Peter Nazareth, the African writer of Goan origin is well known as a novelist and a literary critic. He has written several essays and book reviews in leading international journals and has also edited a few anthologies. In a Brown Mantle was his first novel. Peter Nazareth was one of the earliest Goan-origin writers from Africa to have written novels in English. This review will focus on his second novel The General is Up. Published by Writers Workshop and hand-bound by Tulamiah Mohiuddeen with cotton handloom sari cloth, the review will try to place his work in a wider post-colonial world with its changing politics, issues of domination, emancipation and alienation and the hopes and aspirations of a diasporic Goan community that seems to be forever on the move.
The General is Up is set in the fictitious country of Damibia at a time when a despotic military General comes to power with the help of vested Western interests and orders all the East Indians (Indians and Goans) to leave the country by “the next moon”. Peter Nazareth obviously is making an allusion to the real country of Uganda when Idi Amin drove out most of the Indians from that country. One wonders why Peter Nazareth chose to churn out a fictitious country rather than make a direct reference to Uganda itself, especially because a disclaimer to that effect is also issued by the author. Peter Nazareth describes the plight and pathos of the Indian community and most importantly the Goan community facing deportation. Interestingly as one reads the novel, one realizes that although most of the characters face deportation, they have no other country to enter as refugees.
Much of the novel is unfolds in the Goan club where all Goans come to unwind and enjoy the company of fellow Goans after a hard day of work. Through gossip and political discussions, Peter Nazareth shows how the club becomes a meeting place for a diasporic community as well as a symbol through which a collective identity that is different from the larger society is asserted. The club becomes the nerve center of the political life of the Goan community, because as the times change, a native Damibian is elected the Vice-President of the Goan club setting aside the taboo of racial intermingling.
David D’Costa, a high profile civil servant, emerges as a protagonist of the novel. But because of the transfer of power from the British to the native Damibian, David has problems in proving his citizenship of Damibia, though in his heart he feels very much like a Damibian citizen. David has to run from pillar to post to secure citizenship for himself, his wife and his children but due to several bureaucratic hurdles and red-tapism in the concerned Damibian ministry, he has to leave the country and migrate to Canada. Apparently, no other country (including India) apart from Canada is ready to accept these new stateless people. Of course, Canada’s generosity is not motivated by a humanitarian spirit but to selfishly gain from the ample pool of efficient and trained civil servants, doctors, lawyers, etc that the crisis in Damibia creates. The whole novel takes place in an environment of suspicion – by the British, Damibian and Indian governments – and as such owning a passport not only means affluence and international mobility but also having a state and a government to protect you.
We can see the work of Peter Nazareth as a comment (or perhaps even critique) on the effects of colonialism and the consequences of the process of decolonization and also how colonialism in a somewhat modified form is still persisting in “post-colonial” societies. For instance, observe this brief excerpt: “Only a fool, a simple, brutal, childish fool would not have known that the presence of the East Indians in Damibia was part of the game. To imagine that the colonial rulers would be willing to just hand over independence! Hah! After all, their entire economies had been built up out of their empires. No, they were far-sighted. Wherever they went, they brought in a buffer, scapegoat middle-class, usually from another part of the empire. So when Independence came, the people would be made in a thousand ways to blame these foreign scapegoats as the real cause of the continued problems facing the people…When the price of clothing went up, let the people blame the Indian shopkeeper – the people would not know that the European-owned banks had raised the overdraft charges.” (pp. 78-9)
Though politically most of the world is freed from colonialism, the vested interests of the white Western world still dictate terms to the “underdeveloped” third world. In this regard, I recall the noteworthy essay that Anne McClintock wrote. Titled “The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term ‘Post-Colonialism”, she argues that for a lot of countries and people there is nothing ‘post’ about the term “Post-Colonialism”. She goes a step further in criticizing the usage of the term itself: “…‘post-colonialism’ is arguably more palatable and less foreign-sounding to sceptical deans than ‘Third World Studies.’ It also has a less accusatory ring than ‘Studies In Neocolonialism,’ say, or ‘Fighting Two Colonialisms.’ It is more global, and less fuddy-duddy, than ‘Commonwealth Studies’,” she notes.
The book ends in America where one of the characters who had migrated to Canada and then the US ends up leaving the manuscript of his novel about Africa to the person who gave him a lift to New York. The American (ironically a son of a Lebanese immigrant) says that an “exotic” novel about Africa was left behind by the hitchhiker. Though the word exotic is used, there is no elaborate description about the beauty and rawness of the African landscape, a feature abundantly common in the books and colour-saturated films produced by the West about Africa. In admiring nature and beauty we very often forget that humans are the ones who are suffering and secondly, by not describing in detail the African wilds, Peter Nazareth has refused to accept and repeat the same old orientalist clichés about African exotica.
Peter Nazareth does discuss the racial segregation and feeling of superiority which exist among all the races and tribes of Damibia. One native tribe cannot sit at the same table amicably with another native tribe; similarly Goans considered themselves separate from other Indian communities and the native Africans. How the black Damibian natives react to the racist attitudes of the East Indian community is not really seen in the book, though many of the Goan characters are known to patronize and sleep with black women and prostitutes. Black African characters do not play a major role. This seems to be a drawback as this novel is not exclusively about the Goan/Indian community but about all the population of Damibia. What exactly drives this racism is a question that could have been probed in much detail.
Another issue that comes up when we talk about the Goan communities in Africa is that of their interaction with caste. Though one of the reasons why people migrated to East Africa was to escape the torture of the caste system, we find that the caste hierarchy in Africa – and particularly in the clubs – was very rigid. To read the suffering and discrimination propagated by caste – and race - can be a good political strategy and force us to ask new questions about the exploitation. Peter does not include caste in his overall narrative and analysis. To be fair, the Goan community had only about a week to leave the country and in such circumstances, an institution like caste may be cast in the background by people in such testing times to forge togetherness and support-systems.
The novel ends with the General getting assassinated by his rivals and a majority of the East Indian community either migrating to Canada or India. An uneasy void of power is created in the wake of the General’s assassination. But though the novel ends, it seems that the story has just begun for a migration-prone community that has been shifted to another locale by the fateful hand of history.
(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: March 16, 2012)