In conversation with Rotimi Babatunde, Nominee for the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing


The short story ‘Bombay’s Republic’ by Rotimi Babatunde, Chair of the Nigerian PEN Centre’s Writers for Peace Committee, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. The Prize was founded in 2000 to celebrate the richness and diversity of African writing in English, with focus on the short story to reflect the contemporary development of the African story-telling tradition. Bernardine Evaristo, Chair of the 2012 judging panel, has said:

I’m proud to announce that this shortlist shows the range of African fiction beyond the more stereotypical narratives. These stories have an originality and facility with language that made them stand out.

Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’ tells the story of an African soldier of the ‘Forgotten Army’, who served on the Burma front during the Second World War, before returning home as a decorated veteran. At its height, the ‘Forgotten Army’ had approximately a million soldiers, most of whom were drawn from British colonies in Africa and Asia. Despite the army’s size and significance, its contribution has been – and remains – broadly neglected by the British government and media. Babatunde’s story probes the narrativisation of history, the construction of reality and the ways in which the past intersects with and determines the present. We asked Babatunde to share his journey as a writer and inspirations for ‘Bombay’s Republic’.

What was the inspiration for your story, ‘Bombay’s Republic’?

The lore of the Burma veterans which endures in the Nigerian folk consciousness. My first memorable encounter with it occurred in childhood, when I stumbled on my older siblings discussing an anecdote relating to a particular veteran. On return from the war, some schoolchildren asked him to tell them about the Black Hole of Calcutta since he had been to Asia. But the veteran didn’t visit Calcutta while abroad and he did not want to appear ignorant to the students. As a way out of his quandary, he simply literalized the phrase, replying that the Black Hole of Calcutta is the name of a bottomless, pitch-dark hole which he saw with his very eyes in Burma.

I was too young to understand why my siblings found the anecdote ridiculously funny, so I went through the rest of childhood believing the Black Hole of Calcutta describes a perilous hole which existed as a geological fact in the real world and not a highly controversial moment in colonial conquest.

Contact with stories like this about Hitler’s War — Ogun Hitila, as the Second World War is called in Yoruba — kept my interest alive in the experience of the Burma veterans. So, in 2005, when a writing award from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation provided me time and space to concentrate on an extended work of fiction weaving stories from contemporary life with historical ones, selecting the experience of African soldiers on the Burma front as a context for one of the historical narratives was irresistible. ‘Bombay’s Republic’ is the outcome of that effort.

The contribution of African soldiers who fought against the Japanese in South East Asia during WWII has never been adequately recognised. How did this feature in your thoughts whilst writing ‘Bombay’s Republic’?

‘The past is not dead. It is not even past,’ according to one of Faulkner’s characters. In writing ‘Bombay’s Republic’, my primary objective was to investigate how the past shades in unexpected ways into the present. As a corollary, I was also interested in examining ways in which a character’s reality can be distorted by the imagination of others and strategies through which one can imagine oneself into a new reality, for good or for ill.

To these ends, I tried to explore not only how a major historical event can open up fresh perspectives on human possibilities but, by extension, also how a character’s choice of a radical new possibility can drastically alter the very mode with which his or her story is written. That mission was accomplished, I believe, as illustrated by the way in which the narrative texture of the story changed after Bombay returns from the war and decides to take up residence in the disused jailhouse.

But, perhaps, the story refused to stop at just that. Perhaps it went ahead to implicitly memorialize the experience of African combatants who served on the Burma front — that is for each reader to determine. Because this is the great thing about stories and fictional characters: those mischievous, unruly fellows often overstep the boundaries set by their author, like the rebel creations in many versions of the Pygmalion myth.

In the story, a Welsh platoon leader comments on ‘the travails of faceless and nameless characters forever entombed in a book of fiction that will never be written’. Why was it important to you to write about this period of history and the ‘Forgotten Army’?

The thematic concerns of ‘Bombay’s Republic’ include the beauties, dangers and implications of choice in a world undergoing accelerated transformation. The Burma conflict and its aftermath provided a rich context for that exploration. Without doubt, the conflict impressed compelling insights into the possibilities of group identity and individual aspiration on many of its African participants. Certainly, the post-war actions of Bombay, the central character in my story, would not have been possible without those dramatic, epistemological shifts.

Your question also relates to the marginalization of the Forgotten Army in the ‘official’ Western narrative of the Second World War. To tackle that, it is necessary to first unpack the concept of ‘forgotten’ in the Forgotten Army. On one level, the Forgotten Army is just the popular name by which the 14th Army is known to most people. So, sticking with that angle, it can be regarded as a mere nickname, like the ‘Ghost Division’ of the Nazi Army and the ‘Black Watch’ of Scotland. Obviously, Rommel’s tanks were lightning fast not because they were ghostly machinery and the Scottish unit began as an all-white regiment.

However, it can’t be denied that the etymology of the ‘Forgotten Army’ derives from its neglect by the British government and media during and after WWII, because they considered its campaign a sideshow on a peripheral theatre of the war. The comment made by the Welsh platoon leader in ‘Bombay’s Republic’ — about their army not deserving to be called the Forgotten Army because they were never in anyone’s thoughts so they can’t even be forgotten — references a statement credited to no one less than General Slim who led the Burma campaign. Till date, Kohima and Mandalay lack the instant name recognition of Dunkirk, El Alamein and Normandy. No surprise in that, since those battlefields were much closer to England than the terrain on which the Forgotten Army fought.

It is worth noting that the army — the largest in the world at the time, roughly a million strong at its peak — had about 80 percent of its personnel, by some estimates, drawn from the populace of British colonies in Africa and Asia. And that brings up another dimension of the concept of ‘forgotten’, the one which particularly concerns ‘Bombay Republic’. That is: the roles played by race and nationality in our constructions of the narratives of history. Europe might have found the Asian theatre of the war marginal to its strategic interests but to many other countries, including Nigeria, from which hundreds of thousands of young people were taken to that front, the Burma campaign is of major historical importance.

When I began work on the first draft of ‘Bombay’s Republic’ in 2005, literature related to the campaign was scanty. Since then, a few books and documentaries have been released but a couple of swallows do not a summer make, to modify the old adage. Illuminating such dimly-lit periods of our past is necessary to properly comprehend our present. If ‘Bombay’s Republic’ contributes its own little bit to that process of historical retrieval, I don’t think we would be any poorer for it.

What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Caine Prize?

I am sure that ‘Bombay’s Republic’ is delighted to be on the shortlist. The attention the recognition brings will ensure it is more widely read and discussed. Certainly, the story must be very pleased with that. I wish the story good luck as it makes its own way through the world. For me as its author, the most important thing, as always, is to remain focused on making my next work better than the last.

Did anything in particular inspire you to become a writer?

Books. My Dad bought me loads of books in my early years, and I devoured them as if survival depended on nothing else. Even in those childhood years, I was already scribbling stories in response to the books I was reading. By 17, I had submitted a 200-plus page novel to Heinemann Nigeria but the company folded up soon afterwards. Lucky for me, I should add, because having that sophomore composition in circulation would have been embarrassing.

A defining period came in the mid-90s, when the Nigerian university calendar was repeatedly disrupted for interminable spells by instabilities in the Nigerian educational sector and by national strikes called to protest the military’s annulment of the ’93 presidential election. I spent the freedom of those long months trawling through the diversity of world literature and, in the process, acquired a deeper understanding of the sensibility which consistently powers my writing — a fascination with playfully rupturing familiar habits of language, thought and literary forms to enable the creation of more stimulating encounters with reality.

You are currently the chair of Nigerian PEN’s WiPC. How did you initially become involved in the activities of PEN?

Defending freedom of speech requires perpetual vigilance anywhere in the world but in Nigeria that duty demands special commitment. At this moment in our national life, the veneer of democracy obtains but the antics of the ruling elite are, more often than not, still informed by militaristic and autocratic tendencies.

PEN has long been at the forefront of championing the freedom of expression worldwide. The new executive of PEN Nigeria — which includes Tade Ipadeola and Ropo Ewenla, two individuals I hold in high esteem — has injected fresh dynamism into the activities of the national chapter, so when I was called upon to serve on its Peace Committee, I gladly agreed.

To read Rotimi Babatunde’s short story, ‘Bombay’s Republic’, click here.

To find out more about the Caine Prize, click here.

To book tickets for the Caine Prize Readings in London, click here.