THE BOOK OF SECRETS: A STUDY
M.G. Vassanji’s third novel, The Book of Secrets, was published in 1994. It’s a fine piece of work that foregrounds the themes and ideas that recur throughout M. G. Vassanji’s fiction. It is an engrossing account of Asians in East Africa. Rich in detail and description, this award winning fiction magnificently deals with immigrants and exiles. It appears as a story of displacement, physical and emotional, and one’s search for identity and a promised land. It explores the state of living in exile from one’s home and from oneself.
This third novel, The Book of Secrets, is a spellbinding novel of generations and the sweep of history. The story of it is a memorable cast of characters, part of Asian community in East Africa, whose lives and fates we follow over the course of seven decades. It is an encompassing tale that flows through lives. It delves deep into the personal lives, loves and cast system surrounding African Indian society. It investigates notions of history and memory; enquiries into how much one can know about the past; ideas of home and community as they extend across time and space; and the insidious legacies of colonialism, war, race, prejudice and religious tolerance.
The Book of Secrets is a novel of the in-between. It explores the border between the self and the other, between giving voice and remaining silent, between the centre and periphery as well between the pure and the hybrid. Its text is located at the intersection between story and history, between the fictional and the factual as well as between realism and representational character of all art. It is a “post-colonial as well as post-modern novel.”1
The world of The Book of Secrets is part fiction - part memory, a history of the people who left Indian shores in search of a dream for Eastern Africa. Here the author focuses on the interaction between the Shamsi [Indian] community and native Africans, as well as the colonial administration. Even though none of the characters ever return to India, the presence of the country looms throughout the novel. Here M.G. Vassanji’s engagement with the history is very significant. With it he has attempted to explore his own past and the past of Indian community in East Africa. He has brilliantly and skillfully woven the past with the present. He discusses “how history affects the present and how personal and public history can overlap.”2
The Book of Secrets is an eloquent story of the diary of Albert Corbin, a junior British colonial administrator, who has served many years in various East African colonies. Immediately before outbreak of World War I, he represents the British Empire as Assistant District Commissioner. He is posted to Kikono, a tiny fictitious Kenyan town near the border of Tanganyika. Immigrants from India, who had come to East Africa in the second half of the 19th century, had founded this town. They became traders and over the generations, some of them prospered. They lived through two world wars, married within their community and lived within their faith. When independence came in 1960s, they were destroyed by the native powers. Thus M.G. Vassanji gives us the history of Indian settlements practically from their beginning to their almost destruction. Pius Fernandes, the narrator of this fascinating novel, uses this description to refer to an old diary on which the novel is based.
Entries into the diary commence at the dawn of the 20th century as British imperialism was setting its root in East Africa. Around the diary is woven the captivating story of a young Asian African, Nurmohamed pipa and his mysterious wife Mariamu, as the forces of the First World War and African Nationalism break down their doors. The effects of these happenings subsequently haunt three generations of Asian Africans beginning with Pipa’s generation.
The colonial history of Kenya and Tanzania serves as the backdrop of The Book of Secrets. Here M.G. Vassanji tells a rich tale complete with historical dates and vivid descriptions of Asian African experience in East Africa in 1913 to 1988. In telling this tale of displacement, the author demonstrates an easy familiarity with history of East Africa.
The novel begins in 1988 when 1913 diary of Alfred Corbin is discovered hidden in an East African shopkeeper’s backroom in Dar es Salaam. A local expert, a retired Goan schoolteacher of history named Pius Fernandes is requested to see if it is worth anything. It is he who has served for several years at a community school in the former German colony and British protectorate of Tanzania. He is entrusted with this diary that details the experiences of Alfred Corbin. This diary interests and inspires him personally as well as professionally. It flames his curiosity. The diary introduces Pius and Vassanji’s readers to the local Indians. The events described in it connect with chains that span three generations and spread over three continents. Pius Fernandes sets out to tell its story but is ensnared by its plot. He reads it and attempts to trace the events that occur after the diary stops.
After the initial examination of the diary, the book of secrets, Pius soon looses his scientific temperament as he finds himself continuing the story that this diary begins. He feels that the story of the diary deals with its writer’s life and at the same time the story of his own life. He finds himself re-examining his own life as an immigrant. He attempts to illuminate the past. Along the way he finds more puzzles than he thinks he solves. Ultimately he learns, “the story is the teller’s, it’s mine.”3 In the prologue he says:
……….because it has no end, this book, it ingests us and carries us with it, and so it grows. 4
The plot of The Book of Secrets has two major strands. Writing with economy and precision M.G. Vassanji first gives portions of Corbin’s diary itself, with its fresh views of colonial life. Then comes what Fernandes discovers in tracing the history of the book and the lives it has touched. There is a wonderful account of the World War I in East Africa. Around the diary are woven a fabulous yarn about a young Shamsi Indian, Nurmohamed Pipa, and his mysterious wife Mariamu. They are the central characters. Nurmohamed Pipa is given abundant scope in the novel. Mariamu had been Alfred Corbin’s housekeeper. This Corbin fell in love with Mariamu who was betrothed to Nurmohamed Pipa. Apparently, Mariamu on being married to Pipa is no longer a virgin. After marriage when she conceives, the question arises as to who is the father of her child. She bears a son, Ali, who has suspiciously light coloured skin and grey eyes. The second part of the novel follows Mariamu’s son Ali’s adventures as a successful salesman. He moves to London with his young wife named Rita. It is she who as a girl was a student of Fernandes and with whom Fernandes was in love.
The evolution of Asian African community as migrant people settled in East Africa is an important theme in The Book of Secrets. The perseverance of Asian African characters such as Nurmohamed Pipa and the attempts at making sense out of the geo-political tumult and social dynamics of change are also other narrative strands that are woven into M.G. Vassanji’s thematic web. The story line of this novel is actually allegorical of Asian African personal and communal quests for success, stability and rootedness in the face of dramatic terrestrial machinations. Indeed, M.G. Vassanji uses Pius Fernandes to narrate The Book of Secrets. Whereas the narrating voice is that of Fernandes, the chief character of the novel is actually Nurmohamed Pipa. The tale of this novel revolves round his character. Most of the narratives of The Book of Secrets is about life experiences of Nurmohamed Pipa, on whom we place our focus in this chapter to show Vassanji’s diasporic articulation.
Nurmohamed Pipa is a metonym of the Asian African in East Africa. M.G. Vassanji has developed his character as a true diasporic figure. He is built around the stereotype of Asian African diaspora. However, his character is not developed in the way that Ngugi does Ramlagoon Dharmasah in Petals of Blood or Karen Blixen does Choleim Hussein in Out of Africa. The development of Nurmohamed Pipa’s character must be observed in the light of his historical experience as a member of migrant, racially distinct Asian African community. It would be better to mention that we are going to focus on Nurmohamed Pipa not only because The Book of Secrets chiefly revolves around his life but also because as Bhabha notes, within postcolonial studies “the stereotype, which is [a] major discursive strategy, is a form of knowledge and identification.”5 It is very interesting to know that Pipa is not fixed stereotypical in the sense of Blixen’s choleim or Ngugi’s Ramlagoon. On the contrary, Nurmohamed Pipa’s actions and character can’t be isolated by the contexts and spaces that make them logical, human and meaningful ones. He is not presented as a stock character out of his social matrix and contextual locations that render him meaningful. Without hesitation it may be added that his depiction gives us a fuller and conceptualised image of human being with a life, family, an origin, passions, ambitions, nightmares and challenges. He is cast in the ambivalent and ambiguity of the many worlds he occupies.
In Nurmohamed Pipa’s character M.G. Vassanji creates an Asian African character that can’t be treated as a lifeless piece of wood. He is a living being caught in the webs vicissitudes of his life as a colonial subject and postcolonial citizen in East Africa. He can be read as an authoritative symbolic vehicle that articulates the various discourses of marginality, diasporality, migrancy and dispossession. Although the narrative worlds of The Book of Secrets is populated with many familiar Asian African figures such as men and women, children and adults, Muslims and Hindus, rich and poor, strong and weak, interstitiality appears to be an enduring principle in all these categories of being. Nurmohamed Pipa is a useful case in point because as M.G. Vassanji points out below, this character achieves his meaning within his community of other Asian African characters. Vassanji acknowledges:
My stories are about individual characters, but they must be seen in the context of their community. 6
M.G. Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack appeared five years before The Book of Secrets. It is here we first see Nurmohamed Pipa through the narrator’s explanation:
Mzee Pipa, Old Barrel, was the oldest resident on the corner of Kichwele and Viongozi-streets. Also called Pipa corner…. 7
Interestingly, the Pipa we meet in The Book of Secrets is the young Pipa. This Pipa is a character described in the diary of a colonial administrator, Alfred Corbin. As Pipa grows up, dreams, achieves, loses and dies. The narrator of The Book of Secrets is reconstructing him:
The younger Pipa is a burly, quarrelsome youth travelling from the border town Moshi in Tanzania to Kikono on the Kenyan side to attend Shamsi community celebrations in a bid to see a girl he intends to marry. 8
Struggle for identity is one of the important features of diaspora. M.G. Vassanji always attempts to establish the quest for identity through his works. His novel The Book of Secrets is a beautiful example of his fictional efforts to resolve the enigma of identity. Through the vivid description of historical events like World War II, Vassanji portrays the cruel brutality that the people of East Africa underwent. The characters of Pius Fernandes, Pipa, Mariamu, Ali and Rita -- all are trying to establish their own relative identities with authenticity. The differentiation between Africans, Indians and White people projects the subtlety of the quest for identity.
The identity that M.G. Vassanji portrays for all his characters comes from the theory of discrimination. This theory is based on colour. But in The Book of Secrets the discrimination is tinged with staunch orthodoxy. The following passage in The Book of Secrets focuses the real feeling of the White for the people like Nurmohamed Pipa:
“The Indians are half savages”, Mrs. Bailey observed, beginning an explanation she had obviously thought out conclusively and in detail.
“And, therefore, worse”, said her companion.
“You can do nothing with them.”
“Gone too far the other way”, she means.
“At least the African you can mould. But the Indians and that Mussulman are incorrigible in their worst habits and superstitions. They will always remain so.”9
Nurmohamed Pipa is a typical case of racially migrant born in East Africa -- though native; his alien origins make him simply impossible to belong to Africa. Pipa like his community in real life forever finds himself at the nexus between political discourse and identity formation. In other words, he can’t define himself out with the racialised political and socio-historical backgrounds that nurse him. His estranged sense of being starts from the very early moments of his life. It is visible in the following excerpt from The Book of Secrets:
His name was Nurmohamed Pipa….Pipa was the nickname given to the family by the neighbourhood, and had stuck. It made him feel a lack of respectability, of a place that was truly home. He was simply an Indian, a mhindi, from Moshi, a town in the vicinity of Kilimanjaro whose masters were Germans.10
Referring to Pipa’s father and mother Vassanji mentions:
He didn’t know where he himself had been born and when, in any calendar, German, Arabic, or Indian. Of his father, he remembered only a tall thin man with a scraggly beard, a kindly grin on his face as he pulled the boy’s cheeks saying ‘Dhaboo’. His father had not died… Nurmohamed Pipa could not recall grief, a graveyard. His father had gone away, and the boy carried this knowledge within him like a hidden deformity. He remembered him as Dhaboo, and for many years lived in the expectation that his father would return that one day when he came home from play Dhaboo would be there waiting.
Of his mother, he remembered the long rains in the wet season falling through the cracks in the thatch roof, himself standing with her, shivering in a pool of water, his sister holding his hand. Another scene: squatting in the latrine with his mother, watching a fast and furious stream hit the ground under her and joining with his own wavering spurt. He looked in vain at her darkness for a member corresponding to his own, had had his arm smacked for pointing at that mysterious shadow….The boy was big and thickest, and nicknamed Pipa, meaning, ‘barrel’, described him so well that it became exclusively his. Boys teased him by running fast and jeering, ‘Pip..Pippip..Pipa!’11
In this rather inauspicious way, we are ushered into the worlds of Nurmohamed Pipa. From the passages mentioned above we can contrive two important details. Firstly, from the last description in the passage above we are invited to the denial of belonging that is to later emerge in the life of Pipa and other Asian African characters in a more apocalyptic manner at the end of M.G. Vassanji’s The Book of Secrets. Secondly, the unfortunate origins of Pipa mark the difficult preliminary environment that bred early Asian Africans and gave them stimulus to forever quest for identity, belonging, home, development and security. In this context it is possible to read in this originary point of time of Nurmohamed Pipa’s life as the general conditions that inform the migratory sensibility in the Asian African psyche.
The origin of Nurmohamed Pipa makes the toughness of diasporic origins clear. It is central in M.G. Vassanji’s fictional world. The novelist is of the view that the early Asian Africans tried their best to come out from the conditions of deprivation, unhomliness and insecurity but in vein. These conditions are the ones that drove many an early migrant from India to Africa. These same conditions form the beginning point of self-definition when Mrs. Gaunt at the start of Vassanji’s first novel The Gunny Sack challenges Salim Juma’s identity. In the originary moment of Nurmohamed Pipa’s life we thus notice the beginning of a narrative of location and dislocation. His early life develops nothing in the character of Pipa but the sense of estrangement.
Nurmohamed Pipa is treated as an unfortunate child in Moshi. He had inauspicious growing up without a father but with an immoral mother. His surly and burly nature marked him out for misfortune. It is these childhood events that loom large for him later in life and in the novel. Unfortunate circumstances appear as part and partial of his life. They follow him like a shadow. As a teenager he decides to abandon his so-called home. He serves as a porter. Moshi then becomes an imaginative location of origin, a site of dislocation. This tiny border town is an interstitial place between Kenya and Tanzania. It gives an interstitial mark on the life and identity of Nurmohamed Pipa.
With the depiction of Nurmohamed Pipa’s early life M.G. Vassanji prepares a strong base for a moving tale. This tale develops as a tragic tale of a man whose major sin was to be born a native of racially alien ancestry in East Africa. Vassanji does this by giving us the view that Nurmohamed is a person denied his place in the world or actually disowned by the very world that he lives in. Pipa is driven away from home due to lack of stability and security. He seems to emerge from a world that fantastically has already set a destiny for him. M.G. Vassanji sums up this:
…. a burly youth with an angry glower for a world that did not want him. 12
Here M.G. Vassanji’s Nurmohamed Pipa becomes an extended metaphor. This extended metaphor clearly articulates the origins of Asian African migrant status at the margins.
The plot of The Book of Secrets deals with Nurmohamed pipa’s tragic mission of quest for a kind of belonging. In search of good fortunes Nurmohamed Pipa plunges from the borderland town Moshi into the other interstitial settings such as the coastal towns of Tanga and Dar es Salaam. In Tanga he gets an opportunity:
He found a job as a sweeper in the big hotel called Kaiserhop on the promenade. He would clean under the tables and chairs after they had gone, sweeping away cigarettes stubs and crumbs, scraps of paper. On rare but not impossible occasions, they left something behind. Once he returned a wallet not before removing one note from it, a modest one…. And was rewarded…. From this sweeper’s job he moved on to pulling a rickshaw rented from an Indian.13
Later in search of his development, Nurmohamed Pipa moves Dar es Salaam. There he engaged himself in a number of odd jobs for a few months. Due to his movement from one location to another, he has to face a lot of challenges. The most significant of them all is that he feels the need to belong, the need to identify with certain people, a certain place. Vassanji observes:
Dar es Salaam was all that he had been promised it would be…. Her, surely, was opportunity; yet how was to go about finding it? Who was he in this town, who knew him? As he was to find out, you had to…be somebody. Of his savings only a little remained, and certainly not enough to go back home the way he had come.14
The sorrow and pain of Nurmohamed Pipa is that as a migrant he can never really belong. Underlying every action, thought and dreams in the life of Pipa, there seem to be ever rising hurdles, to be surmounted, making it really impossible to him to ever achieve the measure of comfort and security which he seeks. The breakout of such tensions and hurdles on the way to Pipa’s destination places the painful lesson that his past can’t be shed.
The passage mentioned below clearly, magnificently and suitably reflects the gloomy life of Nurmohamed Pipa:
Often the afternoon he would sit before the blindfolded camel that drove the mill as it walked perpetually in circles…. patient, doggedly persistent, in the illusion that it had a destination…. And he would feel a surge of pity for it. Where the beast thinks it was going…. did it see rewards at the end of its journey, did it hope to meet a mate, did it hope for happiness, children old age? 15
Here M.G. Vassanji clearly states that the journey undertaken by a migrant or a migrant community in search of identity, belonging, security and home in foreign locations is normally marred by challenges, doubts and never ending feelings of despair.
Solidarity is one of the important characteristics of diaspora. In The Book of Secrets it finds beautiful reflection and articulation. We know that the Shamsis are M.G. Vassanji’s fictional rendering of the Ismailis, a Muslim community that migrated to East Africa from the north west of India in the 19th century. The Shamsis, as they appear in The Book of Secrets, are tightly knit community with its own channels of communication. The close ties between its members are indicative of strong bonds of solidarity, which have also characterised the brotherhood of the Ismailis historically. The Shamsis endeavours to help and assist each other with material support or with finding suitable partners. A beautiful example in The Book of Secrets is Pipa who married to Mariamu.
The narrator of The Book of Secrets narrates how the Asian in East Africa have always been in an insecure position. They occupy a somewhat awkward position. However, from insecure and uncomfortable fate of Asians in East Africa deteriorates to untenable in 1970s. With the advent of nationalism the properties in the context of Tanzania’s socialist phase, many members of the Shamsi community migrate once more. It finds its clear reflection in The Book of Secrets. Every major character of this novel migrates at least once. Pipa who was born in Moshi moves between Moshi, Tanga, Dar es Salaam and Kikono. He migrates to escape insecurity, shame and poverty.
Nurmohamed Pipa, a metonym of Asian African community, is not only a restless character but also a homeless one. It is a deep sense of unhomliness that makes the forefathers of Asian Africans such as Dhanji Govindjhi in The Gunny Sack to migrate from the borderlands of Cutch, Kathiawar and Punjab. It is the same deep sense of unhomliness that drives Nurmohamed Pipa away from his borderland birthplace of Moshi in search of comfort, home and security. It is still the same deep sense of unhomliness that drives scores of post-Pipa generations of Asian Africans from the borderland that is postcolonial East Africa. East Africa is a borderland, a world in-between India and the new Asian African homelands in North America and Western Europe. The similitude of the unhomliness of the characters in the novels, and in the actual circumstances that led Vassanji to self-exile out of East Africa, is a uniting bond. This bond makes the narrative of his stories credible account of the experience of his community.
In The Book of Secrets Nurmohamed Pipa can be seen struggling for home. He feels compelled to run away from spaces that stand in the way of his desire for homely life. This is why Pius Fernandes expresses his view:
Pipa was home now, yet lived in fear. He was a marked man, known both to the agents of Maynard and the allies of Germans; any of them could call on him as they had done in Kikono.16
This illustrated feeling of unhomliness that Nurmohamed Pipa feels after his interstitial experience of the First World War later becomes the hallmark of his state of being as well. No matter where he goes or what he does, he never gets comfort or feels at home. It is for this reason that he rents a house with a shop front in Dar and that’s how the famous Pipa begins anew. Soon after the devastating war and the losses that he incurs, Pipa finds it essential to move back home and revise his life. But his home like that of many other Asian Africans throughout the novel is quite unhomely and as soon as he reaches Moshi, he is off again, in search of homely space:
He had grown to love his wife [before she was raped then murdered by some unknown assailants]. He felt cheated, felt her memory somehow violated by the quick resolution in the matter of her murder. But his elders had ruled; and there was no other authority…. Save the military, which he feared…. To which he could turn. The town of Kikono now held for him the bitter reminder of a happy beginning cut short. Within days, as soon as the British armies had finally broken into German East Africa. Pipa set off from his hometown of Moshi.17
Here we are brought to share in the pains and searching for homes and the pains of losing these homes. Pipa’s tragic identity as a racially migrant in a changing East Africa is beyond his control. So is his interstitial sense, which is interpreted by the postcolonial government as ‘fence sitting’ leads him to that abyss of dispossession as he loses all his wealth in the nativist Africanisation programmes of the 1960s. Finally, with all strength, youth and vigour spent on a null and void journey, Pipa succumbs to the pressure of his diasporic identity as an Asian African in East Africa and dies. He dies at the very same day that the socialist government of Tanzania nationalises its (rental) properties.
Memory is also an important characteristic of diaspora. This characteristic has a significant place in The Book of secrets. The world of memories has always been the germ of Vassanji’s fiction. The author’s engagement with the past and heritage through memory is very significant. The past according to Pius Fernandes should be represented because it can offer meaning:
And so I would construct a history, a living tapestry to join the past to the present, to defy the blistering shimmering dusty bustle of city life outside which makes transients of all.18
For Pius Fernandes, the narrator, the past is an aesthetic necessity; it has great sacral heuristic value:
Of course the past matters, that’s why we need to bury it sometimes. We have to forget to be able to start again.19
In The Book of Secrets memory negotiates the colonial and postcolonial history of East Africa to underscore its contradictions and contingencies. Throughout the novel the history of the struggle of imperial powers of Europe like Germany and England over colonies in Africa, the World Wars, their impact on the Indian diaspora in the African East Coast, and finally the decolonisation of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zanzibar and other nations constitute the troublesome destiny of the people. They are forced to migrate and re-migrate to the place both imaginary and real.
1. John Clement Ball, “Locating M.G. vassanji’s The Book of Secrets: Post Modern, Post-Colonial, or Otherwise?” Floating the Borders: New Contexts in Canadian Criticism, ed. Nurjehan Aziz (Toronto: TSAR, 1999), p. 90.
2. Amin Malak, “Ambivalent Affiliations and the Post-Colonial Condition: The Fiction of M.G. Vassanji”, World Literature Today 67.2. (Spring 1993), p. 279.
3. M.G. Vassanji, The Book of Secrets (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994), p. 92.
4. Ibid., p. 2.
5. Homi K Bhabha, “The Other Questions: Stereotype Discrimination and the Discourse of Colonialism”, in The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), p. 66.
6. Ray Deonandan, An Interview With M.G. Vassanji. Www. Deonandan.com <Accessed on 12 Feb. 2004>
7. M.G.Vassanji, The Gunny Sack (London: Heinemann, 1989), p. 99.
8. M.G. Vassanji, The Book of Secrets (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1994), p. 46.
9. Ibid., p. 39.
10 Ibid., p. 127.
11. Ibid., p. 127-28.
12 Ibid., p. 128.
13. Ibid., p. 130.
14. Ibid., p. 151.
15. Ibid., p. 132.
16. Ibid., p. 200.
17. Ibid., p. 200.
18. Ibid., p. 18.
19. Ibid., p. 298.
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