The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

by M.G. Vassanji
ISBN: 0385659903

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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 handcarts.
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 coercion."
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.

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