- Sheena Shahani
There is a lot of expectation from a Sunita Shetty presentation, and once again she
did not disappoint.
Sunita’s animated clarity, her high sense of drama at just the right moments, and
her exceptional knack of covering all the bases in a plot, never fail to amaze. One
could go on about her energising and electrifying delivery – but enough of my fan-
Sunita explained why she had picked His Only Wife, the debut novel of the Libero-
Ghanaian author Peace Adzo Medie. His Only Wife is a Reese Witherspoon
bookclub selection and a New York Times notable book of the year for 2020. Why
this work? “Given the times of corona and our inability to travel”, except virtually
and vicariously, she has been looking at titles and searching for authors from
different countries. To top it all off, Africa is a continent close to her heart.
A modern love story set in contemporary Ghana, His Only Wife tells of the
complicated relationship between Afi Tekple, a poor young seamstress in the small
township of Ho, and the influential Accra family who has convinced her to marry its
son, a man she doesn't know, Elikem Ganyo. In exchange, she is assured of
wealth, eventual love, and the achievement of her dreams to become a fashion
The opening line of the book fills the reader with foreboding: “Elikem married me in
absentia; he did not come to our wedding.” According to Ghanaian tradition, it may
happen that a person may not be able to attend his or her wedding, and a proxy
can stand in for the missing person. For the union is between families as much as it
is between the individuals getting married, and moreover, the couple can
strengthen the union at a later date by having it registered in court or sanctified in
church. But there should be a good reason for one of the pair to be missing, like an
emergency. In this case, however, the bridegroom is away on a business trip in
Hong Kong and it seems like he engineered this to avoid coming for his own
In actuality, the arranged marriage between the naive Afi and the sophisticated
Elikem is a way to get the latter to throw out the other woman in his life, his
Liberian mistress, whom his family disapproves of. But does that happen? Does Afi
find true love with Elikem? Does Elikem not only want to have his cake but eat it
too? Do listen to the presentation; do read the book to find out; better still, do both.
Besides the protagonist, the twenty-something Afi, Sunita gave a special mention
to the characters she found most interesting, notably Faustina Ganyo or “Aunty’-
the respectable, generous and helpful mother-in-law who has her hidden agenda;
the straightforward and outspoken Evelyn – Afi’s neighbour in Accra, who lives life
on her own terms and knows what she wants, and the entertaining polygamist
Uncle Pious, Afi’s uncle and Tekple family patriarch.
Comments and reactions of some participants:
Mohini Khot pointed out that despite the locale being Ghana, the story has a
universal feel to it – it could have been set in India, it could be “anyone’s story”,
being as it is about men’s and women’s expectations in a marriage relationship.
Kaveri Narang also found parallels to India – gender relationship issues, women
being in a disadvantageous position, the ‘fair and lovely’ cliche. Kaveri reiterated
what Mohini had said earlier, about the importance of a male child, that Afi gets a
sense of identity and self worth only after a son is born to her- this gives her
Soni Valecha, a longtime Ghana resident felt that it’s an “authentic and beautiful”
story – as the older generations did have multiple wives and children. This left the
father penniless as he had so many pax to feed and educate. But today’s
generation do not want polygamy, things are definitely changing, and I welcome
that, she said. The author could have made the story longer and more balanced by
talking about the extreme side of the spectrum – the Fantis – a very matriarchal
society where the women wear the pants in the household.
Sunita underlined that the story is about change and growth. It’s about how this
young woman Afi goes forward two steps and goes back two steps and then she
finally realises what she wants. She wants to be an only wife and will not
compromise. Her husband’s unwillingness to grant her that status makes her walk
out. She discovers herself and finds herself.
Yours truly felt that Afi’s narcissism about her good looks was very tiresome. She
goes on and on about her beauty and her skin colour and her appearance. She
enters the union with her eyes open – she knew that her husband had a mistress.
This fact was not hidden – it was the raison d’être of the marriage. Within two years,
when things do not work out according to her reckoning, she delivers an ultimatum
to Elikem – it’s either my way of the highway.
And another voice of dissent: Latika Padgaonkar found that the first half of the
storyline, where the bride just stays in an elegant apartment for months and waits
for her bridegroom, stretched her credibility.
Indu Kulkarni emphasised that the protagonist finds she has the justification and the
right to fight for fealty and loyalty and exclusivity in the marriage – love alone was
not enough any more. Afi realises that the special bond which should be there in
the marriage is missing. She finds her voice, evolves and then decides to move on.
There was major character development in Afi.
His Only Wife is a commonplace, ordinary story but it is fast-paced and makes a
quick read in one sitting. The author’s style is engaging and enjoyable, with her
colourful descriptions of Ghanaian cultural vignettes transporting the reader to that
part of the world. She has succeeded in taking us inside the mind of her
protagonist, and recording in detail all her feelings and emotions which culminate in
the decision she makes in the end.