By Farah Ahamed

The aim of tragedy, according to Aristotle is to bring about a ‘catharsis’; to arouse in the spectators’ pity and fear and to purge them off these emotions so that they left the theatre with an understanding of the ways of gods and men. The audience witnessing the changes in the fortunes of the protagonist creates the catharsis. He wrote:

“Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of action and life, of happiness and misery.”

IMG_0810To Die in Benares*, (2018) translated from the French by Blake Smith, is a collection of seven stories, which have this cathartic effect.  I will illustrate this by analysing the first story “A Paper Boat in the Ganges”, which centres on the life of Fougerre who has to confront Aristotlean obstacles in his life; colonialism, mythological gods, and fate. Set in Pondicherry at a time when it was still under French occupation, the story covers almost fifty years and presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes each with intense gesture and detail.It opens with these weighty lines:

“India is probably the only country where fate’s grip on the lives of individuals is so easily accepted. Life isn’t fair. People say it a lot. People hear it said still more often.”

The introduction sets the sombre mood for fate to hijack the character’s life with the ‘epic proportions of the cruel Gods of ancient Greece’. We find the two protagonists — Manu and his Tamil friend, Fougerre — in the sixth grade at a school managed by the French Government. The school is attended by French, and Indian students whose fathers are retired French soldiers or French functionaries, who have a strong attachment to French culture and some Tamilian students like the narrator, Manu, and Fougerre who are less so.

Fougerre, in particular, is an “outsider”. He is a dark-skinned Tamilian, which his white French classmates associate with their servant classes. A reticent and timid boy from a more modest background than his white French classmates, Fougerre is hardworking, bright and meticulous. His white peers copy his perfect homework, and resent “his remarkable brilliance”, because he reminds them of their servants. Manu, in particular, is jealous of Fougerre’s artistic skills.

SultanSomjeeKenya-born Sultan Somjee is a Canada-based ethnographer and writer. He studied product design but soon his interest shifted from designing products to what stories were told in products – about people’s lives and how they reflected on the individuals, their families, ethnic and faith groups and in general on the human society. He pursued his interests through his MA and PhD,  studying art and material culture.

Bead Bai is his first novel (read excerpts here).  The novel is about Sakina, an embroidery artist growing up in the shanty town of Indian Nairobi, a railroad settlement in British East Africa in the early 1900s. In her tormented married life, while becoming a woman, Sakina finds comfort in the art of the beadwork of the Maasai. Bead Bai is one woman’s story inspired by lives of Asian African women who sorted out, arranged and generally looked after huge quantities of ethnic beads in urban and isolated rural parts of the British East African Empire.

In this interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Somjee talks about his life as an ethnographer and writer and what led him to write Bead Bai.

You are an ethnographer by training. What set you on the road to being a writer? 

Ethnography is about writing narratives. These narratives come from listening to stories and through observations not only of rituals and daily happenings in a community but also through keeping your senses like of touch and smell, open to what could inform you about the families, events and locations. Human conditions in general.  Listening and observation inform the ethnographer about how people speak and what they see how they see. There is juxtapositioning of facts and perceptions. Myths and realities are the same. What the ethnography subjects say and how they speak is called dialogue in a novel. Then there are observations often in situations where the ethnographer is an active participant. That’s research for the writer and every writer needs that. Observations of let’s say gestures inform the unsaid.