Monday, June 30, 2014

Red Strangers

In this interview with Richard Dawkins about the books he reads, I came across the novel, Red Strangers, which is about the Kikuyu tribe before and after the British arrived in Kenya. I decided to read it because I thought that it would be interesting to read about a culture that is very removed from anything that I had read about or experienced earlier. In the foreword, Dawkins writes:
It is Elispeth Huxley's extraordinary achievement in the first half of Red Strangers to immerse her readers so thoroughly in Kikuyu ways and thought that, when the British finally appear on the scene,  everything about them seems to us alien, occasionally downright ridiculous, though usually to to be viewed with indulgent tolerance.
One gets used to strange custom. For eg., a son is regarded as a reincarnation of his grandfather and so is sometimes addressed as "father" by his own father. The novel is written from the perspective of the Kikuyu. The habits of the Europeans and the items they use  like guns, handcuffs,taps, etc. are not mentioned as such but as they appear to Kikuyu eyes. For eg., it will be written:
  • He neither squatted nor stood, but rested his buttocks against a piece of wood secured in place by four poles.
  • Greatly to Matu's surprise, two iron bracelets joined by a chain were fixed around his wrists, so that he could not move his hands freely.
The beliefs and practises of the British seem incomprehensible and contradictory to the practises of the Kikuyu which they believed had been in existence since the beginning of time. As one of them remarked, "If you work for these strangers it is useless to ask:' Why must I do this?'  They have no sense, and do many foolish things without reason."

One can't help but sympathise with the older Kikuyu who are bewildered by the changes that they have seen happening in their lifetime. The sense of being misfits in a world that they cannot recognize is put into words by a dying Matu:
"Irumu spoke also of paths on which our feet were set," Matu whispered at last. "He said that we moved towards unknown things, away from all with which we were familiar. His words were true. The world to which the path is leading is one which we cannot understand; it was created by a strange God, and it is ruled by distant people; and the young men have learnt new magic that has taken away their laughter. It is time that I reached the end of the path, for I do not know where it is going."
Matu's brother Muthengi has cozied up to the British and has consequently done well for himself. But in the process he had become grasping, self-centered and has forgotten how to smile. Even without the brutalities of colonization, would it have been better to let the Kikuyus live peacefully in their ancient ways? It is a question that has no easy answers.

The beliefs and practices of the Kikuyu would seem bizarre but they are not more wacky than what goes on in our culture. So in that sense it was not such a different culture. One scene reminded me of a scene in the Malayalam movie Midhunam (from 3:37).

Some weeks ago Sujit  got chicken pox. What followed seemed to be imported from Kikuyu culture. There is a lot of mythology associated with the disease and I learned that they were not just practised by the ancients. I was told that this is not like other diseases but is caused by an annoyed godess. There were learned discussions about the day and time of day that traditions dictated for Sujit's bath. When guests were served eatables, someone said' "Give it first to Devi." Devi?! That was Sujit. He was possessed by a goddess you see.

I watched all this in astonishment.  Richard Dawkins had likened religious indoctrination of children to child abuse. After watching what happened to Sujit I am inclined to agree with it. I started to think of these people as Kikuyus with mobile phones. And I am asked to worry about Spinoza's god!. Dawkins said, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” I must say Hindus have it tougher since they have crores of gods to worry about.There seems to be a god for everything. 

No comments:

Post a Comment