Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter is such a popular book that I am sure there are uncountable reviews. I am not sure this will pass as a one, much more a good one, but let me say what I have to say about it.
This was one of those deliberate reads; I wanted to read another Female writer from a predominantly Muslim country (for research purposes) and it was a good addition to all I had read in that vein. I won’t bore you with the usual “The book is, as the title implies, a long letter by a widowed woman to her old friend, blah blah…” I’d just go straight to some of the issues that it addressed, seeing how much of it is as real in our world today as it was in the book.
“One does not fix appointments with fate. Fate grasps whom he wants, when it wants. When it moves in the direction of your desires, it brings you plenitude. But more often than not, it unsettles, crosses you. Then one has to endure. I endured the telephone call which disrupted my life.”
This quote brings me to The Widow. Death is devastating. The death of a loved one even more so…with varying Coping Mechanisms, until we finally heal. Dealing with the emotions that come with loss alone is draining, but when one not only breaks down and cries because a loved one died, but breaks down and cries more because of what awaits her as a result of that loss, not emotion-wise, but custom-wise, then widowhood becomes far more devastating than just a vacuum created in one’s life – much more than what is already too much.
Ramatoulaye is our widow, and that telephone call mentioned in the excerpt was the call to deliver the news of her husband’s demise. In her letter to Aissatou, she details events that followed his passing, daily; all that she was made to ‘endure’. And she did endure, as she said herself-
“Alone, I live in a monotony broken only by purifying baths, the changing of my mourning clothes every Monday and Friday. I hope to carry out my duties fully. My heart concurs with the demands of religion. Reared since childhood on their strict precepts, I expect not to fail.”
This here is someone not about to fight against custom. She bemoans it, but endures.
We sometimes question people suffering quietly, why they do not get up and fight, take revenge on all their oppressors…but this book highlights a different angle of Power. Not in the hands of the oppressors, but in the hands of the oppressed –
“Combining your despair, you could have been avengers and made them tremble, all those who are drunk on their wealth ; tremble, those upon whom fate has bestowed favours. A horde powerful in its repugnance and revolt, you could have snatched the bread that your hunger craves.”
Now see what follows this;
“Your stoicism has made you not violent or subversive but true heroes, unknown in the mainstream of history, never upsetting established order, despite your miserable condition.”
I struggle to agree with this wholly, but to an extent, there is some power in a woman surviving this world – some strength to not repay violence with violence…powerful! Ramatoulaye’s demeanour is one of wisdom and calm, she expresses her emotions candidly in the letter, going back to when she ceased to be the only wife;
“Madness or weakness? Heartlessness or irresistible love? What inner torment led Modou Fall to marry Binetou? And to think that I loved this man passionately, to think that twelve times over I carried his child. The addition of a rival to my life was not enough for him. In loving someone else, he burned his past, both morally and materially. He dared to commit such an act of disapproval. And yet, what didn’t he do to make me his wife!”
Which brings me to Polygamy and The First Wife. In Islam, Polygamy is accepted, and a man can marry up to four wives. In this book we see two different reactions to news of an incoming new wife by two different first wives. Aissatou, the recipient of the letter that makes the book, divorced her husband, who brought in a new wife his mother had supposedly ‘imposed’ on him .She left him this letter;
Princes master their feelings to fulfil their duties. Others bend their heads and, in silence, accept a destiny that oppresses them.
That, briefly put, is the internal ordering of our society, with its absurd divisions. I will not yield to it. I cannot accept what you are offering me today in pace of the happiness we once had. You want to draw a line between heartfelt love and physical love. I say that there can be no union of bodies without the heart’s acceptance, however little that may be.
If you can procreate without loving, merely to satisfy the pride of your declining mother, then I find you despicable. At that moment you tumbled from the highest rung of respect on which I have always placed you. Your reasoning, which makes a distinction, is unacceptable to me: on one side, me, ‘your life, your love, your choice’, on the other, ‘young Nabou, to be tolerated for reasons of duty’.
Mawdo, man is one: greatness and animal fused together. None of his acts is pure charity. None is pure bestiality.
I am stripping myself of your love, your name. Clothed in my dignity, the only worthy garment, I go my way.
She left, taking her four sons with her. But Ramatoulaye? Ramatoulaye stayed. She stayed, as the first wife who was barely there, as far as her husband and his second wife were concerned.
“I cried every day.
From then on, my life changed. I had prepared myself for equal sharing, according to the precepts of Islam concerning polygamic life. I was left with empty hands…I lived in a vacuum. And Modou (her husband) avoided me…He never came again; his new found happiness gradually swallowed up his memory of us. He forgot about us.”
You’d say Aissatou was happier in the end, No? Or you might say that well, it was Modou who was not doing the right thing, because the laws of polygamy states clearly that there must be equal sharing of everything – the man, his heart, his attention…everything. But that that was not the case, and so in the case where there is that equal sharing, the woman will be happier…but would she? Aissatou was obviously not willing to share. Was the book in a way projecting how a lot of women in these communities feel about Polygamy? First wives especially? We see how much these first wives and their husbands built together before the new wives came in – younger, naïve, some arrogant and disrespectful, drawing the men away to ‘new pleasures’, leaving the ‘old’ wive feeling discarded and undesirable? Do these ‘new wives’ really have a choice?
Let’s see about Early Marriage.
Both Nabou and Binetou, second wives of Aissatou and Ramatoulaye’s husbands respectively were young when they married Men, old enough to be their fathers. It is said of Binetou that;
“…having withdrawn [her] from school, he (Modou)paid her a monthly allowance of fifty thousand francs, just like a salary due her. The young girl, who was very gifted, wanted to continue her studies, to sit for her baccalaureate.”
Binetou’s mother was the one thirsty for ‘good-living’ and the one who pushed Binetou to go ahead and marry Modou, who was initially her ‘Sugar Daddy’. Perhaps she would have gone through school? Fallen in love (no matter the age)? Did she love Modou? Was the marriage her idea too? She seemed to have been influenced greatly in the choices she made, which only landed her out of school, making babies, and after four years, a widow.
Nabou on the other hand, lived with her Aunt, who happened to be Mawdo’s Aunt too (so they are cousins). And this Aunt particularly was raising her to be her nephew’s wife. Nabou’s entire life was being tailored to fit into Mawdo’s, because this Aunt did not like Aissatou, and needed to get a woman she liked into her nephew’s house in order to have the influence she wanted to have on that household. So Nabou was brought up, and trained as a midwife, and soon enough, married of to Mawdo. Again I ask, was this what she wanted? Or her life was left to be controlled completely by other people? Where was her mind?
Both their lives were very much unambitious and lifeless, in my opinion, with their own dreams, aspirations, potential stifled. It is not so much the age at which they married, but the circumstances surrounding that early marriage, that raised concerns for me.
Like Ramatoulaye herself said,
“Binetou, like many others, was a lamb slaughtered on the altar of affluence.”
Another highlighted theme is Human Nature and Forgiveness. It is a hard thing to choose to forgive someone who hurt you deeply, but we make such choices a lot, I think, because of our nature. It is complex. Our nature makes it hard to forgive and easy to forgive at the same time. We love greatly, we loathe greatly. Knowing ourselves, we hesitate in forgiving, asking “what if I am hurt again?” but our very need to be forgiven, when we wrong others, (and we do wrong others), makes us forgive those who hurt us. Complex…very complex. And we see how this complexity is portrayed in the book. How much trust to give, how much to hold on to, what to forget, what to never forget, although you forgive. Ramatoulaye admitted that;
“When one begins to forgive, there is an avalanche of faults that comes crashing down, and the only thing that remains is to forgive again, to keep on forgiving.”
One wonders whether it was best to forgive and walk away, or forgive and risk having to forgive yet another fault, and another, and another…why? Because of Human nature?
Now marriage in itself – to not be single…seemed like a big deal. Why, Ramatoulaye was barely out of her mourning clothes when suitor after suitor came pouring in, promising her of banishment of her loneliness, security, a roof over her head, as if she had none over her head at that moment. She turned them all down including a man who had loved her even before she married Modou, and never stopped;
You are chasing after a woman who has remained the same, Daouda, despite the intense ravages of suffering. You who have loved me, who loves me still – I don’t doubt it – try to understand me. My conscience is not accommodating enough to enable me to marry you, when only esteem, justified by your many qualities, pulls me towards you. I can offer you nothing else, even though you deserve everything. Esteem is not enough for marriage, whose snares I know from experience. And then the existence of your wife and children further complicates the situation. Abandoned yesterday because of a woman, I cannot lightly bring myself between you and your family.
You think the problem of polygamy is a simple one. Those who are involved in it know the constraints, the lies, the injustices that weigh down their consciences in return for the ephemeral joys of change. I am sure you are motivated by love, a love that existed well before your marriage and that fate has not been able to satisfy. It is with infinite sadness and tear-filled eyes that I offer you my friendship. Dear Daouda, please accept it. It is with pleasure that I shall continue to welcome you to my house. Shall I hope to see you again?
More than all that the book touched on, the strongest was The Bond of Friendship. Aissatou and Ramatoulaye; closer than siblings, with a love so deep, no wonder one was the recipient and the other the writer of this lengthy letter full of deep truths, confessions – heart-baring, soul sisters…soul sisters, Aissatou and Ramatoulaye. They not only loved each other, they supported each other down to the very end.
“Friendship has splendours that love knows not. It grows stronger when crossed, whereas obstacles kill love. Friendship resists time, which wearies and severs couples. It has heights unkown to love.”
The unconditional…sacrificing for the other…these two women shared such rare friendship that served as a backbone for them both. I can say without a doubt that one always kept the other fighting to survive – one the lifeline of the other. Beautiful, amazingly beautiful, the love of Aissatou and Ramatoulaye.
This has been unintentionally lengthy a post and as Ramatoulaye ended her letter,
“Too bad for me if once again I have to write you so long a letter…”