When V.S. Naipaul, the celebrated bard of Third World migrations, introduced the world to Salim in his 1979 novel A Bend in the River, he was lavishly praised for bringing alive characters new to English literature, the much overlooked inhabitants of places trapped between modernity and tradition. Certainly the likes of Salim, an Indian Muslim merchant doing business in an unnamed African country, were a rarity on Western bookshelves in the 1970s. Called “Asians” across East Africa, the community of shopkeepers, traders, petty officials and schoolteachers formed the hidden brown buffer zone between blacks and whites in colonial African society, a racial group rarely mentioned in the great white settler novels of Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen.
But over the past few years, a remarkable chronicler of the meeting and mingling of the world’s peoples has emerged from Canada, a novelist much celebrated in our politically mild neighboring nation but woefully overlooked in the United States. A Canadian writer of Indian descent, M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in what is now Tanzania. Like Naipaul–a Trinidad-born descendant of Indian laborers–Vassanji is a product of the mass movement of subjects within the colonial outposts of the British Empire. While both writers arrived in the industrialized world as scholarship students, Vassanji’s journey to the West has a more dramatic edge. As a young man, Vassanji managed to purchase a passport under the table in Julius Nyerere’s socialist Tanzania and left the country illegally, taking a bus to Kenya before flying on to Boston to study nuclear physics at MIT.
After studying in the United States, Vassanji moved to Toronto, where he worked as a physicist before taking up writing. A member of an acclaimed group of Canadian multicultural writers, Vassanji shot to fame in 1994, when his third novel, The Book of Secrets–a magnificently complex piece of fiction set in East Africa–was chosen as the inaugural winner of Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize. In his latest novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall–which snagged him his second Giller Prize last year–Vassanji returns to Kenya, the land of his birth and once the pride of Britain’s African colonies.
Narrated by Vikram Lall, a disreputable middle-aged businessman, from his new “home” on the shores of Canada’s Lake Ontario, The In-Between World is an epic tale of modern Kenyan history, mapped out amid the major transplantations of the Lall family. In the course of about five decades, three generations of Lalls have migrated across three continents in a westward movement followed by a growing number of African-born Asians. As a young man, Vikram’s grandfather Anand Lall–along with tens of thousands of other indentured laborers–is shipped from British India to “an alien, beautiful and wild country” across the seas to work on the grand Mombasa-Kampala railway, Britain’s “Gateway to the African Jewel.” In this adopted land Vikram’s father, Ashok Lall, runs a grocery store in the central Kenyan town of Nakuru before moving to the capital, Nairobi. And it is from this country–now independent and governed by a clique of nepotistic politicians–that an adult Vikram is forced to flee Kenya’s anticorruption hounds.
The story of Vikram Lall’s rise and fall begins in 1953, more than half a century after the great European powers divvied up the African continent at the 1885 Berlin Conference. As Vikram and his school friends obsess about Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in distant London, the young monarch’s sweating foot soldiers are fighting a violent anticolonial insurgency in the Kenyan countryside. In the majestic Rift Valley, members of the dominant Kikuyu tribe, impoverished and festering under the massive European land-grab, are taking secret oaths to drive out the white colonizers. Faced with a furtive, loosely organized native rebellion they’ve taken to calling the “Mau Mau” uprising in an attempt to demonize the restive tribes, the British administrators are waging their very own “war on terror.” Brutal killings of white settlers by Mau Mau rebels are followed by vicious British crackdowns involving prolonged detentions, interrogations, tortures, custodial deaths and executions, which in turn fuel further local support for the Mau Mau.