Rotimi Babatunde is the winner of the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Bombay’s Republic”, a gripping tale of a young Nigerian man swept into World War II as a soldier in the Allied “Forgotten Army.” Babatunde is a playwright and author, as well as the Chair of the Writers for Peace Committee at the Nigerian PEN Center.
Bombay’s discoveries of the possible would come faster than the leeches in Burma’s crepuscular jungles. At first, Bombay’s tasks were limited to mule driving and porting baggage. If there are people trying to kill me, it would be stupid of me not to be in a position to kill them also, he repeatedly grumbled to his superiors. To shut him up, he was posted to a combat unit.
The campaign to recapture Buthidaung was in progress. Bombay’s unit was deployed to a swampy pass of the Kaladan Valley where they got isolated from the main army for weeks. Their situation got dire and it seemed they would have to feed on wild bananas lined with pawpaw-like seeds but tasting like detergent. Then Bombay’s squad ran into enemy ambush. They had no option but to dive for cover as hostile gunfire reduced the vegetation above their heads to shreds. Their ammunitions had already gone too low to mount a credible resistance but Bombay thought it wiser to go down fighting and his squad agreed. They charged shrieking at the machinegun position with pangas raised, their common howling and bawling coming as if from a primeval horde of lunatics hell-bent on murder. The firing stopped. Perhaps a freakish mistake damaged the enemy’s equipment mid-operation, anyone would have assumed. When the manic charge Bombay led reached its destination, the enemy was gone. The squad met three machineguns and several abandoned magazines, the operators of the weapons long melted into the greenery like frost crystals blown into the jungle’s humid oven. To Bombay’s astonishment, all the firearms were in excellent working condition. The captured guns ensured the squad’s return to base. On arrival Bombay was made a lance corporal, the first of the promotions that would elevate him to the rank of sergeant and carrier of the regimental flag, and given the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery, one of the three medals he would be awarded on the front.
photo by US Army Africa on a CC license
reprinted with permission from the Caine Prize for African Writing