Abstract: This paper aims to critically analyse the narrative styles interpreted by M.G. Vassanji in the novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. A book that entails the Diaspora encircling the protagonist, Vikram Lall. A profound and careful examination of one man’s search for his place in the world; it also takes up themes that have run through Vassanji’s work, such as the nature of community in a volatile society, the relations between colony and coloniser, and the inescapable presence of the past. The concepts of one’s identity and the path it takes to reach this discovery are also discussed.
Keywords: Vikram Lall, Asian Canadian literature, anti-corruption, Ismaili community, redefining ‘home’, migration, self-identity, self-discovery, Diaspora, post-colonial literature
At no time in the history of human civilisation, as in the twentieth century, has there been such a massive movement of people across geographical and national boundaries — particularly, the emigration to Western countries propelled by adverse conditions at home and the lure of better prospects abroad. The phenomenon of people leaving their homeland in search of brighter pastures became so common during this period that Rushdie considers the migrant to be the central or defining figure of the twentieth century. This phenomenon continued to the 21 century as well, that Edward Said scanning the political map of the contemporary world observed, ‘For surely it is one of the unhappiest characteristic of the age to have produced more refugees, migrants, displaced persons, and exiles than ever before in history . . .’ (Representations 402). What Said has called the ‘unhappiest characteristic’ has led to the emergence of a body of writers, who make this very displacement a vantage point of their creativity. Displacement makes the immigrant more conscious of a sense of his place in the world. The process of migration lends him a new perspective, what Rushdie calls the ‘double perspective’ of the migrant, because [the migrants] are at one and the same time insiders and outsiders in the society. This stereotypic vision is perhaps what we can offer in place of “whole sight” (Imaginary Homelands 19), Thus Rushdie emphasises the productivity, rather than the pain, that comes from dislocating oneself from one’s homeland.
If during the colonial period migration took the form of enforced transportation of people from the colonies to distant farms as indentured labourers, the post-colonial period saw people moving voluntarily from the erst-while colonies to the very abode of their masters, what Gordon Lewis called ‘a colonialism in reverse’. The early twentieth century saw a heavy influx of immigrants to Britain. In the 1970s, Canada and the U.S. opened their doors more widely to immigrants from the developing regions, and these countries replaced Britain as the destination of English-speaking immigrants. Canada (Toronto in particular) became the refuge of the immigrants, mainly due to the liberalised Canadian immigrant laws and the increasingly hostile atmosphere in economically declining Britain (London in particular). There is hardly a country in the world whose people did not come to make Canada their permanent home. The South Asian Canadian community, like all other Canadian communities, is born of immigration from different parts of South Asia — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Burma, Afghanistan, Bhutan and the Maldives. Not all South Asians now living in Canada came directly from countries of South Asia, many came from India via Africa or the Caribbean, where their ancestors had settled in the British colonies either in the 19th century or the early 20th century. Thus the term ‘South Asian’ does not represent a homogeneous entity. In spite of such a variety, this umbrella term has produced a unitary community that is not actually there and a South Asian Canadian identity has emerged.
South Asian Canadian literature occupies a place of prominence among the various immigrant literatures. A new cartography of the Canadian literature became necessary when the immigrant writers began to chart out unmapped territories in the annals of Canadian literary history. Among all the immigrants in Canada, the South Asians have been more active in the literary field than any other single group. This has led to the genesis of a distinct genre called South Asian Canadian Writing. Just as the term ‘South Asian’ is inclusive of a wide range of people of different nationalities, the term ‘South Asian Canadian Literature’ incorporates the distinctness of the divergent groups that go into the making of this genre.
M. G. Vassanji has become a distinct figure in the canon of South Asian Canadian literature. Vassanji (born in Nairobi, Kenya) grew up in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as a member of the small Muslim Ismaili sect, which originally hailed from Kutch in Gujarat. He left East Africa to America for higher studies and from there to Canada to take up a job. Unlike Neil Bisoondath who asserts, ‘ I left Trinidad willingly, happily, looking forward to a new kind of life’ (qtd. in Toorn127), Vassanji strongly believes that: ‘I never 10,1 just went away for my education’ (qtd. in Smith 28), But Vassanji’s journey continued, across borders, across nations till he found himself settled in Toronto. But he journeyed back home through his literary debut The Gunny Sack which set a precedence for the. later literary journeys.
The Gunny Sack (1989) deals with the Asian experience in East-Africa over four generations. The novel traces the history of the Ismaili community (fictionalised as Shamsi community) in Zanzibar and Dar-es-Salaam. The novel covers a time span of 95 years beginning with the arrival of Dhanji Govindji in Zanzibar from India in 1885 and extends forward to thel 980s when his great grandson Salim continues the journey his great grandfather started. Vassanji’s second novel No New Land (1991) traces the immigration of an Asian family from Tanzania to Don Mills, a Toronto suburb where the immigrant Ismaili community (again fictionalised as Shamsis) has settled, having been exiled from East-Africa due to the racial politics there. Nurudin Lalani becomes the embodiment of all the trauma that characterises an immigrant psyche. Vassanji returned to East-Africa for the settings of Uhuru Street (1992), a collection of linked short stories, that explore the experiences of characters who live and work on a single street in Dar es Salaam during the final years of colonial rule and the first decades of independence. The same historical period forms the setting of his next work The Book of Secrets (1994). The ‘Book of Secrets’ is the 1913 diary of a colonial administrator in East Africa named Alfred Corbin. More than half a century later, the diary comes into the hands of Pius Fernandez, a retired school teacher, and his attempts to decode the entries of the diary unravel the history of the Indian community in the British East African city of Kikono. The next novel Amriika (1999) is set in America during the three highly charged decades in the nation’s history. In 1968, Ramji, a student from Dar arrives in America only to find it far different from the one he had dreamed about. And this results in his constant yearning to go back to Dar, as he promised to his grandmother. His next novel The In-Between World of Vikrarn Loll (2003) once again deals with the vicissitudes of the Asian population in Kenya from the nineteen fifties to the eighties.
Vassanji’s obsession with recording the history of his community in all his works may be his attempt to find a ‘home’ for himself. Rosemary Marangoly George in an analysis of the politics of home in twentieth century fiction observes:
`Homes’ and the desire for such spaces are ‘natural’ urges common to all humans at all time: What the hyphen in `home-country’ makes explicit are the ideological linkages deemed necessary for subjects who are at home in a social and political space and even more acutely for those who are, because of geographic distance or political disenfranchisement, outside their ‘legitimate’ space. (17)
It is an innate urge to ‘belong’ that leads the immigrant — Rushdie’s `itinerant layabouts’ — (Moor 329) to a ‘quest for home’. This quest, which is an ontological necessity for any ‘lost soul’, is for the immigrant, a physical necessity as well. That is why the word ‘home’ when articulated by an immigrant assumes a different signification. It is not merely a quest for the self in the Jungian sense in which an individual’s home is considered as the ‘universal archetypal symbol of the self’. It is also mapping out of a geographical territory which is exclusively his own. Thus ‘home’ in immigrant vocabulary is at once a physical and mental construct. What is problematic for the immigrant is that though permitted to cross the political borders of the nations, he is not accommodated inside the borders of the minds of the natives. This makes it difficult for the immigrant to set up a ‘home’ in the new land. He is always made conscious of the fact that his home exists elsewhere, across the borders. Thus the concept of home always eludes the immigrant.
Andrew Gurr, in a study of the identity of home in the works of exile writers, points out that alienation from a cultural or physical home has a radical effect on a writer’s mind as well as his choice of theme. He substantiates his argument by stating how Joyce spent his life ‘obsessively rebuilding his home in his art’ (90). Very often, the immigrant starts writing about his home in order to fix a point of self-definition. The immigrant writer’s obsession to record the collection of memories is his attempt to reconcile himself to his past as well as his present. The immigrant sensitivity is as much a product of the past as it is of the present. Uma Parameswaran observes, ‘In the immigrant imagination there is the intermingling of imagery drawn from the landscape of one’s memory with imagery drawn from the actual landscape around us’ (ed.Vassanji 89). She elaborates on how her poetry is as much inspired by the sight of the cedar, pine and the endless winter that is a part of the landscape around her, as by the distant memories of temple bells, mango blossoms, white jasmines and flaming gulmohur. Thus the past remains a source of inspiration for many immigrant writers.
The sense of loss associated with the past is intensified in an immigrant, because past is not merely distanced in time for him, but also by space. Past is a terrain from which he is transported both by the flux of time, and also by the expanse of space. The past, for the immigrant, is not merely a spent period of time. It is a force which impinges on the present. It cannot that easily be shrugged off by an immigrant. For an immigrant writer, his writings become the means wherein he tries to come to terms with his past. Pasquale Verdicchio’s words of caution to his fellow immigrant writers can be addressed to the entire community of diasporic writers — ‘The Italian Canadian writer must write away from the source. What I mean by this terse statement is that we must not be enshrouded by our past, and nevertheless remain within its gravitational field’ (90). He further says:
Writing only in relation to the past, in a nostalgic tone or as a simple recounting of it, is doomed to staticity. The passage of time, a future that becomes present, gives life to writing, whereas the non-passage of time, the contemplation of the past, the denial of regeneration and evolution, denies writing the creativity that it seeks. (91)
Representing homeland is for Vassanji a means to re-create the past. `I am not an immigrant who believes that you leave everything behind’ (qtd. in Kanaganayagam 130), writes Vassanji. Vassanji’s reverence for the past is evident when in No New Land he writes, ‘We are but creatures of our origins, and however stalwartly we march forward, paving new roads, seeking new worlds, the ghosts of our pasts stand not far behind and are not easily shaken off’ (9).
Vassanji’s writings are an attempt to confront the ghosts of the past.
Vassanji considers this attempt to capture the past before it fades into oblivion as his mission behind writing. ‘It seemed to me that someone has to write about (the) past; it has to be captured before it disappears into the sunlight,’ observes Vassanji. He believes that, ‘You just had to find out why you were what you were, what happened to you. . . . what happened during the last hundred years’ (qtd. in Daurio 200). This spirit of enquiry takes him to the unrecorded annals of the history of his community. This re-creation of his community becomes an act of homage to the past.
This sensitivity to the past is no sign of stasis, Because Vassanji believes that only by unravelling the past, can we understand the present better. In The Gunny Sack, Vassanji writes:
There are those who go to their graves not knowing where they came from … who hurtled into the future even as the present was yet not over . . . for whom history was a contemptible record of a shameful past. In short, those who closed their ears when the old men and women spoke. But the future will demand a reckoning. We will not forgive those who forgot . . . (134)
Hence he makes Salim of The Gunny Sack, Nurudin of No New Land, Pius Fernandez of The Book of Secrets, Ramji of Amriika, and Vikram Lall of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall look back and acknowledge the past. Salim (The Gunny Sack) is handed over a gunny sack, which is a symbol of the past. When Salim opens the gunny, the past lies open before him. He realises that he too has committed the same sin of his ancestors — the sin of ‘running away’ from their families. When Salim decides to go back to his wife and daughter in Africa, he is promised salvation. For Nurudin (No New Land) settled in Toronto, his father’s photograph hanging in the wall, symbolises the past. Nurudin consciously averts his gaze from the photograph, that is from his own past. His whole life is unsettled as he plunges into the present, into the licentious life of the West flouting all the values which the photograph represented. It is only when he acquires the mindset to acknowledge the past that he is able to accept the reality of his life in the present.
Pius Fernandez (who immigrated to Dar from Goa) of The Book of Secrets begins to read a diary belonging to one Alfred Corbin, Governor of Uganda in the 1940s during the colonial period. His attempts to follow the ‘long and secretive trail’ of the diary leads him to his own past. As he finishes reading, he is re-assured about his roots. Nothing can sever his relationship with his adopted land, because he has become a part of its history. Vassanji specifies that the past, however enigmatic it may turn out to be, has to be confronted to make meaning out of the present. However, Ramji of Amriika is denied salvation, because he is never able to come to terms with his past.
This obsession with ‘home’ and ‘past’ once again surfaces in his novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003). It is in the form of a reminiscent narrative by Vikram Lall, who now lives in Canada, about his life in East Africa — his childhood days which saw the initial stirrings of the Mau-Mau rebellion against the White administration, which culminated in the independence of the nation and the setting up of a national government. Lall is forced to flee Africa and seek asylum in Canada, having got himself involved in money scandals back home. Lall was the secretary to the Minister of Transport — a post he acquired by the strong recommendations of his African friend Njoroge. His office gained him access to the inner political circles, even right up to the President. But very soon Lall realised that it was not a mere clerical job, he was forced to act as a middleman in the money transactions between the minister and his foreign agents. Lall took up a foreign assignment as per the instructions of the minister. But his meeting with the foreign delegates was looked upon as espionage and he w sacked by the minister. Lall realised that he was made a convenient scapego the ‘disposable outsider’ by the minister to save his image. After his dismiss Lall was forced to take up a partnership in his in-laws’ jewellery business. Th made him get involved in a notorious Gemstone Scandal. The Government s up an Anti-Corruption Commission which published a List of Shame. Vikra Lall’s name was the first in the list. Lall was branded the ‘King of Shylocks.’ midnight raid was conducted at his home. His name got into the hit-list because if he opted to speak out, a platoon of politicians and senior bureaucrats would get skewered. Thus it was no longer safe for him to remain in Kenya. So he absconded to a small town in Lake Ontario, Canada.
Lall enjoys his anonymity in Canada, though his name and exploits are published in the internet in the archives of the East African and South African papers and London’s Economist. Life in Canada remains uneventful, till the arrival of Joseph, son of Njoroge who had become a victim to the filthy power politics of Kenya. Joseph nurses a silent grievance against Lall. He considers him as the representative of the ‘Asian’ who along with the Whites marginalised them in their native soil. Lall realises that he will never be able to get over the stigma of being an ‘in-between’. Life in the idyllic ambience of Lake Ontario cannot assuage his tormented soul. There is always a nagging sense of guilt and indignation — guilt that he has abandoned his homeland and indignation that he has been unjustly treated by the people whom he served so loyally. He feels so much of an African that existence in Canada amounts to negating his identity. He feels that life in the Canadian wilderness in one of self-denial and he decides to go back to Kenya, even at the cost of his safety. Lall’s decision is the reaction of a typical immigrant sensibility — feeling ‘homeless’ in the adopted land. Analysing the difficulties of setting up a new ‘home’ by the immigrant, McLeod observes:
Migrants tend to arrive in new places with baggage; both in the physical sense of possessions or belongings, but also the less tangible matter of beliefs, traditions, customs, behaviours and values. This can have consequences for the ways in which others may or may not make migrants feel ‘at home’ on arrival in a new place . . . Migrants may well live in new places, but they can be deemed not to belong there and disqualified from thinking of the new land as their home. Instead, their home is seen to exist elsewhere, back across the border. (211-212)
It is exactly this sentiment that prompts Lall to return.
Africa, has always been for Lall his ‘homeland’. His claim to the land is engraved in Punjabi script on the rails of the railway line, which his grandfather had laid way back in 1897. India, the land of his ancestors is a fantasy land for him — the land of that strange man with narrow pointed face, bald head, and `granny glasses’, Gandhiji; the land of that man with the white cap Nehru; and the land of his mother’s innumerable deities like the butter thief Nandalal Krishna of Vrindavan, Rama, Durga, Hanuman and Ganesh. The only vestiges of `Indianness’ in him are those icons which he carries faithfully with him, wherever he goes, and the memory of the Diwali celebrations assiduously observed by his mother. Africa is a greater reality for him, the Mau-Mau oath he took under the instigation of Njoroge still rankles in his mind. He belongs to Africa, heart and soul. Though convinced of his own ‘Africannese, Lall is struck by his difference with his African friend Njoroge. ‘He was more Africa than I was’ (25). And compared with the skin of his European friends Bill and Annie Bruce, his skin is `annoyingly medium’ neither one (white) nor the other (black). He felt that there was a mystery and depth to ‘Africanness’ and ‘Englishness’, which his Indian self lacked. ‘Bill and Njoroge were genuine, in their very different ways; only, I stood in the middle, Vikram Lall, cherished son of an Indian grocer, sounded false to myself, rang hollow like a bad penny’ (49). All these instil in him the desperate need to belong to the land where he was born in, but where he felt he was an outsider. He can never understand why the Indians are treated as aliens although they have been in the country since the time of Vasco da Gama and before some of the African people had even arrived in the land. Lall’s sense of loss is clearly brought out in the lines: told myself how desperately I loved this country that somehow could not quite accept me. Was there really something prohibitively negative in me, and in those like me, with our alien forbidding skins off which the soul of Africa simply slipped away?’ (325). The conflict gets intense after the Independence of the nation, when the Indians are totally confused as to where they stand and who they are— ‘We remained that enigma, the Asians of Africa’ (158), writes Lall. The stigma of being a member of a race of brown `Shylocks’ who have collaborated with the colonisers alienates them from the mainstream.
The eagerness with which Lall clings on to what Rushdie calls the ‘treasured mementoes and old photographs of the past’ (In-Between World of Vikram Lall 63) makes him el a misfit in Canada. Past is a greater reality for him ‘more intensely felt than e life I now lived’ (259). The very reason why Lall decides to write his story is his attempt to preserve the past, much like his creator Vassanji himself. The antenna of his sensitivity is unable to resist the signals the past sends from its `subterranean home’. Lall carries an album of photos with him, a ready reckoner of the past. He can never get over his childhood infatuation for the European girl Annie Bruce whose whole family was butchered by the Mau-Mau. She always remains a silent painful memory in his mind. He carries her photo as a memento of their relationship. When his wife removes that photo from his private box, it appears to him that his past is sliced off from him. Njoroge gives the photograph of the butchered Bruces to Lall a picture which he struggles to erase from his memory. He decides to burn the photograph. The burnt photos leave a stain that he can never wipe out. As he drops the ashes into the waters, it becomes his homage to the past.
The final part of the book is titled ‘Homecoming.’ Lall’s decision to return indicates his acceptance of the past. For Vassanji’s characters it is impossible to run away from the past. ‘I could not have lived out the rest of my days an escapee from my world’ (396), muses Lall. Lall’s homecoming is actually a confrontation with the past, from which he is forced to escape. Significant is Lall’s comment as he lands in Nairobi, ‘There is something immeasurably familiar in the feel of the cool Nairobi night that tells you are home, that for better or worse, this is where you belong’ (382). It is the lack of a sense of ‘belonging’ that makes the immigrant undertake the return voyage. While romanticising the past, he tends to evade the bleak aspects that led to his exit.
Distance very often lends a new halo to the immigrant’s vision of the past, making it seem at once romantic and idyllic. Neil Bisoondath argues that an actual journey back home will serve to shock the immigrant out of his nostalgic stupor. In his Selling Illusions, Bisoondath points out that the immigrant’s romantic vision of the past is an edited and prettified version of the past’ (126). He observes that the journey back to the place where, ‘the sun shines more brightly, where the grass is greener, the air sweeter’ (126) helps bury nostalgia under reality and makes the immigrant see the past as it really is. It is this realisation that awaits Lall as well. On reaching Nairobi, Lall is hopeful that ultimately he will make peace with his world. He wants his lawyer to approach the Anti-Corruption Commission and make a confession before them. But the Anti-Corruption Commission is declared illegal and disbanded. Lall realises that what people in power need is his silence, and not his confession. They fear, if he speaks out, all of them will get implicated. His lawyer is arrested. That very night, Lall wakes up to an alarm call. The building where he stays is on fire. The novel ends with Lall running out of the burning apartment, whereto Vassanji leaves unsaid.
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall The In-Between World of Vikrain Lall is Vassanji‘s only novel where the protagonist actually returns. But the return proves disastrous. Vassanji’s first novel The Gunny Sack ends with the protagonist Salim’s decision to return to his ‘homeland’. In her study on Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack, Arun Mukherjee—stated ‘The narrative about the returned Salim can only be written by an Asian African who really returned. Or someone who never left.’ She calls that a `narrative of redemption.’ Will such a narrative ever be written? Can settlers and colonisers live down their past?’ (176), Mukherjee asks. Fourteen years after the publication of his The Gunny Sack, Vassanji counters the question with his narrative of Vikram Lall. Going by Mukherjee’s terminology, The In-between World offal-am Lall may be considered a ‘narrative of redemption’ — the narrative about the returned Salim. But the returnee is not redeemed by the return journey. Lall has come to reclaim his past, not content with the clement retreat to which (he) has withdrawn’ (1), from where he has been telling his story. The very act of writing is his attempt to confront his past from which he has run away. ‘Perhaps this narration of my life will explain me to myself’ (291), Lall hopes. But it fails to assuage the sense of guilt within him, for having run away from his homeland. Hence he makes the return journey. But the past is out to hunt him down. All he can do is to run out into the darkness.
Lall’s flight amounts to an immigrant’s escape from the past the past which all along he has cherished. ‘Home’ has so long for Vassanji’s protagonists remained a distant dream. Vassanji himself wants to know where home is, but not in the sense of address, he knows well enough where he lives. Home, if strictly considered as a place of residence (a physical construct), is not at all a puzzle before Vassanji. But what mystifies him is the spirit. He makes it clear: `Toronto is the place I’ve lived the most in the last twenty years, so it’s a home. But there is a contradiction, a spiritual exile. The spirit is less easy to nail down — especially when you’ve come from so many countries and you’ve lived in so many’ (qtd. in Smith 26). The In- between World of Vikram Lall is Vassanji’s attempt to nail down the ‘spirit of home’ — an attempt which he deferred in all his previous works. But Lall‘s return ‘home’ forces him to confront a bitter reality. His ‘homeland’ is not prepared to accommodate him. There is no fatted calf awaiting the prodigal. All that is left for him is to flee. From a distance, Salim (The Gunny Sack) and Nurudin (No New Land) acknowledged the past. But only Lull makes the actual physical journey back ‘home’ — a journey which shatters all illusions about ‘home.’ Perhaps, this disillusionment is inevitable to propel the immigrant in his onward journey to future.
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SUPRIYA M. Lecturer in English at Fathima Matha National College, Kollam. She has published numerous research articles and translations and takes special interest in Canadian literature. She is at present Assistant Editor of Samyukta.