Friday, December 15, 2017

Discarding a life, leaping into another one: on MG Vassanji’s Nostalgia

[Did a shorter version of this piece for India Today magazine]

“We leap from one life into another, be it imperfectly, and hope […] that the past does not catch up with us. But sometimes it does […] Reminders of our discarded lives can not yet be completely blocked…”

Anyone familiar with MG Vassanji’s writing will know that these lines, from his new novel Nostalgia, could easily have come from any of his earlier narratives. A theme running through Vassanji’s work – starting with the 1989 novel The Gunny Sack – is the imposition of the past on the present: how an individual's many selves interact with each other, how people are shaped by their histories even as they try to evade them.

Perhaps this is unsurprising given his own multi-cultural background; descended from Gujarat’s Khoja community, he grew up in Kenya and Tanzania, went to the US to study at age 20, and has lived in Canada since 1978. The search for self runs through not just his fiction – which made him the first two-time winner of Canada’s Giller Prize – but also such works as the hesitant, moving 2008 travelogue A Place Within: Rediscovering India, about his attempts to understand the complexities of his ancestral land.

However, Nostalgia marks a clear formal departure for the sixty-seven-year-old author. This is a work of speculative fiction, located in a future where technology has made it possible for people to “rejuvenate” – that is, acquire greatly extended life-spans along with the implantation of fictitious new “memories”, thus replacing their earlier lives with new ones. As the story begins, the narrator Dr Sina, himself one of these new-generation people or GNs, meets a patient, Presley Smith, who seems afflicted by visions from a previous life. When Sina tries to solve this mystery, also encountering religious “pro-deathers” along the way, he finds his preconceptions and complacencies challenged.

It’s unusual for a writer, at this stage in his career, to take a right turn into a completely new storytelling mode. But this book began with a single, persistent idea, Vassanji tells me during a phone interview. “Suppose we could get rid of past memories – painful ones, extra baggage as we live longer lives, or for reasons of vanity. I played around with this thought, on and off, began a novel, set it aside.”

Playful and breezy as Nostalgia seems compared to his earlier novels such as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, it wasn’t easy to write – which is why it took 15 years to finish. “Since this was something I hadn’t done before – creating a world as opposed to dealing with already-known things – I was worried about saying something outlandish. Also, with a futuristic setting, one had to think carefully about the philosophical conundrums faced by these characters.”

It’s doubly intriguing since Vassanji doesn’t seem especially interested in science-fiction, and even appears to share the disdain that many literary writers – from Margaret Atwood downward – have for the more supposedly conventional aspects of the genre. “I am not fond of technology-oriented sci-fi – rockets and men and women with odd features,” he says, reductively; he also tends to blur sci-fi and fantasy, which are very different genres, each with many subsets (during our talk, he brings up Star Wars while listing things he doesn’t like about sci-fi).

But what he wanted to do was to use speculative fiction as a vessel – “without getting into many technical hijinks” – to explore ideas. Many kinds of tensions run through this story: between youth and old age, privilege and lack of privilege, religious faith and scientific progress. “While playing around with the dominant themes – the absence of death and memory – I realized the obvious: as we hang on to life, we hold on to our jobs, hoard our wealth – retirement funds, investments, etc – which leaves younger people at a disadvantage.”

One challenge he set himself was to keep the details of geography abstract, so that the book didn’t come across as a too-obvious allegory for real-world politics. For instance, Maskinia, the “barbaric” war-torn country behind the Long Border – where a young journalist is apparently killed and cannibalised during an assignment – isn’t a readily identifiable place but is presented as “our Other, our id – our constant dark companion on the bright path of our progress”.

And of course, he had some fun along the way -- though perhaps not as much as someone keener on fully fleshing out an imagined world would have. The book’s tongue-in-cheek asides include a reference to three Khans, Salman, Shahrukh, and Aamir: names given to virtual practice partners for tennis players, each programmed with different games and personalities. Many passages feel very cinematic – the juxtaposition of a monkey army (a reference to the Ramayana) with an Apocalypse Now-like helicopter attack complete with a “Ride of the Valkyries” soundtrack; the theme of memory implantation, strongly evocative of the new Blade Runner 2049 – though Vassanji denies any filmic influences on his work.

Most of all, Nostalgia is about the dual nature of memory as something that can bring great pain ("thoughts burrow from the previous life into the conscious mind, threatening to pull the sufferer into an internal abyss") but which is also essential to being human, being able to construct narratives – a theme that might be particularly important to a novelist. “I who implanted idyllic fictions am a fiction myself, and that fiction is falling apart,” Dr Sina says. He could be speaking for every writer who creates worlds, or reminding us that we are all storytellers, forming narratives about ourselves – and then erasing them when they become inconvenient.

[Two earlier pieces on Vassanji here: a profile for The Hindu, and a review of The Assassin’s Song]


  1. "the juxtaposition of a monkey army (a reference to the Ramayana) "

    This is a total aside. But this comes back to my point of how we Indians deliberately misinterpret our own texts out of ignorance.

    There is no reference to a monkey army in Ramayana. The term used for the accomplices of Rama in Kishkinda is "Vanara" - which in Sanskrit means "Nara who lives in a Vana (forest)". In other words "forest dwellers".

    The Ramayana very much describes these men as humans. Not as monkeys or even apes. Sure, there are references to their furs and tails, and their leapings. But at no point is it implied that these are monkeys.

    The association of "Vanara" with monkeys appears to be artistic license of a later age. Even the reference to "tail" is only among the male Vanaras. The female Vanaras don't have a tail (eg : Anjana or Tara). So it appears this tail is an ornament of these forest dwelling tribes rather than a natural one.

  2. They are monkeys, Shrikanth. Find a way to deal with it. (And stop being so condescending towards non-humans.)

  3. They are not.

    I am not condescending to anyone. I am just a stickler for accuracy.

    Vanara means forest dweller.

    The association of vanaras with monkeys is artistic license of a later age. Which is fine. I dont grudge artists their licenses.

  4. They are not.

    I am not condescending to anyone. I am just a stickler for accuracy.

    Vanara means forest men. Apes are not naras.

    The association of vanaras with monkeys is artistic license of a later age. Which is fine. I dont grudge artists their licenses.

  5. I am just a stickler for accuracy.

    I am even more of a stickler for accuracy, and I say they are monkeys. And superior in most ways to every human in the epic.

  6. Hey ..I wish they were monkeys! But I don't think they are. It is sanskrit 101.