The people you meet once and they leave a mark

About three years ago, I wrote a literary review piece in the Sunday Nation on why we don’t have successors to Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. My argument being that despite  Africa experiencing serious civil wars, there hasn’t been any discernible work of literature from the regions most affected.  Yet wars and conflicts often give us the best literature. The few books written, have not been met with the same acclaim as Ngugi, Achebe and the  rest of the first generation of writers once received. Until Chimamanda Adichie arrived in the scene, and even her, her breakthrough novel was Half of a Yellow Sun, which took us back to the Biafra War.

A few days later, I received an email from a man who introduced himself as Kalyan Mukherjee. He was working for A New Delhi based newspaper called Millennium Post (MP). Together with a man called Aman, an Indian-Kenyan, based in Nairobi, they had a monthly a page in the newspaper called African Rising.

Kalyan wanted Africans to write on the page, so that Indians can get to understand African better. Four years ago, the narrative in town was Africa was on the rise and every ‘big’ country was milking this narrative for all its worth. They were the first Indians to notice this gap, and they moved to bridge it. Interestingly, for all the massive trade India does with Africa, it is often overlooked by the media.

Kalyan wanted me to work with Aman in Nairobi to write, what I felt was supposed to be a general appraisal of Africa’s top 5 writers; Ngugi, Wole Soyika, Ben Okri, J.M Coetze and Achebe (his list, not mine). He too wanted me to write about the Caine Prize Winners since 1999, examine how much of it was Literature, and how much was fashion. He also wanted an interview with any three contemporary writers.

“Kwani? 2012” had just marked their 10th anniversary with the publication Yvonne Awuor’s Dust and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah. Both writers were in town, I bought the two books, had them autographed, took a picture with both. Sadly, I lost the two autographed books, but I’m proud that I shook hands with Chimamanda. Suffice to say that I stayed the whole night, to have the autographs.

Had Kalyan approached me earlier, I would have squeezed an interview with Chimamanda for his third request.

Anyway,  with Aman in Nairobi and some bit of research, I came up with a topic. And Aman would accompany me to the interviews. Aman was in charge of research and the link between Africa and India. And Kalyan was the boss based in India.

I looked at his request, and settled to write a piece that examines the literary trends since independence era in the early 1960s, all the way to 2012. I aptly, titled the piece, “Stop, Start, Stop; Africa’s Literature in a Discontinuous Transition. Binyavanga Wanaina, the founder of Kwani? and its long serving editor, and great writer himself, Billy Kahora, agreed to be interviewed for our story.

We arrived in Binyavanga’s home with Aman, on a sunny weekday morning. Binyavanga lives in forested part of Nairobi, where the birds chirp to him as he writes in his veranda. I admired this set up as perfectly befitting of a writer and I told myself, that as soon as possible, I need such a setup, away from the hooting, pollution and the bad neighbours who don’t even say hi.

Talking to Binyavanga was enlightening. Hate him. Love him. He is an intellectual. We had a healthy discussion and I remember him telling me how he once asked Achebe on why he stopped writing after 1975, and Achebe told him that, “everyone he knew had either gone to exile or dead.” He shifted more to essays as the room for creative expression had been stifled. Remember Nigeria and in deed across Africa, the Cold War had given excuse for every stupid dictator to cramp down on individual rights and freedoms and writers were routinely targeted. Achebe would later move to the United States, in the 1980s, and was involved in an accident in the early 1990s that condemned to a life on a wheel-chair. He died there in 2013.

It is always good to hear these stories from people who have met greats. Bill Kahora on his end asserted that contemporary writers are not institutionally powerful as the first-generation writers. The two interviews and my story, was unlike anything I had ever doen for the local media, where literature and anything literary is given the shortest shrift of time.

It was a great experience working with Aman. They wanted to hire me, soon after the essay and the two interviews were published (and they delivered me the hard copies of the Millennium Post with the story.)

Aman is a crepuscular who sent me tons of email, on any research topic he wanted us to explore for the next edition. I worked with him, but he wanted me to help him source adverts for their newspaper for a commission, stressing that the page was their brainchild with Kalyan. And I was entitled to a good commission. Sadly, in marketing, I am as terrible as Uhuru is, in managing a country (he himself said he can’t fight corruption).

Besides, they were not paying me a retainer. Or any discernible salary.

“Silas, we will give you exposure. You will be read in India and your name will grow,” Aman would tell me, when driving around with him, chasing air.

Sadly, no landlord in Nairobi can accept exposure as rent, and I couldn’t keep up writing for them, though I did write a couple of pieces for them. The last being, when President Obama came to Kenya last year. I did a report on what the feeling on the ground was, on Obama’s visit to his father’s home as a president of the United States. We remained friends, and I would send them a story, that I thought was relevant, such as when Chinua Achebe died, I wrote the obituary for them.

Sometime in 2013, Kalyan visited Kenya from India. He came to explore on what possibly can be done to make the page better and attract adverts from Kenya and Africa. Besides being a through journalist, he was a great writer, and had done a number of novels and short stories, mostly in his native language. He was a supporter of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s crusade for the people to write in their native languages, if I remember well. He actually loved what Binyavanga Wainaina told us that Salman Rushdie (he of the Satanic Verses fame) may not be the most widely read writer in India, because he writes in English.

Kalyan also had a movie production house that had produced movies and commercials. He loved his job.

When he came, we met at some restaurant at the National Museum.

The first impression I got, was that Kalyan was an abrasive, dismissive and choleric guy. If he was your editor, he will be the guy who will be very strict with deadlines. But, we got talking.

He was a lover of literature and we hit it off quite well.  We discussed Achebe and other greats. His favourite African novel was House Boy, by the Cameroonian author, Ferdinand Oyono. House Boy is a classic, originally published in French, and there is no novel, that easily exposed the stupidity and the humanity of the colonizers than this particular masterpiece. As pieces of African satire goes, this tragic novel is the best.

When he asked me, who is the best contemporary writer at the moment, I said without thinking that it was Chimamanda Adichie.

“She is not. She is not a writer. She is an historian,” he said, adding, “What she does is chic lit.”

That was a bit harsh. Granted, Chimamanda is not your ordinary great storyteller. But she has it. And I have had a number of people complain that she is not all that she is cracked up to be. Aman looked on, since literature was not is specialty. But I saw, Aman had immense respect for the boss, who was now in his 50s.

We did agree to keep on working where necessary, and even without my participation, they kept producing the African page, and they always shared a PDF page with me.

We had not been in touch, since I left for the United States.

Earlier in the week I saw a story that some Indian hotel chain will be opening a five star in the Mara. And I sent Aman a link to that story, if it may be of any use to them. He replied back and told me,

“Sad news,” he started, and I assumed, may be they killed the page, and the message went on…

“Unfortunately Kalyan was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs last December and passed away on the 4th of August this year. He was very fond of your work and attitude towards journalism.”

I was petrified. That is not how life ends. Anyway, I got a chance to meet a great soul, who like me, spoke his mind and a man, whose career trajectory I admired and envied. It is a path I would love to follow.

I only met him once, and he left a great impression. I admired his hard work, the serious attitude towards work, the willingness to take risks when it is so cushy in the comfort zone.

He is now gone, but he touched my life, gave me a chance to be read in India.

For the few years we knew each other and communicated, I am thankful.

May he rest well.

 

 

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