issue of ‘home’ is the centre of all discussion. The attachment to ‘home’ and the ‘locale’ forms the undying connecting thread in the psyche of the natives.  It is the uprooting from one’s ‘home’ that imbues the feeling of isolation, that makes one feel imprisoned in an alien environment. The charm of the new land ends in a sense of alienation once the migrants understand the intrigues of exile. They leave their natal home as an ‘escape’ from the hardships they encounter there but the ‘relocation’ is not complete, ultimately ending up in their ‘dislocation’. Whereas Okigbo’s protagonist seems to have wilfully opted for the ‘new’ land, Rubadiri’s ‘negro’ describes the twin condition of willingness and also the plight of slavery. Frustrated with ‘the load of century’s oppression’, the natives crave for freedom, for ‘an identity’, only to find themselves fallen from pot to fire. Finding himself amongst the ‘impassive crowds’, he does not voice his innate desire of going back to ‘home’, however his eyes convey the longing ‘for a face…that might flicker understanding.’

“A Negro Labourer in Liverpool” foregrounds the prime intentions of the natives opting for the White land but are disappointed and bewildered when confronted with reality:
“This is him-
The negro labourer in Liverpool
That from his motherland,
A heart heavy
With the load of a century’s oppression,
Gloriously sought for an identity
Grappled to clutch the fire of manhood
In the land of the free.
But here are only the free dead –
For they too are groping for a light.”(2004: 23)

His ‘negro’, like Okigbo’s ‘newcomer’ is dejected with the false promises of the white land but unlike him, could not pull the courage to come back. His eyes, his face sans the ‘sunny smile’ project his misery while he desperately waits for someone who can understand him and hold his hand to take him away from darkness towards the sun. Although Okigbo’s persona repents for his betrayal, both the protagonists represent the ‘nowhere class’ created with the crossing of the boundaries. Their suppressed, unuttered agony puts the idea of global village under question? What erasing of boundaries and shrinking of the world are we talking about in the present times when the racial boundaries still rule and do not permit the assimilation of the blacks amongst the whites? This is the new state of exile in which the migrants find themselves trapped, making their coming back essentially difficult.

Rubadiri’s persona (any negro) feels suffocated and crippled in ‘his land’ and dreaming to make it big, decides to migrate to the White land – ‘the land of the free’. However, in Liverpool, all his dreams of freedom come shattering down like castle of cards, here all that he becomes is ‘a dark shadow amidst dark shadows’, his identity is reduced to an image ‘slouching…head bowed -/ Taut, haggard and worn’. What he discovered about Liverpool leaves him astounded, his ‘hope is the shovel, / And his fulfilment resignation’. Rubadiri intentionally portrays ‘a negro’, and not any particular negro to generalise the plight of the blacks who are dazzled by the glitter of developed nations. The contrasting picture of the new land forces them to re-think of their ‘home’ and the return journey is contemplated.

Rubadiri recreates the painful memories of being in exile, the dissection from one’s motherland. The son who saw the light of the world wants to go back to the safe refuge of the ‘mother’s womb’ but in vain. The poem also throws light on the ‘free dead’ of the white land – the whites who are free but lifeless, the blacks who are free yet in chains, both are ‘groping for a light’, for real freedom. The ‘beautiful black blood’ (David Diop: ‘Africa’) of the Mother is overshadowed/ overpowered by the dreamland, hiding the reality of the ‘dark backstreet pavements’ (Rubadiri: ‘A Negro…’) lying ahead as his fate.

Both the poems mark the return of the protagonists to the African cultural heritage, the deeply-felt personal rebirth pushes them to undertake a journey of self-discovery and eventually to their roots. The poems reverberate with the scenes of 1940s-60s of Africa when many Africans started introspecting about their identity. The reality unfolds the misconstrued idea of the Western opulence and a life of comforts and heightens the desperation of the native to return to his roots and also the impossibility of complete assimilation.  The initial excitement of finding a utopia soon comes down when confronted with the challenges of the new conditions of exile. The cultural drifts result from the indiscriminate policies of Western culture and hence, despite embracing the ‘West’, the natives find themselves marginalized and thus, homeward bound. But the truth is that the thought as well the process of ‘return’ is complex and heavily loaded with the sense of guilt which prevents the complete assimilation of the returnee by the motherland and also of the motherland by the returnee. There remains only the ‘hope’ of complete ‘return’.

“Migration brings about the hyphenated self, that is, the old versus the newly formed or emerging self. Such a state of flux and of trauma brings about a psychological crisis of identity and of consciousness” (Falola & Afolabi, 4). Whether imposed or voluntary, the expulsion shatters emotional harmony and causes cultural alienation too. In fact the condition is nonetheless different for the voluntary migrants too. The guilt-ridden migrants always are troubled by the thought of fidelity.In the desire of a liberated atmosphere, they are eventually displaced from their comfort zones and adopting a new way of thinking does not come easy to the migrants. The void which is created in the absence of ‘home’ is never filled. The inhuman practices and the hostile environment leave the psyche of the nation and its people permanently scarred. The thoughts of ‘roots’ never leave them and ultimately, drawing courage, some of them do take up ‘the route to their roots’ but the plight of the returnees is never abated. In this regard, a pertinent question to ask is: is there actually any point of return? If yes, can the return be complete in all the sense? I would like to conclude my deliberation on this question to let the readers ponder over the trishanku-like existence of the people in exile. The ‘in-betweenness’, ‘unbelongingness’, ‘ambivalence’ and ‘doubleness’ are the epithets occasionally used to describe the exiled people – the terms may vary  but the result is always a hyphenated life, a fragmented existence. Okugbo’s and Rubadiri’s  personas, both yearn for the roots that would complete their identity. They are the concretised form to externalize the ambivalent condition to which the exiled people are subjected.

 

* ‘trishanku’ – a term in Hindi to depict the in-between, pendulum-kind existence, hanging between the two, belonging to neither of the two.

 

 

Works Cited & Referred:


Ashcroft et al. Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts. Routledge: Oxon, 1998.

Falola, Toyin and Niyi Afolabi. Ed. African Minorities in the New World. New York & London: Routledge, 2008 pp 4, 6.

Lamming, George. The Pleasures of Exile. Joseph: London, 1960 pp 24.

Okigbo, Christopher. ‘Heavensgate’ in Collected Poems. London: Heinemann, 1986.

Olaniyan and Quayson. Ed. African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory.USA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Olaulawa, Senayon S. “From the Local to the Global: A Critical Survey of Exile Experience in Recent African Poetry”. Nebula 4.2 June 2007, pp 223.

Paller, Michael. “No Place like Home”. Encore Arts Program: Encore Media Group, February/March 2008.

Rubadiri, David. ‘A Negro Labourer in Liverpool’ in Poets of Africa: An African Thunderstorm & Other Poems. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd., 2004, pp 23.