||A Review of: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
by Nancy Wigston
Giller-prize winner (The Book of Secrets, 1994) M.G. Vassanji's new
novel might be subtitled The Book of Truth, a nod to the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, which uncovered the buried secrets of
the apartheid regime in South Africa. Like his protagonist,
African-bred Vikram Lall, M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya. The Kenya
he portrays in his novel has a fledgling "Anti-Corruption
Commission", charged with investigating the excesses of the
once-heralded Kenyatta regime and its successors. But unlike South
Africa, the Kenyan commission has enjoyed no success when the book
opens. Multi-layered, completely absorbing, this novel addresses
the frustrating question so often asked by westerners ("What
went wrong in modern Africa?") in terms of the particulars of
one man's life. In spite of its vague-sounding title, this is not
an in-between tale, but that rare thing: a perfect fusion of the
personal with the political, rendered by a novelist at the height
of his powers.
It is the present, and Lall, now living in rural Ontario,
"craves" to tell his story, not only to his accusers in
Kenya, but to himself, and, by extension, to us. His ignominious
achievement-he ranks Number One on his native country's List of
Shame-needs explaining; after all, he was never a political type,
much less the "cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning"
that he has been labelled. For a long time, we're not sure whether
to trust our narrator. Cold, barely capable of relating to friends
old and new, Vikram Lall seems completely at home in the chilly
climate of his home in exile.
The meticulous scenes from his childhood that open the narrative
might merely be the sentimental memories of a man-"moderate
almost to a fault"-as he calls himself, whose life, like so
many, has gone badly off the rails. In fact rails, specifically
railways, form one of the constants in Lall's life: his ancestors
were brought from India to build them, and his first government job
involves overseeing their expansion. But first thing's first: two
children, eight-year-old Vic and his younger sister Deepa, are
playing in a dusty African town with their good friend, an African
boy called Njoroge. These scenes of a childhood recalled are vividly
put into play. On "sun-drenched Saturdays" Indian families
eat their favourite sweets; "European" [white] families
shop for English products like Ovaltine and Horlick's that are sold
by the Indian children's father, himself something of an anglophile.
Two English children, William and Annie Bruce, appear on the scene,
playing while their mother shops, expanding the little group and
joining in their favourite activity, racing about in grocery store
The adult Lall claims that four of the youngsters formed
couples-in-miniature: his sister Deepa and Njoroge, and he and
little Annie, who, in heavily romantic fashion he first introduces
as "another whose name I cannot utter yet." Lall's childhood
memories portray an Eden from which he is inevitably cast out, not
by the natural maturing process, but by brutal political violence.
As the children, in their own happily integrated milieu, are playing
their games, the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule is unfolding
around them. Signs are there: the routine exclusion of the African
boy from the European restaurant, the increasing persecution of
neighbourhood Africans by the odious colonial police force-these
signal the inequalities that lead to coming horrors. Yet everyone
seems to exist in a bubble, including Vic's parents, his African-born
father and Indian-born mother, who at this point in their marriage
seem well-matched and happy, teasing and laughing with "Mahesh
Uncle", the mother's communist brother, who has emigrated to
Kenya from India.
One night Vic's friend Njoroge, performs an oath-swearing parody
of Mau Mau ritual, one he probably learned from his grandfather,
Mwangi, with whom he lives. Young Vikram participates in something
he finds mysterious and repellent. This childish oath comes to
symbolize his loss of innocence, a betrayal of self that haunts him
into middle age. He starts to observe that the people he loves and
trusts all harbour their various secrets, yet he can never be sure
of their exact nature. Was the "wise man" Mwangi, the
gentle gardener "who spoke in proverbs," so sincere in
his disapproval of the slaughter of British civilians, really active
in the Mau-Mau movement? And what precisely was the role of Mahesh
Uncle? Was he merely an unwitting idealist or a cunning participant?
Constantly turning over the threads in this life story, returning
again and again to its idyllic beginnings, Vassanji creates an
indelible portrait of a man haunted by the "mind's demonic
theatre," by questions and events that yield no easy answers.
But Vikram is sure of one thing: he resented the meat-eating,
blood-mingling ritual; "private, debasing and repugnant,"
in which he was made to participate through "friendly
And thus the parameters are set for Vikram's future downfall. After
political violence invades their little town, the Lall family move
away to Nairobi, where eventually their father becomes successful
in real estate and the children grow into bright young adults in
the "hope and excitement" of newly independent Kenya.
It's the era of The Beatles, and Vassanji writes period scenes that
are laced with irony. At a Nairobi fashion show bikini-clad African
and European models strut down the runway toting toy pistols,
accompanied by James Bond theme music and much applause. Meanwhile
the former Mau-Mau freedom fighters' are begging for government
assistance, their clothes in tatters.
Freedom on every level proves illusory. When their childhood friend
Njoroge reappears in their lives, Lall's memoir focuses on the
passionate relationship between Deepa, an Indian girl intended by
her mother for an Indian husband, and the African love of her life,
who is passionately involved in the politics of the new democracy.
Beautifully written, this episode reveals the fears and prejudices
that always existed beneath their mother's tender, nurturing surface.
Vikram, ever the keen observer, supports his sister's forbidden
romance, although he himself, damaged by the loss of his first love,
finds he cannot follow through with his own courtship of Yasmin, a
Muslim girl he meets at university. Youthful romance is portrayed
against the sensual landscape of Dar es Salaam, the town by the sea
where, for a brief period, it appears that the "morass"
that is Kenya's "malformed freedom" might be avoided. One
night Vikram and Deepa are attacked by a mob of Tanzanian Muslims
who have identified Vikram as a "Nairobi Punjabi Hindu"
courting a Muslim, whose sister is dating an African. Their breaching
of tribal boundaries is as abhorrent to their contemporaries as it
is to their mother. The inclusive dream of their childhood is
revealed as just that, a dream.
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 chapatti forever," in his sardonic words. The slow
but certain corruption of innocent Vikram Lall, who indeed is chosen
by his superiors in government because he seems incorruptible,
unfolds as surely as night follows day.
Vassanji's tale feels as real as everyday life in its details about
office and family life, while reflecting the arc of the Hindu myth
about exile, defeat, and victory that is acted out by the little
band of childhood friends in Vikram's youth during the annual Diwali
festival. This is a taut, marvellous story, told in a dispassionate
voice that still manages to convey passion and wonder, while it
patiently explains the complex "game" of illegal finance
played at the highest levels of government. Vassanji leaves his
readers with dazzling images of the Eden and its opposite that
comprises modern Africa, told by a man who has travelled many roads,
only to find that they all lead him in one direction: home.