AMRIIKA: A STUDY
M.G. Vassanji’s fourth novel is Amriika. Once again it deals with the themes and ideas that recur throughout his novel. It is an excellent tale of immigrant experience. It explores the state of living in exile. In ‘More Personal Notes on the Book’ the author himself has expressed his views about this book. He says:
How far can political commitment and radical dissent go? How far west can you go? In Canada this novel, beginning in Boston-Cambridge in the Vietnam War era, was seen as documenting the travails of an immigrant; in India it was seen pre-cursing 9/11.The reader can draw his or her conclusion. “Amriika” is how Indians pronounce America.1
That mesmerising locution “Passage to India”2 is inextricably associated in the public mind with E.M. Forster’s well known novel. So someone is surprised to learn that it was not the colonial Forster but the great American poet Walt Whitman who coined this phrase. In his excellent poem of the same name, Walt Whitman meditated on how the search of Europe for this fabled sub-continent ironically led to the discovery of America. For this great American poet, America symbolised “the great achievements of the present”3 and “the facts of modern science”4 while India stood for “the past! The past! The past!”5, the old, most populous, wealthiest of earth’s lands”6 [of] “flowing literatures, tremendous epics, religions, castes.”7 Given Walt Whitman’s moorings in the nineteenth century, it is not remarkable that these Orientalist dichotomies pervade his writings; what is amazing is their prophetic qualities. Today, the America-India interlinks about which Walt Whitman fantasised seem to have grown even more powerful. And indeed it turns out that M.G. Vassanji’s fine novel; quaintly entitled Amriika begins its diasporic and philosophic journey with yet another quotation from the poem “Facing West from California’s Shores.”8
What happens, metaphorically, when an immigrant stands on the Californian shores, “the circles almost circled?”9 He cannot help but look homeward and seek to recall the original purpose of his displacement. At the end of this land he must assemble his memories, reassess both the strengths and fragility of new relationship he has made. The novel Amriika is concerned with precisely these troubled issues as they arise in the mind of its protagonist, Ramji. This earnest and intelligent novel, the fourth from the Indian born author of The Book of Secrets, sedulously charts an Asian African immigrant’s experience of three decades of recent American history. Here is a writer from the Indian diaspora who wishes to write back not just to the empire, but also to his homeland.
Praised for its combination of history and fiction, The Gunny Sack was a movingly told story of a small community of Asian Africans, whom M.G. Vassanji called the Shamsis. “This community corresponds to the Ismailis, who regarded Aga Khan as the 10th avatar of Vishnu.”10 In Uhuru Street, M.G. Vassanji went back to the lives of Cutchi settlers in Dar es Salaam. In Amriika M.G. Vassanji uses the same material, but with a new twist. A writer whose most evocative works are distinguished by luxurious subtleties and a light of touch, M.G. Vassanji does allow his narratives to slide on occasion toward a heavy-handed characterization and somewhat stilted dialogue. Too often in his more traditionally structured novels – No New Land and ambitious Amriika – M.G. Vassanji sacrifices explorations of nuanced character and story in favour of examining what might be best described as the anthropological or sociological tensions confronting immigrants drawn to uneasy promise of a future in North America. Tracing the struggles of an idealistic young Asian African who leaves home in the late sixties to attend an American college, Amriika engages the backdrop of three tumultuous decades in American history, a period of anti-war protests, radicalised politics, sexual openness, and spiritual quests.
M.G. Vassanji, a gifted writer, is a shy, reticent man who hardly looks or behaves like a famous writer. Like The Gunny Sack, No New Land and The Book of Secrets his Amriika is a fantastic piece of work. It is a well told, even observing story that adds to Vassanji’s already versatile and considerable oeuvre. It is an outstanding novel of personal and political awakening that spans three highly charged decades of America and explores the eternal quest for home. Dealing with the theme of rootlessness, it suitably and beautifully articulates nearly all the features of diaspora. Talking of this book and the protagonist Gene Carey is of the view:
Vassanji has inevitably woven his newest tale around the issues of exile, longing, displacement and, ultimately, acceptance. The world of the 1960s from the backdrop – a world of changing values and sexual freedom, of peace marches, religious cults, and protest bombings -- that is the world that Ramji inherits and shapes to make his own.11
Amriika confirms M.G. Vassanji’s reputation as unique chronicler of our times. It is written from the point of view of a third world immigrant from Dar es Salaam, East Africa. In this beautiful and richly textured mosaic of lives and events, M.G. Vassanji deals with the personal experience of an immigrant named Ramji from the Cutchi Ismaili Muslim community. As M.G. Vassanji did in The In-Between world of Vikram Lall, he guides his narrator to a safe location to reminisce. In The In-Between World of Vikram Lall it is Southern Ontario in Canada but in the present novel it is California.
Ramji, an immigrant from Dar es Salaam, narrates many parts of this novel by Vassanji. These parts tell a compelling story of displacement and its after effects. From the Gujarat he never knew, to the Dar es Salaam he grew up in, to the America he adopted as his own, M.G. Vassanji traces the diasporic journey of an immigrant in Amriika. The name of this immigrant is Ramji who is the protagonist of this novel. He seems to be modelled so closely on M.G. Vassanji himself. Here the author records his initiation into student life in Boston.
The plot of this novel is very straightforward. Indian origin boy, a second generation African, Ramji is a native Gujarati Muslim. He belongs to a small community of Cutchi Ismaili Muslims who have settled in Dar es Salaam. His parents are dead and his deeply religious grandmother raises him. Like M.G. Vassanji himself, he leaves his home, and his grandmother in Dar es Salaam, to pursue a bachelor degree on scholarship at the Boston ‘Tech’, a prestigious American school. As a student he arrives in the United States in 1968 from Dar es Salaam, East Africa. “It was time of protest and counter culture.”12 Studying at ‘Tech’ which is obviously modelled on MIT, he is drawn into campus radicalism. He very soon finds himself engulfed in radical politics, especially the anti-war movement.
Almost immediately, we are, vouchsafed a poignant glimpse of our hero being seduced by Ginnie, wife of his American host. It is she who has terminal cancer. This host family provides him with the safe haven he needs in order to find his feet. The adolescent Ramji comes of age when his fascination for his hostess, Ginnie, culminates in a brief affair, and leads him to shed his inhibitions. He loses his virginity.
The usual campus entanglements, both romantic and radical, follow. Ramji’s extensive soul-searching during college involves participation in student demonstrations and residency at the ashram of a local guru. Rukmini Bhaya Nair observes:
Various American beauties involve Ramji in marches against the Vietnam War, with Indian gurus and so forth. Science is represented too in the form of a charismatic, wheel-chaired physics professor who enables Ramji to see himself as a Schroedinger’s Cat ‘smeared’ between cultures. All very exciting, but in time, Ramji finds himself adrift in middle age and caught in a doomed marriage. Twin children and much acrimony later, the American dream appears to have lost its savour.13
From the America of late sixties, M.G. Vassanji moves to what we see as our present today. We find that many of Ramji’s revolutionary classmates have disappeared into comfortable middle class lives and Ramji himself is trapped in an unhappy marriage. With the change in times, Ramji moves into a mundane middle age with a faltering marriage, adultery, children and what we generally call life.
The novel has a repetitive duel movement. It is duel in that it combines two plot lines. One, seemingly the dominant one, is personal; the other is political. It is repetitive in that Ramji goes through similar experiences, both politically and personally, in both parts of the novel. The first part ends with two terminal events, the first of which is political, while the second personal.
Ramji is implicated in a bomb-blast for which a radical dropout that he has known is responsible. Though he suspects that Lucy-Anne is guilty, Ramji shelters his friends in his room. Luckily someone else tattles on her and Ramji gets off scot-free. The woman in question curses him before she goes to jail, assuming that it is Ramji who has betrayed her.
On the personal front, the aging protagonist falls in love with an intriguing beautiful and mysterious young woman from Dar es Salaam. He comes in close contact with this young woman of mixed African and Indian ancestry. She is the daughter of a radical political figure notorious for attacks on the Indian community in Zanzibar. This eventually results in the breakdown of his marriage. He is divorced. Madhumita Bhattacharyya presents this event in the following words:
He finally leaves Zuli for the exotic, sensuous Rumina, who idolises him. Her character is also sketchy, and she becomes yet another peg for her lover’s confusion.14
The second part of the novel is triggered by the latter catastrophe. Overcoming his initial distaste for Rumina he finds a soul mate in her. He feels that his new life with Rumina is his second chance, his opportunity to rediscover who he is – a return to his philosophy. To start over again, Ramji moves west, to California, to join a left wing radical Muslim magazine. He starts his life with the woman he is sure that he is in love with. Here he tries to revisit his earlier, tenuous ties with political radicalism, this time with disastrous result. In California, he reunites not only with Rumina, but a former mentor, Darcy who is an infamous left wing journalist and icon back home in Dar es Salaam. It is he who twice changes the course of Ramji’s life. It is he who puts Ramji on a left wing Muslim magazine.
Like other altruistic ventures on the sunny coast, though, this one too has its down side. Once again, against his better judgement and instincts, he ends up sheltering a fanatical young man who has bombed a store in Michigan. In this bombing, however, there has been a death. The man is on the run, hoping to flee the country. Ramji’s wife Rumina feels very sympathetic to the young man because she believes that he is innocent. Ramji knows otherwise. This creates a subtle rift between them. Ramji is jealous too. In the end, the police break into get the young man who, by now, is holding Rumina’s hostage. The standoff ends with his killing himself. He shoots himself in Rumina’s apartment. This incident causes the sensitive Rumina so much distress that she vanishes. In fact, she is shattered and leaves home. Ramji loses his love a second time. At the end, Ramji is left once more with the sense of perpetual longing and impossible hope. The story ends in the bad, bad world of Los Angeles.
Ramji’s personal journey, his failure in his relationships, his alienation and suffering are all moving. His story ends with a bittersweet and shocking episode. About this ending the comment of Pratima Agnihotri is apt. In ‘A Cry and the Beloved Country’ she says:
Life is once again an excitement worth living when the predicament that had mocked him a quarter of century ago re-surfaces, once again. Just as Lucy Anne, accused of bombing, lands up in his room, and despite his valiant attempts to save her despite the pangs and question of conscience, it is the turn of Michael to destroy, perhaps permanently, the love nest. In a racially surcharged America, once again the ‘native’ is the loser, though he does hope that, just as Lucy Anne understood his kindness and moderation, Rumina would be back.15
M.G. Vassanji manages to hold interest while he describes the sixties. That part of the novel is probably the best portion. His imagery and description is cute, even if it is rather trite. Vassanji’s protagonist goes through every rite of American passage possible, from losing his virginity to an older woman, facing racial discrimination, to dabbling in Eastern mysticism. The entire section is exactly what we could call great literature.
As we know that the quest for identity is one of the major issues in the novels of M.G. Vassanji. Amriika deals with this issue suitably. Here the author endeavours to explore the search for identity through the character of Ramji who tries his best to formulate his identity throughout the novel. It is very hard for him to achieve this aim. He finds numerous hurdles in his way.
As an immigrant Ramji comes in America in hope of achieving the great American dream. The myriad facets he is exposed to overwhelm him. But he finds an America far different from the one he dreams about, one caught up in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, revolutionary life styles, racial discrimination and spiritual quests. The reality he faces is very harsh and awful, and finally he realizes that America cannot appear as a dreamland. He becomes helpless like Nurdin Lalani of No New Land. He has no option except to keep on living there.
As Ramji gradually grows apart from his community of foreign students, he finds himself pulled by the tumultuous current of his times and swept into a world of fast changing sexual mores and values, of peace marches, religious cults and protest bombings that marked the wild United States of 1970s. Through the eyes of this University student, an immigrant, in Boston, Vassanji shows us the portrait of nation. It is the stark picture of the America behind Elvis, Madona, the Kennedys and Donna Reed, and not a beautiful one, at that. In such an atmosphere Ramji is obsessed with negative feeling. He feels that he has completely lost his identity due to displacement from Africa to America. His dream to belong appears as chalk from cheese. In the atmosphere of unfamiliarity, his existence has become a question. He feels that he does not have a proper space to live in. He realizes that he is treated as an outsider. At every moment he suffers from discrimination and inequalities. Gradually, therefore, he needs a space for existence. This is the reason that Ramji goes to California in search of that space. But this search offers him his downfall.
When Ramji first arrives in Boston, he is clear about his political allegiances. In college, the sixties’ activists look down on him for his lack of fervour. Soon his Gandhian sentiment is eroded, giving way to a demonstrating, proselytising philosophy. He loses his political identity and starts suffering from confusion. We are unsure of what Ramji feels most passionately about. He cannot accept the anti-imperialist idealism that depicts the third world as the exploited victim. His middle path leaves him out in the cold. Ramji himself describes his pitiable condition. He admits, “I am so far behind them in how far I can go.”16 But instead of reaching a balanced, logical moderation, his philosophy is ambiguous at the best of times. His change in sentiment seems to be prompted more by lust for the most attractive revolutionaries rather than epiphanic moment. He always lives in the world of ambiguity and doubt:
…his inner life had always been steeped in ambiguity and doubt. He had never belonged to any one place entirely, not stood behind a cause of movement without reservations.17
Our feeling is strengthened when Ramji drifts into a Hindu cult after sleeping with one of the members, despite realising that the guruji of the ashram is fraud. “I wanted to get away”, 18 Ramji explains to a friend after his disenchantment. But his stay at the ashram also leads him to the realisation that he does not want, “beatitude, infinite wisdom, and permanent enlightment.”19 He finally lands on the ground, but not with a thud. He floats back into his theorising leftism. For the large part of the narrative one cannot be sure whether Ramji is aware of his own confusion. Being an immigrant, he suffers from identity crisis. He remains a wavering character. He is full of contradictions – religious, ethnic and personal, yet we never feel their full force. Maintaining a strategy, Vassanji’s narrative is coldly detached. Ramji remains a stranger even after three hundred pages. Just as he remains a stranger to America, never really belonging, yet never feeling the need to leave. Initially secure with his identity, Ramji comes unglued under the pressure of political and civil society of Middle American, as it existed in the late sixties. The story of Ramji obviously reflects that the journey undertaken by a migrant or a migrant community in search of identity, belonging and security is normally shattered by doubts, challenges and never-ending feelings of despair.
M.G. Vassanji takes the dream of the 60s and tells a beautiful tale of a man’s search for his roots. It explores the eternal quest for home. Like other novels of Vassanji, Amriika once again illustrates the complex nature of diasporic narrative. It must speak both to the adopted home and to the homeland, and in Vassanji case the medium or the bridge between the two is older diasporic home, East Africa. In the present novel the protagonist has been shown struggling for home. He hankers after his desire for homely life. In search of this he leaves his first wife and goes to California with Rumina. But when after a subtle rift Rumina leaves home, Ramji is left once more homeless.
In this novel the United States is the canvas for M.G. Vassanji. But most of the time, the novel confines itself to the sub-culture of the Shamsi community. The historical details and the attempt at adding local colour do not seem central to the novel. In other words, America seems merely the setting of the novel. Though Vassanji has placed the main character of the novel in the United States, he has Ramji tied with an umbilical cord to Dar es Salaam, an African city that was Vassanji’s home till 1970s.
M.G. Vassanji is caught between the home ‘there’ and ‘here’. It becomes clear when we study his novels and interviews. Asked about his sense of national identity, Vassanji observed:
In my heart I am still very much an African, but I have lived in Canada for a ling time and it feels like home. At some point in your life you realise there are several homes.20
In an interview with Sayantan Dasgupta, Vassanji expresses his views:
I am more comfortable defining myself in terms of my locale and city. That way Dar es Salaam would be probably the first place that figures as home. Every writer I think belongs to hi city, to the streets and his urban landscape, assuming he is part of an urban ethos. Another place I could call home in that sense would be Toronto in Canada.21
In another interview with Gene Carey, M.G. Vassanji says:
Once I came to the United States I had a fear of losing my link with Tanzania. Then I feared going back because if I went back I feared losing the new world one had discovered.22
He further says:
I went back to Tanzania in 1989 after 19 years. It is a part of my soul. The other part is India, which I visited for first time in 1993. My father has never been to India, the land of my forefathers.23
Talking of his career and roots, M.G. Vassanji expresses his helplessness about returning. He clearly states:
Once you come here, cross the oceans, there is no going back. There is a psychological belonging to East Africa, Particularly Tanzania. You need something to hold on.24
Sometimes it seems that Ramji is Vassanji himself. Vassanji wanted to return to his homeland to teach after completing his Ph.D. but it was not possible for him. Like him Ramji also longs to go back to Tanzania to join in the political struggle but he is trapped in the ideals. Moreover, the American abundance in every possible way enthrals and mocks the atrophies back home. The siren call, in other words, so powerful that nothing can wean him off it – neither a beloved grandmother’s death, nor the political upheavals. Discussing Ramji’s situation Vassanji says:
He has guilt feelings about not returning back to Channel hi knowledge into politics but the idea remains the back of his mind. If learning about radicalism is the first irony in the book, the second one is realization that in America he is still considered a coloured person. 25
Memory plays a very significant role in the novels of M.G. Vassanji. Either in The Gunny Sack or in The Book of Secrets, it is memory that has got a significant place. In The In-Between World of Vikram Lall and No New Land it has played vital role. In Amriika the story springs from the same memory. Vassanji’s engagement with the past is praiseworthy. Unlike the archives, where the past is already digested as the raw material for history writing, the past here is a past of memory. For him it is an aesthetic necessity, and it has great sacral value.
Decades later in a changed America, having recently left a marriage and sub-urban existence, an older Ramji, passionately in love, finds himself drawn into a set of circumstances which hold terrifying reminders of the past and its unanswered questions. In this context Makarand Paranjape observes:
Vassanji’s obsession with the past, with the history of his small community, is well reflected in the tanga painting that he gives to the host family; it bears a simple but telling legend: “Wayfarer look back.” In a sense, this is what Vassanji has been doing all along.26
Told in a spiral fashion, the story of Ramji moves forth through remembrance, which he re-lives time and again, and his affairs of all sorts. With the help of the history Vassanji has tried to explore his own past and at the same time the past of Asian African community in East Africa and America. He has beautifully woven the past with the present. He tries to discuss “how history affects the present and how personal and public history overlap.”27
In Postcolonial times, the Indian community in East Africa got a strange position. Its condition became pitiable. It was marginalized by the postcolonial regime. The members of this community were forced into the international diaspora. The second phase of migration started in the sixties. Some members of the above-mentioned community later undergo a second migration from East Africa towards Europe, Canada and North America. Vassanji is then concerned how these migrations affect the lives and identities of his characters, an issue that is personal to him as well:
[The Indian diaspora] is very important…Once I went to the U.S., suddenly the Indian connections became very important: the sense of origins, trying to understand the roots of India that we had inside us.28
Vassanji has observed about his characters:
I tell stories about marginalized people. All writers do, whether the people in question be a family of Jews in New York or a farming community in Saskatchewan…I’ve had people who’ve moved from Nova Scotia to Toronto tell me that they can appreciate my stories because it speaks to them of their experience. Again it is one of marginalisation.29
In short, Amriika beautifully tackles “the predicament of in-between socities.”30 It is a fantastic diasporic reminiscence with a great, great deal of authentic detail. It also reads like autobiography, slipping from third to first person at various places in the text. Vassanji, of course, makes a point of insisting that everything in the novel is fictitious, but I cannot agree. The incident may be fictional, but the note of personal experience is unmistakable. Here the typical Third World characters, and their cries, inhabit the hyphenated identities and spaces that Vassanji, a literary member of Indian diaspora, explores.
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1. M.G. Vassanji, “Amriika”. < http: // www.mgvassanji.com /personalNotes2.htm >.
2. Walt Whitman, “Passage to India”, ed., Richard Harter Fogle, The Romantic Movement in American Writing (New York: The Odyssey Press, 1966), p. 648.
3. Ibid., p. 648.
4. Ibid., p. 649.
5. Ibid., p. 649.
6. Ibid., p. 652.
7. Ibid., p. 652.
8. M.G. Vassanji, Amriika (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999), p. 1.
9. Rukmini Bhaya Nair, “California Dreaming”. India Today. < http: // www.india-today.com / itoday /books3.htm >.
10. Makarand Paranjape, “Looking Back”, Online Edition of the Hindu, Sunday, August 20, 2000. <http: // www.hindu.com / the hindu/ 2000/ 08 /20 / stories / htm>.
11. Gene Carey, “Ramji’s Amrika”. Rediff on the Net. 5 May 1999. 5 July 2002. < http: // www.rediff.com / news/ 1999/ dec/ 08us.htm >.
12. Makarand Paranjape, “Looking Back”, Online Edition of the Hindu, Sunday, August 20, 2000. <http: // www.hindu.com / the hindu/ 2000/ 08 /20 / stories / htm>.
13. Rukmini Bhaya Nair, “California Dreaming”. India Today. < http: // www.india-today.com / itoday /books3.htm >.
14. Madhumita Bhattacharyya, “Amriika by M.G. Vassanji”. <http: // www.telegraphindia .com / edotoria. htm >.
15. Pratima Agnihotri, “A Cry and the Beloved Country”. http: // www.fullhyderabad.com/ script/ profiles.php3?
16. M.G. Vassanji, Amriika (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1999), p. 22.