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Juxtaposing Displacement and Assimilation

Kamalini Sengupta

By M.G. Vassanji
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2006, pp. 218, Rs. 250.00


The book under review is one of twelve short stories in this fine and elegant collection by M.G. Vassanji, the well-regarded writer of Indian origin, African upbringing and Canadian domicile. Before actually reviewing the book, a short backgrounder about the author is essential; not only because Vassanji’s name is not so familiar to Indian readers, but because this background is of major relevance in his fiction.   After his early years in Kenya and Tanzania, and MIT et al in the US, Vassanji qualified as a Nuclear Physicist and worked in Canada in this field, till he gave in to his passion—writing. Vassanji has won several literary prizes, The Giller Prize (Canada-based) twice, the Commonwealth prize and has authored six acclaimed novels apart from short story collections.   Vassanji’s stories fall clearly in the domain of immigrant literature. His concerns are reflected in titles, such as ‘The In-Between World of Vikram Lall’, or ‘The Book of Secrets.’ A recent documentary film made on Vassanji for Canadian Television is not surprisingly called, ‘The In-Between World of M.G. Vassanji’. And his fiction indeed occupies an ‘in-between’ arena, dwelling—within its geographical space of Africa-India-North America—on uncomfortable juxtapositions and displacements, discrimination, island communities and enigma.   At the other end of ‘displacement’ is a sense of community and assimilation—(Vassanji is of the Ismaili sect), which is keenly examined in his work, within itself and in encounters with others. Another area of ‘in-between’ exploration is in fact, the Hindu-Muslim dichotomy. India is sometimes visited, and is otherwise a hovering presence.   One strong strand in Vassanji’s fiction is of the past woven into the present: Farida, the wife is knitting a sweater   ‘You do embellish,’ she says with a smile. ‘I don’t embellish,’ I defend myself. ‘I know the stories, and I know the characters—surely I can fill in?’ ‘You were always good at adding mirch masala,’ she insists, bringing in the past, knitting it, I imagine, intently into that sweater. In the strange story of the title, ‘Elvis, Raja’, the past intrudes again. The protagonist is on a visit to an old friend, who is now an Elvis ‘scholar’, his home devoted to Elvis research and an Elvis museum, which includes lurid cut-outs of Hindu gods supplanted with Elvis faces (fodder for zealous Hindu activists...). The protagonist, who is given to agonizing over his wife’s death, ...

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