THE IN- BETWEEN WORLD OF VIKRAM LALL: A STUDY
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a compelling record in the voice of a character described as “a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning”1, took three years to write. After research in Kenya and Britain, M.G. Vassanji devoted himself to the novel in a dark office at University of Toronto. It was a hard process of creation and discovery. It was like working on a sculpture. When this novel appeared in 2003, it met with immense international success.
It is indeed vital to recognize contextual influences that inform Vassanji’s literary practice. When Vassanji utilizes the history and experiences of his community to create his textual worlds, he inters into what has been called the pact between a writer and his community, sealing his status as a committed artist. This pact between the writer and his community is often acknowledge by Vassanji himself and others. For instance, upon the publications of his first novel The Gunny Sack, Vassanji did a homecoming tour of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1991. In a subsequent interview with Wahom Muthai he said:
I have tried to differ a certain kind of East African Asian, to create a mythology, which applies not to a nation as in Ngugi Wa Thiong’s case, but to a minority which does not know where it belongs.2
This pact between M.G. Vassanji as a writer and the Asian African community becomes evident in the sentiments of the renowned Kenyan Asian African ethnographer Sultan Somjee after reading The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. He says:
Reading the book, I felt I know all this; I have lived it; I feel it in my veins….I feel I have met and worked with the variety of characters among both Asian families and African friends, and breathed the fragrance of the landscapes but Vassanji has put in touching words what a lesser writer can’t do with such mastry.3
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 of Vikram Lall 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 the 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 labourers – is shipped from British India to an alien, beautiful and wild country across the seas to work on the grand Mombassa-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 by Kenya’s anticorruption hounds, Lall is fugitive, not from justice, and there is none where he comes from. Now he is alone and lost in the snowy Ontario, suspended between multiple worlds, neither Asian, nor African, nor Canadian, neither innocent nor guilty, a captive observer:
My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation – and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.4
And so begins M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. This total self-indictment introduces us to the narrator, Vikram Lall. Lall, “one of the Africa’s most corrupt men”5 who headed his country’s “List of Shame”6, narrates this novel, a personal and political story of Kenya during the years before, during and after its independence from Britain. The narrator, a Kenyan born Indian, now living in Canada, in hiding from those that would hound him in Kenya, recounts the story of his life when he is in his sixties.
Divided in four parts – The Years of Our Loves and Friendships, The Years of Her Passion, The Years of Betrayal, and Homecoming – The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a bold attempt at telling the epic tale of Asian people in Africa.
The story opens in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, around the time of coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Vikram Lall, the protagonist remembers his early life:
Njoroge who was also called William loved my sister Deepa; I was infatuated with another whose name I can’t utter yet, whose brother was another William; we called him Bill. We had all become playmates recently. It was 1953, the coronation year of our new monarch who looked upon us from afar, a cold England of pastel, watery sheds, and I was eight years old.7
Lall’s story begins with his happy childhood in Kenya with his parents, sister Deepa, his uncle and other extended family members and close family friends. Nakuru in the Great Rift Valley is the setting. This is a backwater town on the railway line built by Vikram’s grandfather and other Indian coolies brought in by the British. Here Vikram’s father runs a grocery.
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 furtive, loosely organised rebellions they have taken to calling Mau-Mau uprising in an attempt to demonise the restive tribes, the British administrators is waging their very own war on terror. Attack and counter attack are going on. Brutal killings of white settlers by Mau-Mau rebels are followed by vicious British crackdowns involving prolonged detentions, 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”8 near his father’s grocery store, Vikram plays with his little sister, Deepa, and their friends, Bill and Annie – a pair of well scrubbed English siblings – and Njoroge, the matt black, woolly-haired grandson of the Lall’s faithful Kikuyu gardener. From his hideout in Ontario, Canada, Vikram recounts his idyllic childhood days:
I call forth for you here my beginning, the world of my childhood, in that fateful year of our friendships. It was a world of innocence and play, under a guileless constant sun; as well, of barbarous cruelty and terror lurking in darkest night; a colonial world of repressive, undignified subject-hood, as also of seductive order and security….so that long afterwards we would be tempted to wonder if we did not hurry forth too fast straight into the morass that is now our malformed freedom.9
In a move that sets the tone of much of the work, Deepa and Njoroge soon develop a strong affection for each other, one that will haunt the narrative at the end. It is here too that Vic, the anglicised name of Vikram used throughout the novel, falls in love with Annie who used to play Sita to Ram in a Diwali inspired game.
The idyllic life around Vikram soon begins to collapse as the Mau-Mau insurrection enters his life. Eventually Vic does take a secret blood oath with Njoroge to support Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Mau-Mau movement. He discovers his Mahesh uncle’s secret activities in support of the Mau-Mau. The Mau-Mau rebels increase the frequency of their raids against the whites. In a gruesome attack they kill the entire Bruce family including Vic’s beloved Annie. Vikram never recovers from this horrific and tragic event.
The horrible killings and increasing unrest create a sudden displacement for everybody. Vikram’s family moves to Nairobi hoping to have safer home, away from the Mau-Mau killings. Still Vic cannot manage to shake away his image of the brutal killings. After moving to Nairobi, Vic’s father, Ashok, gives up business as a shopkeeper and begins to work as an estate agent. He starts selling the houses of many white Kenyans who choose to flee the newly independent nation they once called home.
The novel resumes in 1965, after Kenya has achieved independence. Jomo Kenyatta has advanced from political prisoner to president. Vikram, now a Kenyan citizen finishes his education at Dar es Salaam to seek his opportunities in the world. The family’s personal lives begin to deteriorate as they must adapt to the changed circumstances of life in the city, rather than their previous lives in the less urban area of Nakuru, where everyone knew and respected each other.
Njoroge, Vic’s childhood friend, is in Nairobi, too, studying Economics at Makerere. One day he shows up, handsome, personable, well educated, and idealistic. The Lalls have not seen him since his grandfather died in custody. Once again he becomes an intimate friend of the family. Here Njoroge and Deepa try to rekindle their love. They grow up a passionate love affair but neither community approves of their relationship. Deepa’s love is fiercely opposed by her mother. Eventually Deepa is married with Dilip, a young and wealthy Indian. After marriage Deepa and Dilip soon leave for London, but Deepa’s love for Njoroge remains a central theme in the novel.
Njoroge now marries a black woman. Vic himself marries with an Indian woman. Everything around Vic simmers and burns slowly and his own life becomes predictable and mundane – marriages to a virgin Indian girl, a pack of children and straight family life. Rice and daal and Chappati forever. Curiously passive, at least on his own account, Vic is set for life as an Indian businessman, part of a new Africa, but when Njoroge appears, things begin to change. Eventually, by the support of Njoroge, he gets a job in the Ministry of Transport.
Part three, entitled ‘The Years of Betrayal’, and is the largest and most dramatic part of the novel. This part seeks to encompass the varied and multiple ways in which human beings betray each other, themselves and their nations. In the period covered here Lall’s father is unfaithful to his wife; Deepa to Dilip; Vic to his wife Shobha; politicians such as Jomo Kenyatta, Okello Okello and Paul Nderi will betray their people; friends and family both cheat and suffer the ignominy of deception and lies. This section provides also a map of Kenya’s long and painful period of transition between political independence and national maturity. Although a detailed portrait of the experiences of Kenya’s small Indian community, the novel tells a boarder tale of the new nation’s struggle for harmony between different ethnic groups and their political representatives. Here, again, Vassanji tells the grand narrative of Kenya’s political, national struggle through a focus on the acts, dreams, fears and desires of anonymous people such as Vikram Lall and the Asian Africans.
This third section of the novel is very impressive. It traces Vikram’s career. It chronicles Vic’s gradual progression from working as an employer of the Ministry of Transport to becoming a crucial cog in embezzlement scheme in high places, almost without realising it. After completing his studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, Vikram finds a prestigious post in the new government, first as comptroller in the Ministry of Transport and then as a personal assistant to Paul Nderi, a corrupt minister. On the basis of his talent and diligence he swiftly raises through the ranks, to the point where he has the trust of all powerful Father of the Nation, Jomo Kenyatta. As a fixer of rare talent, Vikram is gradually drawn into a web of official and political larceny.
Nderi uses Vikram to conduct a massive money-laundering scheme involving American aid money and members of Vikram’s extended family who become the chief financiers of corrupt deals and dubious transactions on behalf of powerful politicians. He is sucked from a successful civil service career into the corruption of a postcolonial Kenya, where he becomes involved, with others, in scams that skim millions of dollars of aid money from public coffers, earning him the notoriety of one of the most hated men of his time and place. In the end he is framed by his party, led down by the very people that employed him. He is the perfect scapegoat. After his dismissal he is a marked man in Kenya. He escaped to Canada, from where he tells his life story.
In the last section entitled Homecoming, Vassanji develops a present day counter plot, which sees the adult Vikram living in a snowy town in rural Ontario. The local librarian herself of Indian extraction, begins to find out about Vikram’s tainted past. Meanwhile Njoroge’s angry young son, Joseph, visits Vikram. Now settled in Canada, Deepa has asked Lall to look after Joseph who is shortly to begin college in Toronto. Between the two men there is a little affection. In spite of that Joseph agrees to come and stay, and Vic to take him in out of respect for Deepa’s wishes. Vikram reveals that Joseph had become involved in student activism back home in Kenya, a tempting and hazardous occupation. He resents his radical politics – Vic’s tense relationship with Joseph, who despises Vikram for plundering his country, sets Vic reflecting on the past.
Throughout the novel Vic agonises over whether to go back to Kenya and deal with the consequences of his past actions. Joseph’s unexpected decision to go back to Kenya, as the political situation once again flares up, finally persuades Vic to undertake the trip he ponders throughout the novel. Although he intends to secure Joseph’s release, he decides to return to Kenya from his safe haven in Canada and also to pay his debt to Kenya, and to settle anew in the place he calls home. Yet again, he is placed in an in-between position, expected to take the blame for the actions of senior ministers whose skin colour exempts them from guilt and responsibility. The head has changed but the body of the politics is the same. Vikram concludes that to the Africans he would always be the Asian, the Shylock; he would never escape that suspicion, that stigma.
As it has been discussed in the previous chapters that a sense of identity, a feeling of discrimination and demarcation, have always been important issues in the writings of the literary members of Indian diaspora. Writing from “a hyphenated”10 space probably instigates authors like Vassanji to manifest their expressions of identity. The feeling of belonging and not belonging is very central to the book. In this context this is deeply a personal book. Vassanji articulates time and again that when he lived in Tanzania he belonged and did not belong because he had come from Kenya. It is true to the protagonist of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
This novel is a profound and careful examination of Vikram Lall’s search for his place in the world and at the same time it deals with rootlessness of those who have no fixed national identity. In independent Kenya he wants to secure his identity as a civil servant but the officers and politicians cut him out. On the basis of his talent and diligence he becomes a successful fixer to ensure his place and his family’s in Kenya. But he is embroiled in a corruption scandal and thus his identity suffers from danger. He is declared as “one of Africa’s most corrupt men.” 11 He has been labelled with “a cheat of monstrous reptilian cunning.” 12
The protagonist of this epic tale is depicted less as a man who is out to get whatever he can than as a man who has found himself in a position in which he can’t refuse to do what he has been told to do, even though he knows that it is wrong. His life is dependent less on his own will than it is on the political whims of the day. Indeed Vassanji’s view of Kenya’s Asians appears as ambivalent as his in-between protagonist’s identity crisis. 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 first president of the country, 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 middle man 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.
Year’s later, white snow bound 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. According to him politics confused him; large abstract ideas bewildered him; and – what was definitely incorrect in newly independent Africa -- he had no clear sense of the antagonists, of the right side and the wrong side. In his urge to tell his story without moral judgements or frills, Vikram is always the objective chronicler. “In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country”13, he writes at the start of the book, “I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose.”14 While Vikram has sought refuge in “clement”15 Canada, his new country seems to barely impinge on his consciousness, intent as he is on recording his past in a distant, dangerous land.
Deepa and Vikram can’t realise their dreams of getting married to their beloveds. Though, finally they make marriages, but these relationships provide little emotional sustenance, or finally protection. We learn that Vikram’s sister had never been emotionally satisfied after her forced break-up with Njoroge. The portrait of Vikram’s father is one of great pathos. He will neither be Indian enough for his wife’s relatives, nor African enough for the African descended Kenyans, even after he takes up, after his wife’s death, with an African woman. After moving to Nairobi Vikram’s father gives up his business as a shopkeeper and begins to work as an estate agent. The condition of the family begins to deteriorate, as they must adapt to the changed circumstances of life in the city, rather than previous lives in the less urban area of Nakuru, where everyone knew and respected each other. Here in Nairobi the members of this family have lost their identity. Nobody knows them. They do not get proper response there. Vic, the metonymy of Indian Kenyans, wants to survive but rootlessness, racism, displacement and in-betweenness appear as barriers before him.
In The In-Between World of Vikram Lall the major thing that stands out is people who are in-between. The story revolves around Vikram Lall whose grandfather, Anand Lall, was brought from India as an indentured worker to Kenya to help build the East African railway. Though his grandfather played a significant role in the development of Kenya, the status of his family remains enigmatic unsettlers. Indians in Africa are viewed as the Other by both whites and blacks. While reading the book we can easily conclude that Vassanji’s world is really in-between because as an Indian in Africa, he is positioned between two groups, the Europeans and the Africans, neither group of which he could be an intrinsic part of and looked down upon with deep suspicion, by both.
As an Indian child growing up in 1950s Kenya, Vikram Lall is at the centre of two warring worlds – one of childhood “innocence”16, the other a “colonial world of repressive, undignified subjecthood.”17 In a quiet retreat near the shores of Lake Ontario sits Vikram Lall, who has been forced into exile; he is in his own words, “numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning.”18 Now he wants, not to speak in his defence, but to simply explain his life. He begins with 1953, when he was eight years old, and living in British ruled Kenya. Lall inhibits a place in-between the young playmates in his town. He feels that he is neither a native of the land like his friend Njoroge nor is he anything like Bill and Annie, the children of British colonials; in a sense Vikram Lall is an in-between from very early in his life.
The novel deals with Vikram’s liminal position. He is a migrant in Canada, a perpetually offshore Indian and a native of Africa. His in-between world is that of the Asian African in colonial and postcolonial Africa. He belongs to Indian community of Kenya, which is socially and politically sandwiched between the White and the Black. Before Kenyan independence the British used the Kenyan Indians to suppress the Africans. Anyway, things were not rosy in Kenya after independence. The social hierarchy gets flipped after this independence leaving the Indians in the middle again. The Africans, drunk on this new state of African power, turned not only upon their ex-rulers, the British, but also upon Kenyan Indians, trying to seize their properties and business through sheer intimidation.
In fact, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall tells the story of an immigrant named Vikram Lall who represents the Indians in Kenya. Indeed, the Indians hold that tenuous in-between position, not as lowly or poor as the Africans, but definitely lacking in power and subject to the colonial overlords. Like his father who continued to work as a middleman, no longer in a shop but in the field of real estate, Vikram also took work as someone else’s agent.
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is not only a history lesson. Beneath it is the much more intimate story of the fate and fortunes of Vikram Lall and his extended family. Here Vassanji explores the subtle distinctions that exist between different racial, ethnic and tribal groups during that period of rapid change. The whole spectrum is represented in one way or another, from the old-fashioned allegiance of Vikram’s father to Queen and country to the nationalistic fervour of Africanization. Discussing the three tier racial society of East Africa Taban Lo Liyong says, “This society comprises of indigenous Africa (Blacks), Caucasoid (Whites) and Asiatic (Browns).”19 Vikram, who is not white enough to be British, like his friends Annie and Bill, or quite black enough to be like his African friend Njoroge, realizes early on that he and his sister Deepa inhabit a murky middle ground which makes them suspect to both the white and the black communities. Vikram feels that they lived in a compartmentalized society; every evening from the melting pot of city life each person went his long way home to his family, his church, and his fold.
Vikram is a native of Africa whose racialist ideologies do not admit that he is in fact of native of it. Vassanji superbly limns the pathos of this condition. Though Vic is a third generation Asian African, he understands that Njoroge is somehow more Kenyan than he or his family ever is. Vikram’s childhood, for a while, seems almost idyllic – spent in the company of his British friends, Bill and Annie Bruce, the gardener’s child, a Kikuyu, Njoroge and his own sister Deepa. It is unlikely multiracial mix of kids whooping it up in a “parking lot”20, a calm before Kenya’s political storms will rip them along the very racial lines they appear to have transcendent 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 oppressed an existential state of in-betweenness that will dog him for the rest of his life. He could not help feeling that both Bill and Njoroge were genuine, in their very different ways; only he, who stood in the middle, Vikram Lall, cherished son of an Indian grocer, sounded false to himself, rang hollow like a bad penny.
In his very early life Vikram experiences the racism that was apparent everywhere. The British, or whites, were at the top of social ladder, while the Africans were on the bottom. Stuck in the middle were the Indians. The ugly and horrible face of the racism can be seen in the following excerpt:
By comparison our end was sedate, orderly: a few vehicles parked, a few rickety tables outside Arnauti’s occupied by Europeans on a good day…….and my sisters and I could go to Arnauti’s, where we were allowed a corner table outside, though not our black friend Njoroge, who with quite straight face, head in the air and hands in the po0cket, would proudly wander off.21
In such a racially divided society, interracial love is not only frowned upon, it can have explosive and far-reaching consequences. Deepa and Njoroge’s love story is drawn particularly gorgeously chiselling out the politics of race, class and identity. Vikram’s sister, Deepa learns this the hard way when she re-establishes contact with her childhood sweetheart, Njoroge. They try to ignore the cultural and colour barriers of that era. They want to marry. But neither community approves of the relationship between them. Njoroge who deeply loves Deepa, finds her family as obstinately against their relationship as Vikram finds his girl friend’s family to be against him – her family is Muslim from Gujarat, while his is Hindu from Punjab.
Beautifully written this episode reveals the fears and prejudices that always existed in the Kenyan society. Vikram, ever the keen observer, supports his sister’s forbidden romance, although he himself, damaged by the loss of his first love, finds he can’t follow through with his own courtship of Yasmin, a Muslim girl he meets at University in Dar es Salaam. His friendship is threatened by racially inspired attacks from her people. One night Vikram and Deepa are attacked by a mob of Tanzanian Muslims who have identified Vikram as Nairobi Punjabi Hindu courting a Muslim, whose sister is dating an African. Their breaching of tribal boundaries is an abhorrent to their contemporaries as it is to their mother. The inclusive dream of their childhood is revealed as just that, dream. It seems as if the only alternative is to settle for a traditional Indian marriage. Deepa resists her fate, but friendly coercion wins out again, and brother and sister, shaken and changed, follow the stereotypical and supposedly safe paths that are expected of them by their communities. For Vic, it means marriage to an Indian virgin girl, a pack of children, and the straight family life. Rice and daal and chappati forever. Though examples of successful interracial relationships exist – Juma and Sakina Molabux, Janice and Mungai – they seem the exception rather than the rule. In post independence Kenya change is in the air, but it seems that old prejudices persist – or have been replaced by new ones.
In The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, Vassanji returns to the theme that preoccupied him in earlier works. It deals with the strange position of Asian Africans in East Africa. In the figure of Vikram Lall, Vassanji has created a character whose life reflects the myriad experiences of thousands of Asian Africans in latter half of 20th century, but also, more generally, a figure through whom he explores broader issues of the Indian diaspora.
M.G. Vassanji is quite a wordsmith. His descriptions of Indian food, family life and community are both rich and delicious. Vikram remembers:
On Saturday mornings, with the schools closed, my sister and I went down to the shop with our parents. Sun-drenched Saturdays is how I think of those days, what memories trapped for me days of play. Though it could get cold at times, and in the morning the ground might be covered in frost. At the other end of the mall from us, Lakshmi Sweets was always bustling at midmorning, Indian families having stopped over in their cars for bhajias, samosas, dhokras, bhel-puri and tea, which they consumed noisily and with gusto.22
Like many other writers of Indian diaspora, Vassanji uses the names of Indian cuisines deliberately. With the help of this use the author wants to affirm the existence and identity of the Indian immigrants in Kenya. As we know that the cultural identity that comes up through food is very energetic because it highlights the everyday modes of life. This is reason why Vassanji mentions the names of Indian foods in his novels. In No New Land Sheru Mama and her husband tend to serve chappati that way:
Sheru Mama makes hundreds of chappatis everyday and baby-sits to toddlers at the same time, while husband Ramju helps with the dishes and puts the required dollop of margarine over every chappati. Her customers tend to be single men who will eat a chappati with a pickle, or butter and jam, or curry canned in the U.S.23
“Samosas” are the favourite snacks of people of northern part India. They like to take them with tea. Even in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall we find great fascination of Indians for samosa and tea. Remembering his idyllic childhood Vikram says:
…Indians families having stopped over in their cars for bhajias, samosas, dhokras, bhel-puri and tea….my father and mother always ordered tea and snacks from Lakshmi…25
It is not only description of about food, but also of enumerating the traditions, customs and typical Indian characteristics that prove the fact that maintenance of culture is an innate trait of immigrants. Vikram and his family, and all the other inhabitants of Nakuru try to maintain their culture.
Esman regards that a diaspora is a minority ethnic group of migrant origin, which maintains sentimental or material links with its land of origin. It is true to this novel. We see that Vikram’s father Ashok, an Indian diaspora, finds references to Indian politicians, such as the pro-axis figure Subhash Chandra Bose and even Gandhi himself, to be “quite alien.”26
Books set in Kenya, hardly mention the presence of Indians who played an important role in the growth of Nairobi, the building of the railway, and the politics of the country, their dilemma was that they were both Asian and African. After Amriika when Vassanji’s publisher asked him what he was doing next, he replied her that he was going home. This book is it. This is nothing but longing for home. Here the author shows his clear inclination towards his back home.
When Vassanji finished his Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Pennsylvania, he wanted to return to Africa to teach, but independence had led to an exodus of Indians. He found he could not go back. His books become the doorways through which he tries to go home. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is such an attempt. Having been removed from a place of supposed origin and without emotional, political and cultural affiliations, to territorially bound, static localities diasporic people move on, as indeed their homes do, like tortoises and their shells. Mandeville therefore, comments that “identity and place”27 of diasporic communities “travel together”28 and these communities practice “the complex politics of here and there.”29 The notions of home becomes complex in Vassanji case – owing to his over hyphenated identity, the question of exilic condition in the urban landscape for him becomes entwined with the notion of home away from home in one sense and no home in particular in another sense. In an interview he 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.30
This statement makes it clear that he is caught between the homes ‘there’ and ‘here’. On the basis of the idea of multi-locational home he conciliates between the nostalgic desire for home and community through his characters. It is visible in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
In the first section of the novel Vassanji creates a world of immigrants that is a classic, with all the tensions between the generations and the desire to become part of new land without losing the old culture. Vic’s world has an added complication: The Indians, brought in as cheap, reliable, if despised, labour by the British, and are regarded as the outsiders by the Africans. Among the Indians themselves age-old animosities from home continue, exacerbated by the savagely murderous partition of India. The Lalls, Hindus from Peshawar in what is now Muslim Pakistan, no longer have ‘a home’, even if they wanted to return.
The idea of home for Vassanji is, in fact, always something of a creative act. East Africa has continued to haunt his novel; a complex place he circles again and again, seeking understanding, seeking re-entry. Though most of Vassanji’s books have been located in Africa, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is the first book in which through his protagonist Vikram Lall, Vassanji revisits Kenya and brutal Mau-Mau uprising that led to its freedom. Throughout the novel Vic agonised over whether to go back to Kenya and deal with consequences of his past action. Although he intends to search and secure Joseph, he decides also to pay his debt to Kenya and to settle anew in the place he calls home. But when he returns to Kenya he finds that to the Africans he would always be the Asian, the Shylock; he would never escape that suspicion, that enigma. Caught between many worlds Vic along with numerous Indians are in effect homeless.
As we know that Vassanji’s work deals with labyrinthine worlds of memory, The In-Between world of Vikram Lall is not an exception. Vassanji himself admits that this novel is first of his books to deal with the memories of Kenya, where he spent his early life.
Structurally, the novel is organised along the two-parellel narrative threads. One, set in the past, in the Kenya of 1950s, through to the present, the other, set in Canada, but anchored in the past by Lall’s frequent flashbacks to the Kenya of his earlier life. As Vassanji did in his last novel, Amriika, he guides his narrator to a safe location to reminisce. In Amriika it was California. Here, with the frozen black eternity of Southern Ontario outside his window, Lall’s mind can travel freely back to the Kenya he knew. Canada is the in-between, a perfect blank, and for Lall a place to slowly work over these memories, smoothing out his troubles and regrets.
One of the major concerns of Vassanji is “how history affects the present and how personal and public history overlap.”31 There is tendency, however, for Vassanji to dwell too much on the past, and much of the first half of the book proceeds laboriously through the colonial days in Nakuru. Lall’s childhood in Kenya, in the early 1950s, glows with memories; it is a sunshine world, where he falls in love with little girl called Annie. And then quickly the author shifts to the post independence era in the second half. Vikram Lall is a grown man trying to make a new life in Canada, a country as different from his homeland, Kenya, as it could possibly get. Nevertheless the still winter nights in Canada stir memories in Vic, of the pregnant Kenyan nights when the freedom fighters, the Mau-Mau, roamed the streets, and created their own path of justice. It was the nights that curdled the blood that made palpable the terror that permeated the Lall’s world like mysterious ether. He reminisces the faint yet persistent chir-chir-chir of crickets or the rhythmic croak-croak of frogs when it rained, the whine of the solitary vehicle on the road, seemed only to deepen the hour, enhance the meaning ominousness lurking in the dark outside. The Mau-Mau owned his darkness.
The novel unfolds “as a remembrance told by Lall as he looks back on his years in East Africa from the safe distance of Southern Ontario. He has earned this exile from his beloved Kenya.”32 Throughout the novel, the author brings us back to Vikram’s present location, Canada, from where he is recalling his past life and decline – which mirrors that of his beloved country. In short, as an immigrant Vikram “retains a collective memory, vision, or myth about his original homeland – its physical location, history and achievement.”33
Exile, dislocation and displacement have been inevitable motives in Vassanji’s writing. They try to encompass Indians living in East Africa. Some members of this immigrant community have to leave East Africa under pressure. They have to migrate to Europe, Canada, or the United States. Vassanji attempts to show how these migrations affect the lives and identities of his characters. This vital issue is personal to him. That’s why he says:
[The Indian diaspora] is very important…..Once I went to the US, suddenly the Indian connection became very important: the sense of origin, trying to understand the roots of India that we had inside us.34
The In-Between world of Vikram Lall tells the tale of displacement of Indians who came to East Africa and from there to Canada. Acute and bittersweet, the story of the novel is told in the voice of the exiled Vic who eventually leaves Kenya and takes shelter in Canada. The eponymous narrator is an old man in exile. It is not self-imposed exile but he is forced to flee by anti corruption investigations and death threats.
Vikram is a man displaced from history and politics. Caught between several worlds Vic and other Indians are in effect homeless, many of them doubly so, owing to exile that the division of India forced upon many Indians. Kenya and Tanzania and Uganda, cruelly purged its Indian population by the early 1970s simply to assuage and to fortify nationalist or tribal ideologies that at least threatened to become as repressive as the imperialism they replaced. When the Kenyans eventually gain their independence, the Indian community finds itself caught in the middle, as Africans try to take over not just the properties of the British, but also the properties of Kenyan Indians, even those who have lived, as Vic has, all his life in Kenya.
Vic’s grandfather had arrived in Kenya as an indenture. His exile had taken place due to poverty and repression of the British. Vic’s father has to leave Nakuru due to insecurity and Vic has to leave Nairobi due to racialist ideologies of Kenya. Vassanji superbly limns the pathos of this condition of a perpetual exile.
As with so much of Vassanji’s work, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a novel concerned with the grand themes of life, love and identity; a story about exile and belonging, it has its central unifying thread in the depths of memory. Here Vassanji explores a conflict of epic proportions from the perspective of immigrants trapped in the perilous in-between. Immigrants nowadays are not what immigrants used to be in 19th century or early 20th century because there is so much communication. The world is a much smaller place. This makes it easy for Vikram to get out of Africa but not so easy for him to escape it.
One of the most impressive thing about this fine novel is that it gives voice to a people, some of whose forebears were in Africa before Portuguese, who have tended to keep their heads down and their mouths shut – and were not infrequently booted out – Vikram Lall says proudly that he is the third generation African; a boast from the time when people said such things, and believed them. He is the son of a grocer, who was himself the son of a Punjabi labourer, an indentured ‘coolie’, brought to East Africa to build the railway line from Mombassa to Kampala, through 600 miles of the loveliest terrain in Africa.
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1. M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Toronto: Doubleday, 2003), p. ix.
2. Wahom Muthai, “Memories of Yesterday’s Home”, in Life Style Magazine, Sunday Nation [Nairobi] 27 Oct. 1991: p. 13.
3. Evan Mwangi, “How New Novels Explore Kenya’s Moving History”, in Lifestyle Magazine, Sunday Nation [Nairobi] 22 Feb. 2004: p. 12.
4. M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Toronto: Doubleday, 2003), p. ix.
5. Ibid., p. ix.
6. Ibid., p. ix.
7. Ibid., p. 1.
8. Ibid., p. 3.
9. Ibid., P. 1.
10. Arun P. Mukherjee, “Introduction”, in Oppositional Aesthetics: Reading from a Hyphenated Space (Toronto: TSAR, 1994), p. vii.
11. M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Toronto: Doubleday, 2003), p. ix.
12. Ibid., p. ix.
13. Ibid., p. ix.
14. Ibid., p. ix.
15. Ibid., p. ix.
16. Ibid., p. 1.
17. Ibid., p. 1.
18. Ibid., p. ix.
19. Taban Lo Liyong, Another Last Words (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1990), p. 39.
20. M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Toronto: Doubleday, 2003), p. 1.
21. Ibid., p. 3.
22. Ibid., pp. 2-3.
23. M.G. Vassanji, No New Land (New Delhi: Penguin, 1962), p. 61.
24. Ibid., p. 78.
25. M.G. Vassanji, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (Toronto: Doubleday, 2003), pp. 2-3.
26. Ibid., p. 51.
27. Peter G. Mandaville, “Territory and Translocating: Discrepant Idioms of Political Locality”, Columbia International Affairs Online, July 2000, 21 October 2002 <http: // www.cionet.org /htm>.
30. Gene Carey, “Ramji’s Amrika”, Rediff On The Net, 5 May 1999, 5 July 2002 <http: // www.rediff.com /news /1999/dec/o8us.htm>.
31. Amin Malak, “Ambivalent Affiliations and the Postcolonial Condition: The Fiction of M.G. Vassanji”, World Literature Today 67.2 (Spring 1993) p. 279.
32. Craig Taylor, Reviews, Canada’s Magazine of Book News and Reviews, <http: // www.quillandquire.com /reviews /review /.cfm? review_id =36127.
33. Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction (London: UCL Press), p. 26.
34. Chelva Kanaganayakam, “‘Broadening the Substrata’: An Interview with M.G. Vassanji”, World Literature Written in English 31.2 (1999), P. 34.
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