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Entangled Narrative Lines

C. Vijayasree

By M.G. Vassanji
Viking, 2004, pp. 403, Rs. 425.00


The title of M.G.Vassanji’s novel may not create an instant enthusiasm among readers fed on postcolonial stuff as they are likely to mutter in exasperation: “In-betweenness! Not again!” But once they start reading the book, the powerful narrative subtly manoeuvering history and fiction, tracing intertwining threads of personal and public histories, foregrounding the realities of the in-between existence of the Indian community in Kenya grips their imagination and when they finish they are left with a feeling that rarely has anyone ever told the story of in-betweenness as boldly and as compellingly as Vassanji has done.   “My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning.”—Thus begins the first person-protagonist narrative of Vassanji’s novel: The In-between World of Vikram Lall. How Vikram Lall the disciplined and docile son of an Indian grocer and shopkeeper in East Africa, grandson of an indentured coolie who came from the Punjab to work on the railway lines in the British colony of Kenya, ended up in the predicament described above constitutes the content of Vassanji’s novel. It is a novel of growing up tracing the life story of Vikram from the age of eight until he is into his fifties thus covering four decades in the life of the hero and his family as well as the history of the country and the continent—Kenya and Africa.   The novel begins in 1953 capturing certain momentous developments in Kenya. Even as celebrations around the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II fill the British colony of Kenya with excitement, Mau Mau guerilla war for independence begins to gain strength. While the White communities uphold the authority of the Queen, the African people are congregating into an organized movement to overthrow colonial rule. The Indian community, which is neither White nor Black, occupies an ambivalent middle space. In a land torn apart by idealism, anxiety, fear, doubt, violence and counter violence, this community is forever doing tight-rope walking never sure of what is right, what is wrong. Vikram and his sister Deepa grow up in this atmosphere quite conscious of their in-betweenness poised as they are in their band of playmates—Bill and Annie, British children and Njoroge an African boy. The only thing they are certain about is that they are Kenyans, no matter what the ...

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