Sunday, November 04, 2012

Swearing in Swahili, living in Canada, rediscovering India... a conversation with M G Vassanji

[Did a shorter version of this profile-cum-interview - of a writer whom I hold in high regard - for the Hindu Literary Review]

More than halfway through M G Vassanji’s new novel The Magic of Saida, the protagonist Kamal Punja is horribly unwell in a small hotel in Kilwa, Tanzania. Having lived in Canada for 35 years and unused to the more pliable standards of hygiene in the country he is visiting – the country of his birth and childhood – Kamal has been fortifying himself with vaccinations, insect repellents and prophylactics. However, a single, unsterilised glass of water has done for him and now he is gripped by fever, ailments of the stomach and nervous system. “Africa invaded him, reclaimed him once again,” the narrator – a publisher named Martin, who has just made Kamal’s acquaintance – tells us.

By now, though, the reader knows that Kamal has been invaded and reclaimed in more than one sense. A middle-aged doctor with a family and a successful practice in Edmonton, he has been drawn back to Africa by the memory of a girl named Saida, whom he knew and loved decades earlier. Arriving in Kilwa, it is almost as if the intervening years of his life fall away and he is pulled into time’s vortex: into his own personal history as the son of an Indian father (who vanished when Kamal was a child) and a Swahili mother, and the complex history of Tanzania, populated by an assortment of local and immigrant communities. The result is an intricate, moving – though also meandering – narrative, as Kamal’s recollections run alongside stories about his great-grandfather Punja who had journeyed to Africa from Gujarat in the 19th century, and an old poet named Mzee Omari who may in a moment of weakness have betrayed his people to the Germans who invaded East Africa in the 1880s.

These movements across space and time should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Vassanji’s earlier books. To read the work of this graceful, perceptive writer is to be constantly reminded of the famous last line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past.” In the last two decades Vassanji has written novels set in Tanzania, Kenya, Canada and India and featuring characters with a range of life experiences, backgrounds and personal compulsions; but in some way or the other all his books deal with how the past operates upon the present.

Frequently this theme manifests itself in an examination of how childhood experiences can define, and sometimes petrify, a life. In The Magic of Saida, Kamal feels like his childhood “had been some conjuror’s creation, with the ability to change shape, parts of it to disappear like smoke” – and yet, it’s notable that the childhood sections here (as in other Vassanji novels such as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall and The Assassin’s Song) have more clarity, more fearful vividness, than the adult sections do. A boy’s sense of wonder and mystery are adeptly expressed in such passages as the one where little Kamal thinks he is being harassed by the old poet’s invisible djinn. (“Did Mzee Omari keep the dreadful Idris in a bottle?” he wonders, “Did he come out of it like a blue puff of wind like in the storybook?”) So is trauma: one gets a tangible sense of how devastated he is when his mother sends him to Dar es Salaam to live with his father’s relatives (“But I’m an African” he protests, “I don’t speak Indian, I don’t eat Indian! They eat daal and they smell!”) and by the consequent sundering of his relationship with Saida.

In my own favourite Vassanji book, the “in-between” Vikram Lall – an Indian who grows up in a Kenya torn by anti-colonial insurgency – is similarly haunted by memories of his childhood friend Annie, a British girl who was murdered by Mau Mau rebels. Through Vikram’s reminiscences we come to understand how his character has been shaped by that distant tragedy (the book’s epigraph is T S Eliot’s line “Who is the third who walks always beside you?”) but we also see how his becoming a political power-broker later in life affects – even if in a small way – his country’s destiny. Time and again, Vassanji shows how cultural and national conflicts knead individual lives, and how the subsequent actions of those individuals in turn shape larger histories.

The circularity of events is an equally important motif of his work – history as tragic farce, destined to coil back on itself no matter how much you try to stop it. Those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, goes the familiar aphorism, but one of the strengths of Vassanji’s writing is how he demonstrates – not in a gratuitously cynical way but through insightful stories about specific individuals – that even sensitive, self-aware people can become trapped in a web of historical wrongs. Without giving too much away, a climactic revelation in The Magic of Saida implicates Kamal in exactly the sort of moral inaction that had adversely shaped his own life.


“In my work, the present is always interacting with the past,” Vassanji agrees when we meet at the India International Centre, Delhi. A beat of silence and then a little chuckle: “But maybe that’s the physicist in me!” (He specialised in nuclear physics at the University of Pennsylvania before embarking on a career as an editor and writer.) “There is a feeling of entrapment by history – one little decision and a whole wave comes crashing down on you. This is especially true of Africa, but even in India one thinks of all those who are trapped by the violent memories of Partition.” He is so soft-spoken, I am briefly concerned my recorder will be ineffective. Yet, as I soon realise, the gentle voice has a steady firmness.

Descended from the Khoja community of Gujarat, M G Vassanji grew up in Kenya and Tanzania, and went to the US to study at age 20. His first novel The Gunny Sack (set in the East Africa of his childhood, with a protagonist of Indian ethnicity, Salim Juma, delving into his ancestral past) was published in 1989; there have been nine more books, including two short-story collections. Two novels – No New Land and Amriika – are set largely in Canada or the US, but Africa has been the subject of much of his best writing, including The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, both of which won the prestigious Giller Prize. Clearly, that continent exercises a powerful hold over his imagination even though he hasn’t lived there since 1970.

“It’s hard to explain what Africa means to me,” he says. “Tanzania was a more or less tolerant society and there were so many people from Indian-origin communities; we had our identity, but at the same time we grew up with their language.” Though his characters tend to have very complicated childhoods, he speaks fondly of his own youth, of the revolutionary movements in Africa in the 60s and the politics of equality and non-alignment – a heady, optimistic time for an impressionable boy.

This perspective – of an insider, fully steeped in a culture – differentiates his work from that of the most famous Indian-origin author to have written about Africa, V S Naipaul. As Vassanji himself puts it, Naipaul in Africa is an observer. “He visits it and writes about ‘them’, which is fine – it’s an ancient tradition in travel writing. But I cannot write like that about my part of Africa, or even about India, because I identify directly with them.” Even today, if he visits Tanzania and someone calls him a foreigner, he points to his skin and asks: do I look white to you? “Being able to do that confidently, despite having been away for decades, is a big thing. The language has a certain lilt to it, which allows you to banter” – perhaps I’m imagining it, but Vassanji’s voice takes on a new cadence here; he seems to croon rather than speak these words – “and when you can talk like that you know you belong. I still tend to swear in Swahili!”

There is a passage in The Gunny Sack about the many shades of dark skin. “Yes, he was dark. Not the dark of charcoal, the mweusi of the African from the interior, the Hehe, the Ngoni, the Haya; or the light dark mweupe of the Chagga; or the red-dark of the half-naked Masai, his arse showing firm and proud as he walked; but the dark of the Indian, the persistent brown-dark of sedimented coffee that refuses to whiten.” Such depth of knowledge necessarily comes with being an insider, but Vassanji knows well that the complexities of places like Africa and India begin to get lost as you move further away from them. Those who view them from a distance see amorphous places with an all-embracing identity.

Which makes it notable that despite being based in North America throughout his writing life, he has found a warm and receptive readership for his work. “Canada has given me a generous environment to grow as a writer,” he says, “it has a mature and tolerant view of itself, it recognises that people come from different places and bring with them traditions and cultures, languages and idioms.” While he is comfortable being identified as a Canadian national, it’s understood that he has roots and tentacles elsewhere. “Cutting them off would be like cutting off an arm, or your soul.” Of course, he admits with some amusement, this attitude might get him into trouble with “cultural nationalists”, who expect him to plant a flag in one or another place. A Canadian who is also an African as well as an Indian? Surely that’s as unacceptable as being both Hindu and Muslim.

But Vassanji has a case for adopting that improbable duality too: in his travelogue-history A Place Within: Rediscovering India, he describes a founding legend of his ancestors, the Khojas, wherein a Muslim holy man came to a village in western Gujarat and joined Krishna devotees in the traditional garba dance. As a child, Vassanji was enthralled by ginans – verses and songs from the Sufi tradition – and learnt much about music and mythology from them. Though he is agnostic, there are strong elements of mysticism in his work: the story of the poet Omari’s petulant djinn in The Magic of Saida, for instance, or an episode where a magician plays detective, handing out “truth-telling” medicines to people. “Mysticism is basically the meaning of life,” he says, “it’s like theoretical physics, it asks the same questions about life and death, and I’m empathetic to it; when I see a woman at a temple, I see my mother.”

His syncretic upbringing – built on Hindu and Islamic streams of thought – must have made it especially disturbing when he visited the land of his ancestors for what was effectively the first time in 1993, and found he had landed right in the midst of the post-Babri Masjid communal riots. “Yes, that was bothersome,” he says with typical understatement, “I didn’t see why I had to deal with this scar of the Partition, which was never my experience – when my grandparents left India, there was no Partition.” It’s a side of India that he hasn’t been able to accept. “These divisions get forced upon you. If a Gujarati who practices Hinduism thinks he’s more Indian than me, I say no, the Vedas and Upanishads belong equally to me. We come from the same place.”

A Place Within is one of his two India books – the other is the novel The Assassin’s Song, about a Gujarati man turning his back on his legacy as the keeper of a Sufi shrine and moving to the US. Both helped him come to terms with an identity that had lain dormant for decades. “The discovery of India completely altered me – it awoke things that I thought would be numb after a couple of generations.”

“Rebirth” might be an apt word. Right from the moving first chapter where – partly due to an Indian Airlines strike – he travels from Delhi to Bhubaneshwar by the Puri Express,
the writing in A Place Within has a distinct quality: it’s as if the middle-aged Vassanji is viewing India through the eyes of a fascinated child, on a train for the first time, but when he gets around to recording his impressions the wise adult in him – mindful of his own susceptibility to simplifications – takes over, supplying a measured perspective on events and experiences, constantly checking himself when he might be about to make a sweeping statement. And yet, the wide-eyed sense of wonder is never lost: “There is so much of India, I tell myself. How does one get to it? I would like to reach out and touch it, it feels so close and familiar, yet there seems a glass cage around me.” This searching tentativeness makes A Place Within one of the most singular India books of recent years, very different in timbre from confident narratives about this or that aspect of the country.


Though the discovery of India is an ongoing project for him (A Place Within ends elliptically, with the line “But for now I must stop here, conclude this token of pilgrimage”), there is no lack of other things that he can engage with and write about; he is currently working on a similar travel book about Tanzania. “The texture of that country is often lost in snapshot reportage and I want to depict it as a real, human place – not an AIDS, war and hunger place.” And of course, he will be a part of the narrative.

Writer and physicist; Kenyan, Tanzanian and Gujarati; Indian, African and Canadian; Hindu and Muslim; agnostic and interested in mysticism. With all these identities informing each other, it is easy to see why Vassanji prefers to use his initials rather than the names Moyez Gulamhussein, which might mark him as belonging to a specific community or region. It is no surprise too that a recurring theme of his work is the difficulty of knowing where we are from and what forces have combined to make us what we are. (Perhaps this makes it piquantly fitting that he keeps gravitating back towards Africa, which – in the long view of history – is where all humans originated.) His best writing builds on the knowledge that people and communities – along with their allegiances – shift continuously over time; for all the Indians in his novels whose families moved to Africa, there are equally reminders that the Sidis of Singpur are the descendants of Africans who made a journey in the opposite direction centuries earlier.

There is a throwaway observation in The Magic of Saida, one that might have come from any of Vassanji’s books: under the Idi Amin regime, we are reminded, people like Kamal would be viewed as foreigners, not “real” Africans – and yet, Kamal’s great-grandfather Punja had called himself “Sawahil” and fought the Germans for his adopted country, while Idi Amin himself had once fought for the British against the Kenyans. “Nothing was straightforward.” In a world that appears to be shrinking but where distinctions between “original” dwellers and “outsiders” continue to be made, Vassanji’s body of work is a gentle reminder of the fluidity of history – and of the ability of an individual to belong to many places and be many things at the same time.


  1. I wish that someday you write about the common thread in the writing of writers who were born in Africa, but moved elsewhere: MG Vassanji, Chinua Achebe, Teju Cole...(and many more)

  2. Even today, if he visits Tanzania and someone calls him a foreigner, he points to his skin and asks: do I look white to you?

    I had a good laugh after reading this.

    Now why on earth are supposed "intellectuals" like Vassanji still entrapped in perceptions driven by skin colour of all things?

    Skin colour is not in the least bit indicative of civilizational affinity of any kind. Vassanji may or may not be as dark as his fellow Tanzanians. But in most respects he is a "foreigner" - a product of Western Civilization, a man who has spent a large part of his adult life in the West away from the tumult of Tanzania.

    If Chris Gayle were to visit the West coast of Africa tomorrow and discover that his ancestors moved to the Caribbean from that region some 400 years ago, would that make him African? No. Culturally Gayle is a Westerner. Not in the least bit African.

    Also when people talk up "racial solidarity" based on skin colour, it bothers me a lot. (though that's not done by Vassanji here)
    Such talk invariably underplays the remarkably high level of diversity that exists even within Sub-Saharan Africa across regions.

    For eg: In Africa you have hunter-gatherer communities who never figured out the technique of growing crops on one hand. You also have highly complex agricultural tribes with elaborate social structures on the other hand. Just because they're all dark doesn't imply any kind of civilizational affinity.

    Even in India, where most people across the country belong to a similar racial stock (Indo-Aryan) the diversity is enormous across castes, often in the same region! Diversity not in terms of "looks", but in intellectual inclinations, work habits and attitudes towards life in general.

  3. Shrikanth: you've been in startlingly prolific form of late, and again I can't summon up the energy to provide detailed responses to everything, but still:

    1) About the pointing to his skin thing - do please allow for the possibility that it was intended facetiously/humorously.

    2) Highly simplistic to say that Vassanji is a product of Western civilisation in most respects. And what's with the Gayle comparison? Vassanji lived in Kenya and Tanzania till his early 20s.

    3) The high levels of diversity in Africa is specifically addressed in the piece.

    Disagreements aside, reading your comments I sometimes wish - and this will sound like a writer being extremely needy and whiny, but never mind - that you would just say a couple of appreciative things about the piece (which, incidentally, I worked very hard on and went through a heck of a dispiriting struggle to get it published after an initial arrangement fell through). Instead of jumping straight in and disagreeing - in a fairly strident tone - with the things written in it. But that's your prerogative, of course.

  4. Jai: Sorry if I sounded insensitive.
    Just my habit to pick on things that I find interesting in the article.

    Ofcourse all your pieces are uniformly excellent! You don't need testimonials from a philistine like myself.

    I don't think I was off the mark with the Gayle analogy. If Vassanji thinks he's every bit as Indian as a Gujarati living in Ahmedabad, then by the same token a lot of West Indians should think of themselves as Africans and a lot of Irish-Americans as Irish! Which doesn't make too much sense.

    Again I wasn't criticizing your writing at all. It's just that your revealing interviews tell us something about the subjects and the way they think.

  5. Shrikanth: no problem - guess I'm being hypersensitive, because this piece has caused lots of problems for me in the last few weeks, and it's a been a bad time generally on the writing and other fronts. But nothing worth going into here. And it isn't my intention to keep you from commenting about the things you feel strongly about.

  6. "when I see a woman at a temple, I see my mother.”
    Sublime! I can relate to this line so much.

    Loved the profile and the interview too , has to be one of your best . Mr Vassanji almost makes me jealous (well of course in a good way ) with all that intellect and understanding and comfort with his own self and identity (for the lack of a better word) and the urge to keep on exploring and rediscovering further. I feel even more terrible after reading this piece because I have been seriously wanting to read In between ... for like eons , but still haven't :(( .
    Also , liked the observation he made about Canada . It reminded me of another Canada based Indian born author Rohinton Mistry , whose writing I have always loved .

  7. Prashila: I thought I had mentioned Rohinton Mistry (and Ondaatje, and a couple of other non-Canadians based in Canada) in the piece. They were there in the longer, more unruly version of the piece that I had originally done - forgot that I had snipped them out of this one.

  8. Yes , pretty sure I did not see Mistry here :).
    I have ordered In between... on flipkart finally , many thanks to you and the post.
    I have been to so many book stores in Bombay and Bangalore over the last few years and not once have I seen a single novel/book by MGV. I wonder why...

  9. Jai - unrelated to this post. I bought My Last Breath by Bunuel. While still in office, I read few paras and could completely connect to them having seen some of his films. The passage on a young man and a young woman in love and they commit suicide. The parents on both the sides were happy with their relationship. Autopsy revealed the girl was a virgin. No one could understand why. Bunuel thinks perhaps because love is not possible in practical world. It shows a different perspective on a man, whom I have known as very bitter and cynical :) awesome read

  10. Pessimist Fool: I'd prefer that comments stay on topic, please - this comment could go on one of the old Bunuel posts (there's this one about My Last Breath, for example).

  11. If Vassanji thinks he's every bit as Indian as a Gujarati living in Ahmedabad, then by the same token a lot of West Indians should think of themselves as Africans and a lot of Irish-Americans as Irish!

    Shrikanth: perhaps you're underestimating the extent to which Vassanji's community (and other Gujarati communities living in Tanzania at the time) held on to their old traditions/ways of life even while living in their adopted country.

  12. Shrikanth: perhaps you're underestimating the extent to which Vassanji's community (and other Gujarati communities living in Tanzania at the time) held on to their old traditions/ways of life even while living in their adopted country.

    Fair enough. Many Indians follow "Hindu" traditions some 3-4 generations after their emigration to several Caribbean islands.

    Be that as it may, Vassanji doesn't pay the Indian government taxes, doesn't interact with Indians on a daily basis, doesn't have a hands-on grasp of the changing moods and passions of his "mother country". Moreover he is not affected by the risks/opportunities entailed by staying in a territory run by Indian govts.

    What I essentially object to is this whole "citizen of the world" mentality. All of us must first and foremost relate to the land we live and work in - its history, its morals, its values and its laws.

    If I were to go to US, I'd be opposed to say abortion or gay marriage because the American people by and large have never approved of these practices. If it's not acceptable to most Americans, it shouldn't be fine with me. Similarly if I am living in India, I'd abide by the cow slaughter ban in states where it's not acceptable to the people at large.

    There are some exceptions to this. Like for eg : William Bentinck banning Sati ignoring popular currents. But that's an extreme case.

  13. If I were to go to US, I'd be opposed to say abortion or gay marriage because the American people by and large have never approved of these practices. If it's not acceptable to most Americans, it shouldn't be fine with me. Similarly if I am living in India, I'd abide by the cow slaughter ban in states where it's not acceptable to the people at large.

    Shrikanth: I'm going to temporarily stop being polite now and just say that this is a harebrained comment on multiple levels. If you feel such a strong urge to go with the hallowed "majority" opinion/sentiment on every issue (rather than form your own considered view), please do so. Just don't expect anyone else to take you seriously.

    And sorry, but this idea that any country has inherent "values" (which are defined by how "most" people feel) is not just idiotic and possibly dangerous, I don't really believe it's representative of your own position. If it were, then you - as an Indian living in India - wouldn't spend so much time watching all those old, obscure Hollywood movies; your primary viewing would be contemporary Hindi cinema, becuase that is what "most Indians" see. (Just one example.)

    And again, object all you like to "this whole citizen-of-the-world mentality". But do have the grace to recognise that some people do genuinely feel that way and are comfortable with it; and that perhaps - in some matters at least - they have access to a broader perspective that you don't.

  14. I never said I don't have a view on "abortion" or "gay marriage". I do. Everyone does. But I don't wish to air them on this forum.

    When I said I'd "oppose" them in US, I meant I won't be comfortable with these practices being legal unless the American people think they ought to be legal. As a society we ban homicide because everybody unanimously agrees it is immoral. As a society we don't ban chicken slaughter because most people consider it to be fine!

    In any democratic society, only people make laws! Only people, through the representatives they elect. Judges don't make laws. They only execute/interpret laws People who think otherwise are essentially disagreeing with the democratic principle.

    It's a bit disappointing this subtle distinction is often ignored.

    I know several Americans who may on a personal level favour gay marriage (we can debate the pros/cons of it till the cows come home), but oppose legalising it unless the legislature approves of it (or Americans with a vast majority approve of it in a referendum).

  15. Shrikanth: thanks for more clearly spelling out what you meant. You didn't do this in your last comment, where you simply said "If I were to go to US, I'd be opposed to say abortion or gay marriage because..." Which indicates that you as an individual would be anti-abortion or anti-gay marriage only because you saw that as the prevailing view in the country you were in. And that if this prevailing view were to change (which it well might, given that people and laws are always evolving) then you would change your personal feelings along with it. And that is an attitude I can't begin to understand.

    Anyway, let's end this for now - lots of work to do and can't spend so much time on blog comments, especially when there are very fundamental disagreements at play and nothing can be achieved beyond a point with all this back-and-forth talk.