In this debut memoir, a globetrotting teacher from small-town India recounts 80 years at home and throughout Africa, against backdrops of occasional political turmoil.
Nadukkudiyil was born in what is now the southern Indian state of Kerala, in 1931, a time when his older relatives could still remember people being bought and much of the country was under British rule. During the next 20 years, Nadukkudiyil lived out a happy, colorful childhood; India struggled for independence; our narrator graduated high school and miserably attempted to work the family farm before being granted a reprieve in the form of college; colonialism ended to great jubilation but also great turbulence; and Nadukkudiyil ran away from home to make his way in the big bad city of Madras, where he was robbed, experienced life at the bottom rung of society and returned home the sheepish prodigal son. Upon graduating college, he set out to teach in first the port city of Aden (now part of Yemen), then rural Ethiopia, less-rural Ethiopia, Eritrea, and finally Nigeria, where he stayed for 25 years through a bloody coup and the Nigerian civil war. Along the way, he married and had kids. The narrator’s good cheer and upbeat outlook on life make for absorbing reading, and wonderfully vivid images appear throughout, such as a childhood memory of clearing the front yard of frogs during a monsoon or milk bottles corked with rolled-up leaves. However, the story is flattened by a lack of shaping or pacing. Too much weight is given to mundane details like the layout of a school or the bureaucratic process of applying for a job transfer, while events that should stand out in sharper relief, like the sight of an anti-Jewish massacre in Aden, are lost in the deluge of information. Numerous unfamiliar terms are used without explanation, and major events like the births of the author’s children do not receive much attention.
A straightforward, good-humored narration of a genuinely fascinating life, but with too many pages devoted to its mundane aspects.