The Other Africans
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.
But the bloodshed engulfing this troubled land has yet to touch the 8-year-old Vikram, growing up in Nakuru. Every Saturday morning, in an unpaved parking lot near his father's grocery store, Vikram plays with his little sister, Deepa, and their friends, Bill and Anne--a pair of well-scrubbed English siblings--and Njoroge, the "matt black, wooly-haired" grandson of the Lalls' faithful Kikuyu gardener.
It's an unlikely multiracial mix of kids whooping it up in a parking lot, a calm before Kenya's political storms will rip them along the very racial lines they appear to have transcended in more innocent times. But even in childhood, racial intersections are self-conscious affairs. Vikram, for instance, is acutely aware of his nebulous status between the oppressors and the oppressed, an existential state of "in-betweenness" that will dog him for the rest of his life. "I couldn't help feeling that both Bill and Njoroge were genuine, in their very different ways; only I, who stood in the middle, Vikram Lall, cherished son of an Indian grocer, sounded false to myself, rang hollow like a bad penny," he recalls years later in exile.
In his use of characters to allegorize racial relations, Vassanji seems to be winking and nudging at Ngugi wa Thiongo, Kenya's best-known novelist and one who has treated Kenyan Asians as compradors for collaborating with the British during the colonial era and then thriving economically as an isolated capitalist class in postcolonial Kenya. By naming his main Kikuyu character Njoroge--whose namesake in Ngugi's Weep Not, Child also grows up during the Mau Mau rebellion--Vassanji appears to be raising his literary hat to Kenya's pre-eminent postcolonial writer. But in his complex, politically ambivalent portrayal of Africa's Asian community, Vassanji appears to be mocking Ngugi's depiction of Kenyan society through the manichean prisms of class struggle and nationalism.
Indeed, Vassanji's view of Kenya's Asians appears as ambivalent as his "in-between" protagonist's identity crisis. For every Mahesh Uncle, a veteran of the Mahatma Gandhi's Indian freedom struggle and a Mau Mau supporter, there's someone like Vikram's father, Ashok, a stereotypical "hearty" (and none too bright) Punjabi, loyal to the Queen and a member of the Asian Home Guard troops used by the British to suppress the blacks. And by far the most racist character in The In-Between World turns out to be Vikram's mother, whose vicious squashing of Deepa's romance with Njoroge mixes the worst Hindu traditions from the subcontinent--caste-consciousness, communalism and abject disregard for individual will--with the nastiest elements of colonialism.
For Vikram, the ambiguity of his identity will morally and emotionally cripple him in later years as he turns--impassively and without too much reflection--into a money-changing middleman. In the newly independent Kenya, where power has shifted to a group of black elites headed by Jomo Kenyatta, the country's first president, Vikram's community has suddenly slunk from protected colonial collaborators to potential victims. Disproportionately wealthy, avowedly apolitical and intent on keeping themselves culturally and economically apart from black Africans, the Indians now face two stark choices: Pack up and flee--hopefully to Britain--or shell out considerable sums to sundry officials and thugs with political connections to survive. In this climate of rampant corruption, Vikram is the ideal invisible go-between, the middleman who can be trusted to transfer slush funds, hold awkward secrets and pay the requisite personal respects--along with suitcases of cash--to an increasingly duplicitous Kenyatta ensconced in Nairobi's lavish State House.
Years later, while snowbound in his Canadian home-in-exile with only the odd visits from the local librarian for company, Vikram is dispassionate about the moral choices he's made. "Politics confused me; large abstract ideas bewildered me; and-- what was definitely incorrect in newly independent Africa--I had no clear sense of the antagonists, of the right side and the wrong side." In his urge to tell his story without moral judgments or frills, Vikram is ever the objective chronicler. "In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country," he writes at the start of the book, "I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose."