History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon? *

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

And that is the reason that what could have been termed Biafra’s War of Independence is called Nigerian Civil War or — in a grudging concession to the losers — Biafran War. For the purpose of history books you could write down a neat sequence of events to describe what happened in Nigeria is 1960s.

Independence from British -> (Considered primarily an Igbo) Military Coup -> Counter-coup and Igbo Massacre -> Secession of Biafra -> Secessionists Thwarted and Defeated -> Reintegration

But what did it mean to live through it? What did independence from British mean to a country which had no reason to be a country except that the colonizers carved it that way, where identities of people derived from their tribes and not from their nationality, where the preferential treatment of the former colonizers continued because of the political, social and economic reasons, and where there was an elite, rich local populace, as removed from the rest of the population as the earlier rulers and as inclined to influence a local government for its benefit as an outside one? Unless academic paper is more your style, you should pick up this book.

What happens when those neatly described and classified events turn your upside down in a matter of days, even hours? What happens if all you want to do is survive, but do not know what “neat” turn the history is going to take next, and hence can’t figure out who you should be loyal to? What if you are an idealist, won’t waver in your loyalty just for the sake of survival, but the object of your loyalty turns out to be an incompetent fool, a sloganeer rather than a leader, pumping people up with impossible to achieve dreams and running away in the time of real crisis, leaving them to deal with the mess of their fractures affinities? What happens when even as the richest of the rich, you find your safety and life in danger? Or when your neat, intellectual, middle-class life in a university campus comes crumbling down and the debaucheries of intellectual politics, puerile squabbles of local leaders and the issues of national or tribal identities do not remain the matters of evening conversation over drinks, but become the question of life and death, of eating from one meal to the next? When the death numbers are not a statistic, but a reality for your loved ones, your neighbors, your colleagues and your friends? And when the damning feelings starts creeping upon you that all the sacrifices, all the hardships will be for nothing? What happens when as a poor illiterate villager you are at the receiving end of all the worst outcomes of international politics, war for oil and strategic supremacy, without having any say in, without having even the slightest understanding of it all?

And in between all this, what happens to our regular, human issues and feelings? What forms do the emotions of love, jealousy and competition in relationships take? Do they fold themselves up, cower in a corner, humbled and subdued, when faced with the enormity of the external events? Do they rise up to the occasion to help you tide over those monumental changes? Or do they just stay there? Staring in your face, stubborn and unyielding even in the throes of calamity?

Half of a Yellow Sun is a book in the category comprising of the likes of Doctor Zhivago, which makes you live the history through its characters. And makes you question the ideas like nationalism, whose sanctity is taken for granted by many today. It is also a chilling reminder to an Indian that India could have been in that situation. That we have been lucky that despite the bumpy ride we had as a country after independence, it never came to that. It could have. It still might if identity politics – the way it has shaped up over decades – has its way.

Totally worth a read!

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

Winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2007, this is a heartbreaking, exquisitely written literary masterpiece. Now a major film starring Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor, due for release in 2014.

In 1960s Nigeria, Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, goes to work for Odenigbo, a radical university professor. Soon they are joined by Olanna, a young woman who has abandoned a life of privilege to live with her charismatic lover. Into their world comes Richard, an English writer, who has fallen for Olanna’s sharp-tongued sister Kainene. But when the shocking horror of civil war engulfs the nation, their loves and loyalties are severely tested, while their lives pull apart and collide once again in ways none of them could have imagined…

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* It is a little funny that this quote is from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, but it is aptly written; so I’d use it.