M.G. VASSANJI: AN INTRODUCTION
A prestigious literary member of Indian diaspora and recipient of several literary awards, M.G. Vassanji is
's latest literary golden
boy. Like many others, he is an Indian expatriate separated from the
subcontinent by generations. As a commonwealth literary hero, he must be ranked
alongside Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Nigerian legend Chinua Achebe. Canada
M.G. Vassanji was born in
on 30th May 1950 to Gulamhussein Vassanji and Daulatkhanu Nanji. His family was
a part of community of Indians who had immigrated to Nairobi, Kenya Africa.
As we know that emigration from
did not cease after the abolition of indenture and other systems of organised
export of labour. Emigrations to East African countries namely India Kenya, Uganda
during the late 19th century present a new pattern: ‘free’ or ‘passage’
emigration. Under this pattern trader, petty contractors, artisans, bankers,
clerks and professionals of Tanzania
immigrated to East African countries. This is the pattern under which
Vassanji's ancestors came to India Kenya
from the Gujarat region in northwestern . India
When Vassanji was five, his father died and his mother ran a clothing store to support her five children. His family moved to
were some reasons behind this move. During the colonial era, thousands of
British and European settlers had obtained land seized from the Kikuyu, Dar es Salaam,
Tanzania 's largest
tribe. Determined to get their land back and drive out the foreigners, Kikuyu
fighters took to the forests and swore vengeance against all who opposed their
Mau-Mau crusade. In the 1950s Kikuyu resentment against the Asians, who
dominated trade and the middle levels of colonial service, was on the rise.
After independence in 1963 many Asian business were taken over by Africans.
Asians were forced to leave Kenya .
Vassanji's family thus moved to Kenya Dar es Salaam in
neighbouring . Tanzania
While attending the
Vassanji won a scholarship to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to
study nuclear physics. He went to the University of Nairobi to join MIT in 1970.
In 1978 he earned a Ph.D. in theoretical nuclear physics at the United States . In the same year he immigrated
to University of Pennsylvania Canada to work at the Chalk River
nuclear power laboratories in . In
1980, he moved to Chalk
and began writing. He joined the Toronto , where he
worked as a research associate and lecturer in physics from 1980 and 1989 and
published widely. University
In 1980s Vassanji began to dedicate himself seriously to a longstanding passion, writing. His path to this profession is a surprising one. After completing his doctorate in nuclear physics, he felt that nothing would make him so happy as writing. He felt that he had too many stories to tell. Thus he abandoned academia to pursue the unpredictable writer's life full time. In an interview with Chelva Kanaganayakam, Vassanji said of his decision to leave the field of physics:
It is the kind of thing you can keep on doing. I had reached a point when I could just churn out things. Unless you are at MIT or Harvard, or a place like that, you are not really at the forefront. Sometimes I miss that life because of the way of the thinking it demands. My writing, however, is much more important. It seems to be the mission in life that I finally achieved.1
This decision coincided with the critical success of his 1989 novel, The Gunny Sack. In the same year he, with his wife Nurjehan Aziz, founded and edited the first issue of the Toronto South Asian Review [TSAR], which became the Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad in 1993. At present he lives in
with his wife, Nurjehan Aziz, and has two children, Anil and Kabir. Toronto
M. G. Vassanji has published five novels, The Gunny Sack (1989), No New Land (1991), The Book of Secrets (1994), Amriika (1999) and The In-Between World Of Vikram Lall (2003). His other books include a collection of short stories named
Uhuru Street (1992) as well as a
collection of essays, A Meeting of
Streams: South Asian Canadian Literature (1985).
Vassanji's literary career was launched with the publication of The Gunny Sack, the saga of an Asian African family in
Africa told through the contents of a magic gunny sack. It was his
first attempt at fiction. In this novel Vassanji tells the story of four
generations of Asians in East Africa. He
examines the theme of identity, displacement and race relations. This novel is
both the story of one extended family's existence in East
Africa and a repository for the collective memory and oral history
of many other African Asians. The Gunny
Sack received considerable critical acclaim. In 1990 the book went on to
win the Commonwealth Writers Prize for best book in African region. In that
same year Vassanji was invited to be writer in residence at the . University of Iowa
No New Land is Vassanji's second novel. It is a poignant story of the immigrant experience. It creates a rich portrait of a transplanted community. Vassanji's third novel The Book of Secrets is primarily set in East Africa and deals with the ambiguous situation of South Asians in
East Africa. The story of this novel is based on a diary
kept by a junior British colonial administrator. Here the novelist focuses on
the interaction between the Shamsi (Indian) community and the native Africans,
as well as the colonial administration. Even though none of the characters ever
returned to ,
the country's presence looms throughout the novel. This book was a national
best seller and it won the 1994 inaugural Giller Prize, India 's
richest literary award for a work of fiction. In 1994 Vassanji was awarded the
Harbourfront Festival Prize in recognition of his achievement in and
contribution to the world of letters and in that same year was chosen as one of
the twelve Canadians on MacLean's Honour Roll. Canada
Vassanji's fourth novel Amriika is a remarkable novel of personal and political awakening that spans three decades and explores the eternal quest for home. It is set in the
Vassanji won the Giller Prize for the second time for his fifth novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
This novel tells the story of the in-between life of a man.
Diasporic articulation is evident in the novels of M.G. Vassanji. They are concerned with exile, memory, diasporic consciousness, longing for return, nostalgia, search for identity and sense of belonging. They deal with Indians living in
Some members of this immigrant community later undergo a second migration to
Europe, Canada, or the .
Vassanji is then concerned with how these migrations affect the lives and
identities of his characters, an issue that is personal to him as well: United States
“[The Indian diaspora] is very important... Once I went to the
suddenly the Indian connection became very important: the sense of origins,
trying to understand the roots of that we had inside us.”2 India
How much are we defined by where we live? How much do you create it? Vassanji's fiction is full of such questions. The need to find connections and contradiction between address and spirit runs through his work. Vassanji's presentation of the past is never cut and dried. He has attempted to explore his own past. Thus another major concern of Vassanji is “how history affects the present and how personal and public histories can overlap."3 He believes that reclamation of the past is first serious act of writing.
Vassanji's unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant classical style, his narrative reach, and his characters trying to reconcile different worlds within. For Vassanji, who has experienced displacement from more than one continent, nation is an abstract thing. It is the sense of community and people that survives.
01. Chelva Kanaganayakam, “‘Broadening the Substrata’: An Interview with M. G. Vassanji”, World Literature Written in English 31. 2 (1991), p. 34.
02. Ibid., p. 21.
03. Amin Malak, “Ambivalent Affiliations and the Post- Colonial Condition: The Fiction of M. G. Vassanji”, World Literature Today 67. 2. (spring 1993), p. 279.
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