Africa exerts a powerful influence over MG Vassanji and is the subject of much of his writing, though he has not lived there since 1970.

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, unsterilized glass of water has done him in, 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 at times, meandering – narrative: 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.

History as tragic farce

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 here (as in other Vassanji novels such as The In-Between World of Vikram Lall and The Assassin’s Song) the childhood sections 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 skein 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 tape 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. 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!”

A Canadian who is also an African as well as an Indian? But Vassanji has a case for adopting an even more improbable duality – that of a Hindu and a Muslim. 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.”

Communal riots

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. But these divisions get forced upon you.”

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.

Keywords: MG Vassanji

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