Monday, November 14, 2011

Roots - Alex Haley

Just finished reading Alex Haley's magnificent work 'Roots'. It took me more than a month of reading the 899 page tome. Everyday I'd read and assimilate the small and easily digestible chapters in the book, each describing in detail the account of Kairaba Junta Kinte, the proud African young man from Juffure village in the Gambia in Africa, and his life. So tautly written and filled with content and detail is the book that one cannot even think of missing a line for fear of missing out on an emotion, an act, a thought.

'Roots' traces the childhood and adolescence of the African Kinta Kunte as he grows up in his village, with a detailed account of their customs in the 1700s, his manhood training, his reveling in his youth until he is captured by slave traders and taken to the USA in inhuman conditions. Kinta Kunte survives the journey and a life of hardship as he comes to terms with being a slave to the white man who treat the blacks inhumanly and like livestock. Attempting to escape he gets his foot chopped off in half by his master and only then does he give up running away. His marriage to Bell, his daughter Kizzy whom he loves so much and with whom he shares his African stories, Kizzy being sold out to another white 'massa' and then bearing the child of her massa's rape, the birth of the colourful Chicken George, the story goes into how the blacks were treated worse than cattle. Haley traces the story up to himself, seven generations from Kinta Kunte, as his ancestors get sold over and over again, have no hope of getting freed, suffer enormous atrocities until they are finally 'freed' from bondage.

Slavery meant being whipped, tortured, even killed if one raised a hand against the master, castrated or maimed if one tried to run away. Blacks were not allowed to talk or keep things African, not allowed out of the plantation without a travelling pass (they could be shot for not having a pass), the women were frequently raped by their white masters, families split up as they were sold and resold for money or for sheer whim or disobedience. Blacks were put on the job as soon as they were six and they all bore the name of their master. They were not allowed to read or write and if they were found out, were sold out. Typically the blacks were seen as a commodity as to how much they would earn individually, men, women and even children. Women who were pregnant had their still-in-the-womb children sold off by their masters. And it was work, work and work for the black slaves as they tried to keep the masters in good humour and as they built America.

It was interesting to see how Alex Haley uses the informal network that blacks had to share the news of the outside world and the way that he leads us through the happenings of that time through their discussions. More interesting is how their language developed, from being absolutely clueless to learning to speak small words and phrases and the way he developed it. It must have been difficult to evolve and maintain that language all through, from the few phrases that Junta speaks until it got refined. (I found the same quality of language in 'The Grapes of Wrath' where he uses the exact language of the people as they speak and it is difficult to understand it sometimes - must be something to do with great books. Also the language in both books is amazingly simple!). But the years of research, the experiences he underwent to feel in part what Kunta felt shows in the book. It is certainly a book that will change one's perspective to life.

Roots makes one wonder at how people and cultures can be when they sense an advantage. They will resort to any level to satisfy what appears to be an insatiable, cruel and sadistic greed - and nothing in the world can make them think or behave otherwise - certainly not education, technological or cultural advancement. Even in these times, we see people using child labour, taking advantage of the poor and backward in rural and urban India. To believe that any country or people who have an advantage over the others will do good for those people even in these days is to be foolish. The larger countries are waiting like predators to take over resources of smaller countries and satisfy their greed, their agendas using flimsy excuses. It is a basic human nature and nothing will ever stop it. At the same time life is a great leveler and one sees the sweeping changes that happened in the past century - from the abolition of slavery to anti-racism laws and a level playing field (at least in law). To think that the USA, a young nation if any, and one that is mired in such terrible controversies and human right violations as any not too long ago, now preaches to the rest of the world about the high moral ground is amusing to say the least. Not to mention its desire to stake out American lives, economy as it meddles in everyone else's affairs under the guise of bringing democratic and fair rule.

'Roots', despite its controversies, is the kind of a book that puts life in perspective. I am glad I read it now and not when I was younger when maybe I would not have appreciated it that much. In fact I am now enjoying reading all the fat books that I always skipped. Next on my list are two fat volumes that lie invitingly in my sister's bookshelf 'Gone with the wind' and 'Freedom at midnight'.

No comments: