Thursday, August 18, 2005

Book Review: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

Author: Moyez G Vassanji
Genre: Fiction, African drama
Publisher: Doubleday Canada (Random House)
ISBN: 1 84195 539 6 PBK (Paperback)
First Published: Canada 2003, UK 2004
Format: Paperback, 439 pp

"My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning..."

And so begins MG Vassanji's Giller prize winner book, "The In-between World of Vikram Lall", the story of a Kenyan-born Indian, now living in Canada, in hiding from those that would hound him in Kenya, recounting the story of his life.

The story opens in colonial Kenya (in the 1950's), around the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth 2. Resentment towards imperialism is, however, growing, especially in the form of rising Mau Mau atrocities, mostly against the British. The British crack down is equally brutal. They repeatedly round up the Kikuyu for questioning and abandoning moral values, its troops kill and torture civilians with impunity.

The story itself revolves around our protogonist, Vikram Lall whose grandfather was brought from India as an indentured worker to Kenya to help build the East African railway. While reading the book I had often pondered the meaning of the title and conclude that Vikram Lall's world was "in-between" because, as an Asian in Africa, he really was positioned between two groups, the Europeans and the Africans, neither group of which he could be an intrinsic part of and looked down upon with deep suspicion, by both. In Vikram's own words:

“We lived in a compartmentalized society; every evening from the melting pot of city life each person went his long way home to his family, his church, his folk.”

THis is a very interesting story because it recounts the fight for Kenya's liberation through the eyes of an Asian man. The role of the Indians in the liberation of Kenya is not a much-discussed topic mainly because, by and large, the Indians did not take sides. This was either because they were diplomatic, or because they had been used to being expelled to the fringes of African society by both the British and the Africans and didn't really have an opinion on who should rule. I suspect the latter is true.

The story also deals with unrequieted love. Both the Lall siblings, Vikram and Deepa fall in love with people of other races/religions and due to family pressure cannot realize their dreams of getting married to their beloveds. I found this in stark contrast to the earlier generations of Indians who would marry Masai girls quite willingly.

Anyway, things were not so rosy in Kenya after its Independence. Corruption was rife and to his credit, MG Vassanji is not shy about using the names of real Kenyan rulers while depicting them as power-hungry, bribe-accepting men, for eg., Jomo Kenyatta, leader of the Mau Mau, who went from prison to the presidency. The Africans, drunk on this new state of African power, turned not only upon their ex-rulers, the British, but also upon other non-Africans (read Asians), trying to seize their properties and businesses through sheer intimidation. Without the appropriate connections to people in power you were rendered powerless in this new corrupt government.

This is how Vikram describes the political atmosphere at that time:

"...if you were connected through family or communal allegiances, even penniless you were protected and favored. Otherwise, suspicion and intimidation could make you a victim of anyone. We Asians were brown, we were few and frightened and caricatured, and we could be threatened with deportation as aliens even if we had been in the country since the time of Vasco da Gama and before some of the African people had even arrived in the land..."

"...this abhorring of a people, holding them in utter contempt, blaming them for your misfortunes---trying to get rid of them en masse---could and did have other manifestations on our continent. Idi Amin cleansed Uganda of its entire Asian population by deporting them, and many African leaders applauded him. Little did they know what a slippery slope it was from that move toward genocide in Rwanda, and then elsewhere..."

The ruling party also severed all ties with the Mau Mau, who were responsible for the fight for independence, stating that they would not be ruled by "hooligans", thus rendering many Kikuyu very, very unhappy and dissatisfied with the government.

Unfortunately, in the 1970's, Vikram Lall takes up a prestigious post as the personal assistant to the Minister of Transport and gets caught up in a whirl of corruption, exploitation, bribery and money laundering. In the end, he is framed by his party, let down by the very people that employed him and has to run away to Canada because he is a marked man in Kenya.

This is a truly wonderful read and the story raises some very important and pertinent points and questions for discussion. I can see book clubs having wonderful and animated discussions if this is picked as a read. A truly great post-colonial novel!