“The crucial elements of the world-wide Tar-Baby story are that a trickster is trying to take something he shouldn’t have, the tar-baby is a trap by which he gets caught, and then, he is punished. Another important feature of the story is a number of the pieces of dialogue that are exchanged and this feature is also widespread over cultures and areas. The crucial, funny exchange centres on the trickster’s belief that this figure is alive and actively hindering him. He then threatens it, and as he carries out his threats only succeeds in further trapping himself!” – (p. 53, Neil Skinner, An Anthology of Hausa Literature).
It was on Saturday 19th of May 2012 that I first read Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay Republic. I had barely gone eleven paragraphs into the short story when the alarm triggered, pointing to a path my eyes have already trodden; Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy, which I had enjoyed thoroughly and thought highly of that I reviewed. The closeness of the short story and the novel was so alarming to the critical mind honed on tatsuniyoyi (Hausa folktales) and their multiple variants till a strong suspicion overtook me that the authors of the two texts were the same person.
CRUCIAL ELEMENTS OF THE TWO STORIES
This is the story of Ali Banana, a 13-year-old Nigerian lad who enlists in King George’s army to fight in the World War II theatre in India against the Japanese. Ali Banana reports to India with chicken pox. He is treated in a Bombay hospital and, contrary to his expectations, is refused action, until he complains. Still, he will be sent to the 12th NR as a muleteer. On arriving in Hailakandi from the West African Base in Chiringa, Ali meets Kyaftin Gillafsie, complains about being made a muleteer and, to shut him up, is drafted into the D-Section, an all-Nigerian Chindit unit. From Hailakandi, the D-Section, flying to White House as reinforcement against the Japanese incessant threat on the important British stronghold, abandons the mission and lands instead in Aberdeen. Rather, they will trek through the valleys and hills of Burma to White House. The Section encounters a Japanese convoy along the way, ambushes the convoy and wrecks havoc on it. In a quick counter-ambush, the Japanese kill a few of the Section’s men and injure some, including Farabiti Pash, who is taken to hospital in Bombay; but not until he is promoted to a full Samanja. While at White House, the war heats up, under the Japanese constant bombing. Three soldiers get missing, and are never found. Madness sets in amongst the survivors. Finally, an escape from the stinking prison, which White House has become, arrives for some members of the D-Section, including Ali Banana, Samanja Damisa, Kyaftin Gillafsie; they are to march to Maiganga and reinforce the Chindits fighting over there. Kyaftin Gillapsie is the British officer that will be missing, along with all other members of his Section, save Ali Banana, who will reappear few day later in White House, naked, mad and crawling with leeches.
This is the story of Colour Sergeant Bombay, whose age is not stated (but we can deduce from the story, that he is a young man, like Ali Banana). It is also not stated which country he is from in Africa. (But, since Okwonwo of Things Fall Apart is his countryman, then he, like Ali Banana, is also Nigerian). Bombay, like Ali Banana, enlists in King George’s army to fight in the World War II theatre in India against the Japanese. Bombay has his own bouts of illness, especially during the voyage to India. Bombay, like Ali Banana, is refused warfront action, but drafted to a combat unit as a muleteer, like Ali Banana, and also as a porter. It is not stated whom Bombay has complained to on this, but, just like Ali Banana, Bombay earns a posting to a combat unit, to shut him up. The names of Bombay’s unit members and his superiors are not stated in the story (one major failing). But, it can be inferred, from the first Japanese ambush on his unit, that Bombay’s unit members are all blacks, possibly all Nigerians, just like Ali Banana’s unit; these black soldiers will scream and charge at the Japanese until they abandon their weapons and run. When the first ambush occurs, Bombay’s unit, just like Ali Banana’s unit, is in the jungle of Burma, isolated from other friendly units. After this ambush, it is Bombay and not Farabiti Pash that gets promoted (but there is a promotion, anyway). At Bombay’s new base, there are reports of soldiers dying, some of the survivors running mad; there are reports of missing soldiers, especially the white “Lieutenant” that gets missing, but is found by a search party that include Bombay himself dead and mutilated. The war ends suddenly. Bombay returns to Nigeria. But, in his account to the little children back home, we will hear of how his own body, like that of Ali Banana, had been invaded by leeches in the jungle of Burma, which is the reason why he is as spotted as a leopard. Bombay does not exhibit madness in Burma, but, just like Ali Banana, he nevertheless exhibits madness after his war in Burma. There is no parallel in Burma Boy of Bombay’s taking over the old jailhouse on top of the hill, his racial awareness and the Republic of Bombay in which Bombay is the President until he dies.
Both Burma Boy and Bombay’s Republic are written in the third person (eye of God) simple narrative technique, but from the narrowed perspectives of their protagonists. The two authors of the two stories gave their main characters the task of mirroring the entire story; they observe all the episodes for us, and there is hardly anything they have not observed that we read. We observe, through them, the local women in the fields picking tea leaves (Bombay) or girls in the rice fields (Ali); immolated Japanese corpses burnt by the Chindit’s fire; the Japanese howitzers (Bombay) or the Mitsubishi Zeros (Ali); the British army’s “pincer movement” (Bombay) or the finger-clutching formation of the British Chindits (Ali); the “dim shards of light” in the atmosphere (Bombay) or “dizzying constellation of burning fragments or mortar bombs and artillery fire” (Ali): we see, feel, smell, walk, sleep and wake through these two characters as though through one person! Bombay though, is not a fully realised character (another major failing): we know nothing of him, as against Ali Banana’s origin, age and family root; we know nothing of his real name before he goes to India to observe the bombs falling on the streets of Bombay (does he really go to Bombay to observe these? Has he not been “Bombay” even before observing them, if he ever does?), etc. Nevertheless, the little revealed about Bombay is not any different from Ali Banana: Nigerian, young man, talkative (at first, before being silenced by the horrors of war), afraid (at first, before losing all care for life or limb), innocent, keen observer, and eventually, a mad man!
Accounts in Bombay’s Republic and Burma Boy will open in the present. Then, in a seesaw motion, they will drift backward and forward and then backward again. There is more dialogue in Burma Boy than in Bombay’s Republic, but this is simply because the short story is told chiefly as a narrative, with the author gagging his characters from speaking and choosing to tell it all by himself. This is contrary to Burma Boy, in which the author uses dialogues liberally, thereby unleashing a delightful variety in the narrative that urges the reader on. Both the two texts, however, exhibit constant humour even through the theme of madness that runs across their entire structures. They are both bildungsroman, stories that follow the development of their heroes from adolescence into adulthood, through troubled quests for identity!
Neil’s Skinner’s An Anthology of Hausa Literature is one text that one can easily find support for the claim of sameness between Bombay’s Republic and Burma Boy. The book contains more enduring records, for me, of about half the folktales I grew up on, with more variants into the bargain. The author presents six versions of the Tar-Baby story in his book, four versions of The Promise to the Dodo, two versions of The Spider and the Louse, Two versions of The Spider and the Lion, among others.
Neil Skinner (p. 10, ibid), on the Spider, The Crested Cranes and the Lion (p. 3, Hausa Tales and Traditions) and Yo as Cicatriser: Killing Boatsman’s Children: Why Yo Does Not Live With the Gods (p. 339, Herskovits, Dahomean Narratives), has this to say:
“It is of interest to note that the Dahomean story like many Hausa tatsuniyoyi begins during a time of hunger. There is a reference to the sea, which of course wouldn’t be found in a Hausa version, yet in both tales event take place consecutively on the earth, in the air, and in the water, although in this instance, water is the sea rather than the river. Distance in the Dahomean version is specified in terms of known places in the reference, ‘it reaches from Allada to Atogon’, which is a technique of hyperbole frequently used in Hause tatsuniyoyi although it is not found in this version. That the boatsman is deaf is a detail of the Dahomean version not found in this Hausa version. The Dahomean version also refers to Dada Sagbo the mythical king, and there is no comparable reference in the Hausa version. The tales further differ somewhat in their conclusion but both tales are the same ‘type’ in Aarne and Stith Thompson phraseology.”
From the above, it is clear that two or more stories can still be the “same type” despite the existence of differences in episodes and diverse details in their structures, and despite having different beginnings or conclusions; and from my visual examination of those variants of same tales, despite having diverse lengths. The crucial elements are the protagonist, plot and setting. These elements, as found in Burma Boy and Bombay’s Republic, are the same: young Nigerian lad going to fight in Burma, encountering an obstacle, but clearing it with his talkative mouth, entering into the real theatre of war, observing many horrible things from the war which, eventually affect his sanity.
For very many however, the doubt is not concerning the sameness of these two texts, but which one is authentic; a cogent inquisition, now that private ownership has evolved, since the Tar-Baby Era of communal ownership, in intellectual property.
From carefully studied records in Old English Literature, Medieval Literature, Renaissance and Reformation Literature, Eighteenth-Century Literature, The Literature of the Romantic Period, High Victorian Literature, Late Victorian Literature, Modern and Alternative literature and Post-War and Post Modern Literature, no one text shares common crucial elements like we have observed above, except one is sourced from the other. Disdemona of Venice and the Captain, for instance, a sixteenth-century tale by Giraldi Cinthio is the source of Shakespeare’s Othello. It is not any different in this case; no extra-ordinary literary event had taken place between Burma Boy and Bombay’s Republic.
We have no “the chicken or the egg” dilemma here, baceuse Burma Boy was published in 2007 (first as The King’s Rifle). Biyi Bandele began writing the story in 2002, soon after his mother’s death. He grew up with that story in his mind, especially after hearing his own father, a real Burma boy, recounting the tales of the war over and again, and also observing the madness exhibited by his father in the house before his death. Since its publication, Burma Boy has been translated into more than 16 languages. Several commentators on the novel have acknowledged its originality and the fact that it is the first “significant antidote to the malady of historical amnesia about the contribution that black colonials have made during the World War Two.” In page 216 of the novel Biyi Bandele himself did acknowledge his debts to The March Out by Sergeant James Show (particularly for the name only of his protagonist, Ali Banana), and several other texts. Sadly, Bombay’s Republic is not amongst the texts acknowledged; it did not exist when Burma Boy was birthed!
For these reasons, I conclude that Burma Boy is the original and authentic Burma boy story and not Bombay’s Republic; Burma Boy is too strong and original a narrative to get buried under any heap, not even when the heap were Bombay’s Republic.
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