As It Was

“Get your sweets from the candy man/ get your truth from the shelf/don’t buy into the fairytale/ just be good to yourself” No Small Thing/ TEARS FOR FEARS (2022) 

Maali Almeida. Photographer. Gambler. Slut. Perhaps also the most interesting, confusing, and bemusing literary character I have encountered since, as a 16-year-old, I first discovered Mohun Biswas in his attempts to fit in with the Tulsis. Or Colonel Aureliano Buendia and his (mis)adventures in Macondo, who brought colour to my lifelong love for fiction. Or Saleem Sinai, following his nose from the stroke of midnight through India’s history, who showed me that magic is making real what others are unable to believe. Or the tragic twins, Rahel and Estha Ipe, when they tore away the facade of Paradise, Pickles and Preserves to reveal a human society that is broken, cold, and unforgiving to those who dare break the rules and love the forbidden. And that- the world’s callousness in the face of truth, was 2022 as it was – the deconstruction of the fairytale, our fatalistic desire to return to how things were before The Big Reset – to greed, war, power, and the loneliness of success. 2022 will stand out as a hinge in human history, as the mirror on the wall revealed the old powers to be relics of the past as a new age begins to morph amidst the commotion. 

The months and months of isolation and desperation have taught us only to want more and more. In one of the year’s most ubiquitous pop songs, Harry Styles put it so aptly, “in this world/ it’s just us/ you know it’s not the same as it was”.

But Maali Almeida was not the only character that held out the mirror for us to see the dysfunctional chaos of the year. Shehan Karunatilaka’s Booker Prize-winning satire may be the most visceral commentary yet on the violence that plagued Sri Lanka in the 1980s. Still, Almeida’s debauched and itinerant ghost (the protagonist of the book) could as well have been describing any conflict in any contemporary society today- Tigray, Cameroon, Palestine, Yemen, Ukraine – and be talking about the same broken hopes of half the world right now, “the afterlife is a tax office and everyone wants their rebate.” 

These characters, with their antenna up and their masks off, could be found in all accomplished works of art, perfectly playing out an imperfect world. And their creators, those who can muster words more affecting, honest, and raw, stood out as the year’s heroes.  

“There is no power but what the people allow” House of Dragons (2022)

In the democratic United States, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. In theocratic Iran, hundreds of thousands of women and men marched on the streets to demonstrate against the oppressive laws of the country’s regime. The pendulum in Latin America swung left again in Honduras, Colombia, and Brazil. War returned to Europe, forcing Ukrainians to flee their homes for safety in other countries as Russian forces shelled their cities and Western Europe decided not to close their borders to European refugees. Inflation was a keyword as the world’s food basket was in crisis. There was flooding in Pakistan. Xi Jinping again, and Bibi again. After 232 years, a black woman now serves in the United States Supreme Court. And 67 years after the brutal murder of Emmett Till, lynching has finally been made a federal crime in the US.

Cyril Ramaphosa fought for his political survival in South Africa as terrorists continued to attack Nigeria. There was a landmark peace deal in Ethiopia, ending a two-year civil war. There is a new President in Kenya, as incumbents were re-elected in Angola and Equatorial Guinea. There was the return of the coup (in Burkina Faso) and increasing protests against the French in the Sahel.  

We had the sensational Johnny Depp v Amber Heard and Will Smith at the Oscars. Elon Musk’s reimagining of Twitter, Liz Truss, and the beginning of the end of Trump. Climate crisis. Obi Wan Kenobi and Andor. Wordle. Qatar. Kylian Mbappé. And the eleven Amazigh boys from the north of the continent. And their mothers. 

I met Abdulrazak Gurnah.

If I didn’t mention it, I didn’t forget it. It just wasn’t that important. 

“Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on earth. But it’ll tear your heart out and leave you lonely. You’ll be a shanda for your loved ones. An exile in the desert. A gypsy.” The Fabelmans (2022)

The character of Sammy Fabelman (played by Gabriel LaBelle) in The Fabelmans grapples with the sinking weight of a family secret that he discovered through the lens of his camera as he navigates the trauma of his parent’s divorce and the place of (un)happiness in the humdrum of the everyday. The Banshees of Inisherin, a satire on the Irish civil war, depicts two old friends in an internecine conflict with each other, as one declares an end to their friendship and threatens to self-harm if the other continues to pursue him. It is a shattering tale of the poisonous, spiralling ramification of casual cruelty. In Aftersun, the character Calum (played by Paul Mescal), a 31-year-old father, holidays in a budget resort in Turkey with his 11-year-old daughter in a film heavily layered with depression, love, disappointment, and fill-in-the-blanks space-between words, seen in the flashbacks memories of the daughter, Sophie (played by Frankie Corio). Cate Blanchett delivers a stellar performance in Tár, playing a music conductor drunk with her own talent and success and whose abuse of power leads to an inevitable downfall. In Cha Cha Real Smooth, the character Andrew (played by Cooper Raiff) is a charismatic 22-year-old with no real life prospects but great at livening up parties and flirting with mothers. As he does a great job helping others, he also has to fight his own emptiness and unrequited love. Sometimes the life-of-the-party is also the loneliest man in the room. And in Good Luck To You, Leo Grande, the character Nancy (played by Emma Thompson), a retired school teacher and widow, is at the limit of enduring her unhappiness and hires a sex worker, Leo (played by Daryl McCormack), to help her with a checklist of sexual to-do’s (which she consults with reading glasses). Over the course of four meetings, a philosophical territory of intimacy, ageing, vulnerability, and reassurance opens up. Rich with dialogue, this is a film about sexual self-acceptance and coming to terms with both our physical and emotional nakedness.

“When things are too dangerous to say, sing” Elvis (2022)

Films

  1. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
  2. Elvis
  3. She Said
  4. Cha Cha Real Smooth
  5. The Banshees of Inisherin
  6. The Fabelmans
  7. Aftersun
  8. The Inspection
  9. Tár
  10. Top Gun: Maverick

TV

  1. House of the Dragon (HBO/Showmax)
  2. The White Lotus (Season 2)(HBO/Showmax)
  3. Bad Sisters (Apple TV+)
  4. Pachinko (Apple TV+)
  5. Slow Horses (Apple TV+)
  6. Under the Banner of Heaven (Hulu)
  7. Andor (Disney+)
  8. Shantaram (Apple TV+)
  9. The Staircase (HBO/Showmax)
  10. Station Eleven (HBO/Showmax)

“All the times that I hated myself/ All the times that I wanted to be someone else/ All the times that I should’ve been gentle with me/ All the times that I should’ve been careful with me/ Why did I hate myself so intensely?/ Lord, help me/ I wake up every morning and tell myself/ Good morning, gorgeous” Good morning, gorgeous/ May J. Blige (2022)

2022 must be the year Afrobeat received universal acclaim with Davido bringing the roof down at Lusail stadium while Rema’s Calm Down marked my feel-good song of the year. However, this was also a year when music exploring the possibility of newness amid the devastation of loss and grief calmed me, like a warm coat given to you by a friend when the evening temperature suddenly drops at a party. Being shattered by the piercing lyricism of truth put to a music scale with the soothing voice of Paolo Nutini. The year when old music seems to have, thankfully, begun to eclipse the new in popularity. As evidenced by Kate Bush’s 1985 song, Running Up the Hill, which went to No. 1 in the UK, a feat it hadn’t managed to achieve previously in the 32 years since its first release. The best alternative rock came from Beach House, with songs that swept through me like the soft, sizzling waves that gently break on the Indian Ocean when the tide starts going out – peaceful, rhythmic, and assured of a triumphant return.

However, the song that tops the year for me is Iranian singer Shervin’s Hajipour’s Baraye, a Farsi-language song dedicated to the movement against oppression, aptly subtitled, For Women, Life, Freedom, and for which the authorities in Tehran later arrested him. The song has become a symbol of the movement that began with the killing of Mahsa Amini for refusing to cover her hair. It has now been covered by other artists in the Iranian diaspora, and has been performed live by Coldplay.

“For the sunrise after a long night/ For antidepressant pills and insomnia/ For men, homeland, and prosperity/ For the sake of the girl who wishes she was born a boy/ For women, life, freedom/ For freedom” Baraye/ Shervin Hajipour (2022)

Albums

  1. Last Night in the Bittersweet PAOLO NUTINI
  2. Once Twice Melody BEACH HOUSE
  3. Midnights TAYLOR SWIFT
  4. The Tipping Point TEARS FOR FEARS
  5. Unlimited Love RED HOT CHILLI PEPPERS
  6. Big Time ANGEL OLSEN
  7. Palomino MIRANDA LAMBERT
  8. Wet Leg WET LEG
  9. Cool It Down YEAH YEAH YEAHS
  10. Higher MICHAEL BUBLÉ

Songs

  1. Baraye (For Women, Life, Freedom) SHERVIN HAJIPOUR
  2. Calm Down REMA
  3. Black Summer RED HOT CHILLI PEPPERS
  4. Wild SPOON
  5. boy THE KILLERS
  6. No Small Thing TEARS FOR FEARS
  7. As It Was HARRY STYLES
  8. Love Nwantiti CKAY feat JOEBOY
  9. Ghazali DYSTINCT feat BRYAN MG
  10. Good Morning Gorgeous MARY J BLIGE

“Be the best. Work harder, work smarter. Exceed every expectation. But also, be invisible, imperceptible. Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t inconvenience. Exist in the negative only, the space around. Do not insert yourself into the main narrative. Go unnoticed. Become the air. Open your eyes.” Assembly/ Natasha Brown (2022)

The black British protagonist in Natasha Brown’s Assembly has to contend with her career success amidst experiences of white aggression and jealous co-workers in a novel that analyses Britain’s racial landscape and the myth of its post-racial narratives. NoViolet Bulawayo’s Glory allegorises the aftermath of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in a story set in the fictional country of Jidada run by an authoritarian leader called Old Horse (who is an old horse) with his wife, Dr Sweet Mother, a donkey in Gucci heels. When Old Horse dies, there is a delight as a new horse takes over leadership, but things soon go south. Other inhabitants of Jidada include pigs and cows, goats and sheep, cats and dogs, chickens and a peacock. There is also an unnamed US President who is a Tweeting Baboon. Age of the Strongman by Gideon Rachman is an account of the rise of authoritarianism in the world and how it manifests in both democratic and autocratic systems. Rachman presents the strongman ideology as rooted in global economic and technological changes and in the failures and growing disillusionment with liberal democracy. And Howard French explores the complex relations between Africans and Europeans in the centuries before colonialism in Born in Blackness. His book refutes much of what has been written about this period, illuminating that Africa was never peripheral to global events but was where the modern world came into being.

Books

  1. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida SHEHAN KARUNATILAKA
  2. Assembly NATASHA BROWN
  3. Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World GIDEON RACHMAN
  4. Glory NOVIOLET BULAWAYO
  5. Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War HOWARD FRENCH
  6. Afterlives ABDULRAZAK GURNAH
  7. Tell Me How To Be NEEL PATEL
  8. The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness MEGHAN O’ROURKE
  9. Nightcrawling LEILA MOTTLEY
  10. The Storyteller DAVE GROHL

“They say the truth will set you free, though in Sri Lanka the truth can land you in a cage. And you have no more use for truth or cages or killers or lovers with perfect skin. All you have left are your images of ghosts. That may well be enough.” The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida/ Shehan Karunatilaka (2022)

Why are these characters so familiar? Because we see ourselves in them. Because they say the things we have spoken to ourselves, they feel our hopes and fear our fears. Like Calum, laden with his lack of fulfilment and only his love for his daughter that he seems unable to express. Or Andrew, the charming and brightest spark in the party, who feels inadequate, empty and broken inside. And Sammy, who is surrounded by massive talent in a home that is falling apart. Or Nancy, who has lived a whole life in service, but unsatisfied. This brings me back to Maali Almeida. Self-deprecating and salty-tongued, he saw ugliness and beauty through the same lens, and even in death, he still wanted to save the only two people he loved in life.

We now know that ‘the best’ is no longer the flawless, perfect picture, but Eleanor Rigby with her mask in the jar by the door. The mirror on the wall has shown us that the broken ones are the fairest of them all. We have to look for the cracks in the smile. We have to hear what is unsaid. We have to feel the gaps in the silence. Didn’t Lennon cry out to us, “won’t you please, please help me?” and didn’t we sing and swing instead?

This year, the door swung open into a New Age. Where some see a caterpillar, others will find a butterfly. So we must steady ourselves for African possibilities and steel ourselves for the ride. It has been a year of changes and a year of truths. A year of completed orbits. A year of prodigal returns. Ageing must mean lessons learnt well and using our time to make beautiful art of our lives. It means seeing clearly, staying the course, and believing. The seven moons aren’t over yet. 

A good life. A clear path. A worthy purpose. A deep exhale. 

“If we leave, they win” The Inspection (2022)

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