In Conversation | Authors

We don’t have to have a single identity or a single home: M.G. Vassanji

Photo: Shanker Chakravarty  

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania — his parents were part of a wave of Indians who immigrated to Africa. Vassanji studied at the University of Nairobi, MIT, and the University of Pennsylvania, from where he earned a Ph.D in nuclear physics. He moved to Toronto in 1980 and continues to live there. He has eight novels, two short story collections, memoirs and a biography of Canadian writer Mordecai Richler to his credit.

I met him on a mellow December evening at Delhi’s India International Centre when he was on a book tour for his latest novel, A Delhi Obsession. His graciousness and quiet humour were disarming: unlike the acerbic Naipaul, the literary giant Vassanji is often compared to, Vassanji embraces India and East Africa — his two homelands — wholeheartedly, warts and all. Excerpts from the interview:

Your latest novel, A Delhi Obsession, is a love story weighed down by religion and centuries-old tradition.

Yes. As I mention in the endnote, in India, you cannot just be. You are branded a Hindu, a Muslim... branded communally. The day I landed in Delhi, a friend told me that I could have met a Muslim family who stays nearby if they were in town. Why suggest a meeting with complete strangers? He meant well, but it’s still stereotyping.

In A Delhi Obsession, when the lovers meet, Mohini Singh sees Munir Khan first as a Muslim. She accuses his people of ruling over her people for years.

The Mohini-Munir affair is a moving story with a violent, shocking end.

The violence at play in India right now is shocking. I hear about it on the news all the time. Violence against minorities and women. Horrific incidents of communal violence, sexual assault, rape. “Gang-rape” has become just another compound word that appears in the news. The brutal violence that was unleashed during Partition, the violence writers like Manto wrote about, violence on that scale has returned. I know India is a complex place, but how can this brutality be allowed? I could have ended my novel on a subtle note, let nuances and epiphanies convey the message. But I wanted to say it bluntly. To make a statement about the vehemence and violence of divisive rhetoric.

You published your travel memoir about India, A Place Within, in 2008. What prompted you to return to India to explore it in depth?

I knew nothing about the Indians in Africa (where I was born) when I was young. I come from a people who were not written about. When I went to America as a student, I was totally adrift. I read up on Indian philosophy, took a course in Sanskrit, gained an understanding of bhajans. I read a lot of history. I was looking for answers: how did Asians go to Africa? Where did they come from? What kind of Indian am I? These questions eventually brought me to India. I was received warmly — almost like a prodigal son. My idea of India, which I had gained from watching films (particularly Satyajit Ray’s), listening to Indian classical music, reading Nehru and Gandhi, newspaper and magazine reports, evolved over the course of my visits. When I am in India, I feel like a part of me has come home.

Where is home for you? East Africa, India, Toronto?

Toronto is my practical home. I feel safe there, perfectly comfortable in my skin. Home of my heart is Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, where I grew up. I speak Swahili fluently and visit Tanzania often. I am very attached to the land. My boyhood years were fun despite the hardships. My father passed away when I was four and my mother brought us up. As for India, it is the home of my soul. We don’t have to have a single identity or a single home. It’s a privilege to be able to observe life from different parts of the world.

But I must admit that I feel very envious of people who are rooted in a single place with just one home. Their past is all around them. If you move, your past is gone. Your stories disappear.

Is your writing an attempt to record those stories?

I was trained as a nuclear scientist and at times I despair about the choice I made. Fiction writers don’t have it easy today. Books and literature did play an important part in people’s lives, but readers are getting lazy these days. They’d rather watch Netflix or read a biography of Bill Gates or Michelle Obama. But writing is something you have to do. If you have stories to say that haven’t been told you must keep at it. I’ve had strangers come up to me and say, “Are you the author of The In-Between Life of Vikram Lall? Your novel changed my life... you wrote my story.” That’s gratifying.

Is a new book in the works?

There’s a collection of short stories I’m putting together. I’m working on a novel — the hero is a scientist, a particle physicist. I have a rough draft. It’ll work out. I think it’ll work out...

The interviewer is the author of A Happy Place And Other Stories.

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2022 7:12:32 AM |

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