He is on record saying, “If you want to know what is happening to a nation, find out what is happening to its writers.” How, then, can you not ask him whether he’s heard of our own Award Wapsi movement and, if so, what that tells him about this nation. He, that is Booker-prize winning writer Ben Okri, in town for the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival, is quick to point out that that statement has nothing to do with politics (since writers “reflect the temper of the age” rather than current affairs) but yes, he has heard about the return of awards by Indian writers, it has created ripples worldwide.
But the internationally acclaimed author, closely connected with international PEN chooses to be circumspect about the tale it tells him. “It raises a little question mark,” of course, “a question mark about India’s perception of itself,” he concedes in his gentle, modulated tones. It does give cause for concern, but stops short of any outright condemnation of the powers that be. “Tolerance is one of the greatest virtues of being human, without tolerance we will kill one another,” is all he is ready to say.
It is not that Ben Okri is trying to avoid taking sides or wants to be less supportive of fellow writers or is just being a polite guest. Writers, he cannot emphasise enough, should be free to protest if they feel the urge to do so. They should be free to not protest if they so want. They should be free to protest in any form they want, return awards, march on the streets, write more, whatever. In short, “they should be free, free to do anything they want to, short of killing anyone,” full stop.
Freedom is exceedingly important to him, without freedom there can be no literature, he says. What is most important to him though is mental freedom. “For it is possible to be free in the world and unfree in your head. The most striking thing about great literature is the strength of freedom that flows through its pages.” And it is this passion for mental freedom that distances Okri from day-to-day protests and politics. He just doesn’t want to give politics the sort of centrality that it is usually given. “Politics is only about 30 per cent of life, a very important 30 per cent no doubt, but politics is not everything,” he states. “There is so much more to life. There are dreams, there is laughter, there is kindness, humour, playfulness, culture, so much more.”
I wonder what a younger Ben Okri would have said, the Ben Okri who won the Booker for his third novel, The Famished Road, in 1991, when he was barely 32. After all, The Famished Road, which went on to become the first of a trilogy, was surely a political novel, a seam that runs through the two subsequent books too (Songs of Enchantment and Infinite Riches). The Famished Road, replete with what has been termed “magic-realism” (a term Okri does not want to subscribe to – he doesn’t like being labelled) and spiritualism and mysticism, cannot but provoke reflections on the chaos and corruption, the deprivation and sufferings in post-colonial Nigeria/ Africa/ any global south country. The mundane squabbles of political strife are caricatured as a competition between 'the party of the rich' and 'the pantry of the poor'.
The anger against 'white' people also burns, at times rather bluntly: “They forgot that we are all brothers and sisters and that black people are the ancestors of the human race. They are greedy. They want to own the whole world and conquer the sun … They are not all bad. Learn from them but love the world,” the father of the book’s narrator, spirit-child Azaro, tells him. His father may be poor in worldly goods but rich in dreams. He tells his son, “Our hunger can change the world, make it better, sweeter.”
At least that was my takeaway from the book read many moons ago. The world over, literary critics, too, have seen The Famished Road as “an allegory for the post independent nation of Nigeria” with “deep insights into a painful and divided national history” exploring “the African society that is on the threshold of a political and social transformation.” While in academic circles his works are described in terms of “hybridizing political criticism in the postcolonial African novel” and “intertextuality and post-colonial literature in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road,” whatever they mean.
But Ben Okri does not agree with my reading of his most famous novel. “That is a misreading of the book,” he says firmly. Maybe. Or maybe it is that Okri himself has changed. Or evolved. His concerns today are not only deeply philosophical, to do with the essence of being human, but wholly so. This came to the fore dramatically a little over a year ago when he wrote, in an essay titled A Mental Tyranny is Keeping Black Writers from Greatness, that “We read Flaubert for beauty, Joyce for innovation, Virginia Woolf for her poetry, Jane Austen for her psychology. But black and African writers are read for their novels about slavery, colonialism, poverty, civil wars, imprisonment, female circumcision – in short, for subjects that reflect the troubles of Africa and black people as perceived by the rest of the world.”
We have, he laments, “lost our sense of the true significance of art”. It is not the subject that makes for great literature but the way it is written, “the oblique way in which they illuminate something significant” that makes for great literature. He himself, he says, is striving to achieve “a quality of innocence” in his own writing, concentrate on illuminating “the strange corners of what it is to be human” as it is literature that can bring about, he believes, the most effective change in society, “true change, change that will last and not evaporate as quickly as it takes place”.
Okri’s love affair with words began when he was still a child when he decided to become a writer and not a lawyer like his father. None of his books are quite anorexic (The Famished Road belies its title by running to 574 pages). He loves the sound of words too, sonorous, mellifluous words rolling off his tongue, using ten sentences to say the same thing without sounding repetitious, he could have been a successful motivational speaker if he’d wanted to. Widely and deeply read, it’s no surprise that his belief in the power of the written word to bring about lasting change is quite unshakeable.
“Our problems,” he elaborates, “were not created overnight, they go back a long way, they cannot be solved easily. We have to take a long-term view of our problems, deal with the roots of our problems or the solutions will not endure. Change has to come from within. That will happen when people truly understand the nature of the problems, you can’t force change. Laws alone are not enough. Laws against corruption haven’t stopped corruption in Nigeria. But that takes time. You can’t expect too much of human beings too quickly.”
And that is where books, especially literature come in. As agents of change, slow change but change that comes from understanding, hence leading to lasting change. Reading, to Okri, leads to imagination and thought, most importantly clarity of thought, bringing about a gradual understanding of the many-fingered problems that plague us. This synthesis is a long process and if it is happening then literature again is the first place where we can see the signs of this synthesis taking place.
In fact, we need, he says, “politicians who read widely, who read the classics, the masters, but who also read contemporary writers, who read across colour, across race, across class. If we don’t have politicians who read widely, how can we ever get to a new politics? Read widely and dreams, aspirations, different ways of looking at the world all become apparent.” And policies, he cannot underline enough, “have to be dreamt. A politics without dreams is arid and barren, just a machine for winning elections. We need politicians with great dreams for the people and reading is the absolute starting point.”
Imagine saying that to our netas. An Indian politician who reads, that can only happen in dreams.