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.
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.”
While Vikram has sought refuge in “clement” Canada, his new country seems to barely impinge on his consciousness, intent as he is on recording his past in a distant, dangerous land. Vassanji belongs to a distinguished group of foreign-born Canadian writers, notably Bombay-born Rohinton Mistry and Sri Lanka-born Michael Ondaatje, who use their new country as a sort of parking lot. Unlike Monica Ali and Zadie Smith, whose novels take place in bustling London immigrant neighborhoods, and unlike Jhumpa Lahiri, whose stories unfold in suburban South Asian American homes, Canada’s multicultural writers prefer to train their visions back on their abandoned homes.
The lens through which Vassanji views his native land is certainly sharper than Naipaul’s gloomy vision of postcolonial African malaise. Africa, through Naipaul’s despairingly sinister glasses, is a “stinking, rotting” caricature of a Third World hellhole, a continent best visited briefly before summarily (and quite literally) writing it off. On the other hand, Vassanji’s Africa is a more nuanced terrain, an inhabited space, where the baggage of history jostles with the actions–or passivity–of its inhabitants, and where hope, generosity and personal responsibility wrestle with despair, greed and corruption.
But Vassanji is by no means an apologist for Africa or its Asian community. Like Naipaul, he is adept at tearing the skin of corruption to reveal its bloody, hidden entrails. While Naipaul’s Salim is driven to smuggling ivory and gold in a thinly veiled Zaire traumatized by the mad political ambitions of The Big Man, or Mobutu Sese Seko, Vikram too finds himself spiraling into corruption to satisfy Kenyatta’s growing greed. But, unlike Naipaul’s African novels set in unidentified countries and ruled by unnamed dictators,Vassanji’s stories are rooted in a specific historical context. And he’s also not afraid to point fingers at Africa’s formidable statesmen. In The Book of Secrets Nyerere makes an appearance as the vaguely sinister Mwalimu, or “teacher” in Swahili. In The In-Between World Vassanji goes one step further and includes Kenyatta as a character, an imposing leader who doles out privileges in exchange for lavish gifts and infusions into personal bank accounts.
If there’s one thing lacking in The In-Between World, it’s a moral stance, something Vassanji shares with his protagonist. With Vikram as his narrator, Vassanji seems to be a writer in complete control of his material: self-possessed, steady and dispassionate. But the book suffers at times from its reluctance to issue any kind of historical judgment, and one begins to long for some of Naipaul’s withering pronouncements. Does Vassanji view the Mau Mau as freedom fighters or coldblooded killers? Are East Africa’s Asians collaborators or victims? Was Kenya better or worse off under the British? Vassanji prefers to leave these judgments to his readers. Ultimately, this might be a good thing, despite–or perhaps because of–the sense of irresolution it produces. In these days of good versus evil, of coalitions of willing allies pitted against axes of evil, Naipaul’s dependable “hard truths” about the Third World enjoy an understandable currency in the West. But Vassanji’s keen grasp of the murkiness of colonial warfare offers a more instructive guide to our troubled times.