Literary Review

A place called home

And Home was Kariakoo: Memoir of an Indian African by M.G. Vassanji  

A book about Africa (East Africa, in particular) by a writer of Indian origin who spent his childhood in Africa but now lives in Canada — a writer whose identity straddles three continents. Would the voice be authentic? Would my vicarious experience be biased with the writer’s scattered background? I began reading M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo with a lot of scepticism.

Subtitled Memoir of an Indian African, it tussles with the concept of home and identity. He writes in English, speaks in English, lives in an English-speaking nation, his ancestors hail from a nation that rapidly is adopting English as its mother tongue. Yet, he revels in using Swahili, striking an immediate rapport with the locals, sharing stories from his childhood and feels at home in East Africa. Throughout the book, Vassanji is occupied with a subconscious pursuit to place himself in this schema. Being an Indian in Africa has always been complicated: “To the poor Africans (Indians) were the one raking in the cash. To the white colonials, we were the bone in the kabab — spoiling their black-and-white picture of Africa.”

Vassanji belongs to the third generation of Indians (primarily Gujaratis) who migrated to East Africa in the 19th century and the early 20th century in search of business. Born in Nairobi, and following his father’s untimely death, he moved to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania where his maternal grandmother and aunts and uncles lived. It is here — in a small locality called Kariakoo near the Indian neighbourhood Gaam — that his memories belong. Vassanji revisits many places that he holds close to the heart — and highlights their transformation. Many Asians who lived in the Tanzania of his time moved out when the government was tightening its grip on the rich Indian businessmen, and the Gaam of his childhood had changed drastically. “The business streets of these upcountry towns look haunted, as they wait to fill the vacuum left by their Asians.” But not all has changed. Of Nairobi, he writes, “(Nairobi has) maintained a level of integrity. The grotesque forms of development have been avoided.”

Vassanji has presented a detailed historical commentary of East Africa’s evolution, its politics and economics, over roughly the past 200 years; some even dating back to Ibn Batuta’s time as well. Part-travelogue, part-history and part-memoir, the book spans over 25 chapters, each about a city that forms a stopover in his travel itinerary. This journey is as much a quest to identify and place himself in the continent as much as to understand it. Vassanji traces ancient caravan routes, uncovering the stories and legends through interviews and thorough readings of the books and notes of and about the western explorers like David Livingstone or Sir Henry Morton Stanley; the dramatic expedition to find the source of the Nile and the bitter rivalry between Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke.

Vassanji elaborates in lavish detail, like a professional historian, the events that led up to the Zanzibar Revolution, tying up snippets from politics, anecdotes from the interviews and reports to present a comprehensive picture. Explaining his obsession with history, he asserts his Canadian identity when he writes, “In a world where I now come from, history is revered as record. It is there to teach us about ourselves.” History not only delves into the past, but also ventures into the present as well, as he describes an encounter with his friends’ foreign-educated sons and daughters. They are global in their outlook, speak and write in English and await opportunities abroad. Like he did. “Will they ever return?” He leaves the question unanswered.

Most African history till date has been from a Westerner’s perspective — be it Stanley’s oft-prejudiced prose suffering from the White Man’s Burden, or Speke’s well-written but unreliable notes. There have been no records whatsoever from the African men who accompanied these explorers in their caravans, the Indians who left their home in Gujarat for an alien place, the slaves who were traded in secret or badly treated. Vassanji asserts that “we should tell our own stories” to the students. The records of those perished lives of the past might have disappeared forever, but Vassanji’s timely memoir assures us that, whatever of the past has been there, he’s recorded it with great flair and care. After all, despite straddling three continents, speaking three languages, his heart resides at his home. Kariakoo

And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa; M.G. Vassanji, Penguin, Rs.599.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 3:45:45 PM |

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