Thursday, September 30, 2004

M G Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

In a quiet retreat near the shores of Lake Ontario sits Vikram (Vic) Lall, who has been forced into this exile; he is, in his own words, "numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning". Now he wants, not to speak in his defence, but to simply explain his life ("if more of us told our stories to each other, we would be a far happier people"). He begins with the summer of 1953, when he was eight years old, and living in British-ruled Kenya. His playmates, apart from his little sister Deepa, are an African friend, Njoroge, and two British children, Bill and Annie Bruce; in a sense, Vikram is an "in-between" from very early in his life.
If that makes The In-Between World of Vikram Lall sound like another of the tired rants by a Displaced Indian that often haunt contemporary literature, rest assured it isn’t. India is almost incidental to this novel: it’s the place where Vikram’s grandfather came to Africa from years earlier, to work on the railways, and the traditions of the home country do affect the plot details - but that’s about it. This is African writing, if it is to be categorised at all, reflecting all the mysteries of that hulking, enigmatic continent.
That said, its concerns are universal. Among many other things, it deals with the little events that can change the lives of individuals - and, by extension, of communities and even countries. It touches on the combination of factors that lead people to take one or the other decision when they come to that crucial bend in life’s road.
Not counting a 20-page coda at the end, this beautiful, moving and very elegant novel is divided into three sections. The first gives us the signposts of Vic’s childhood in Nakaru, where his family ran a provision store: his love for little Annie Bruce, who plays Sita to his Rama in a Diwali-inspired game (which the author, mercifully, does not soak in symbolism); the unique bond between Deepa and Njoroge; the background whispers of a freedom movement led by a modern-day Moses named Jomo Kenyatta, even as the Mau Mau, guerilla freedom fighters, strike terror among the colonial settlers. In a strange, disquieting passage Lall relates how Njoroge took him to a sacrificial altar and made him take the Mau Mau oath. He recalls seeing his beloved uncle Mahesh providing ammunition to the freedom fighters; and he recalls all too well the horrible news of the Bruces being massacred by the Mau Mau. These are stray incidents, elements in a storyteller’s large corpus. But their echoes persist through Vic’s life.
The second section, the book’s emotional centre, is set 12 years later in a newly independent Kenya, as Njoroge comes back into the lives of his two Indian friends and begins a relationship with Deepa that is doomed from the outset. And the third section chronicles Vic’s gradual progression from working as an employer of the Ministry of Transport to becoming a crucial cog in embezzlement schemes in high places, almost without realising it. "Total corruption occurs in inches and proceeds through veils of ambiguity," he says. Ambiguities are found elsewhere too; loyalties have shifted (as an adult, Njoroge renounces the Jomo he used to revere as "Moses" when he was little) and ideals have been eroded.
At one point, the author quotes a line from T S Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Who is the third who walks always beside you?” It reminds us of how deeply Vikram’s life have been affected by the childhood trauma of Annie’s death (“they are a part of us, aren’t they...those we once knew?” he asks his sister at one point) and how this incident, and others like it, have changed him in unknowable ways. But in reading this book I was reminded equally of Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men, which has an African connection of its own, echoing as it does Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Vikram is a hollow man himself - not in a pejorative sense but in that he is emotionally crippled, often devoid of thought or action; a man of no sides, as his wife taunts him. (“I simply went along with the way of the world” is his response.)
Vassanji’s greatest achievements is to evoke empathy for such a character. Not once in these 400 pages does the narrator’s voice hit a false note. Vikram Lall is a completely believable protagonist and it’s difficult to think of his story as a work of fiction. (In writing this review, I found myself repeatedly confusing Vassanji with his creation; it’s made more unsettling by the fact that the author himself is around Vikram’s age, spent his early life in Africa, and now resides in Canada.)
It’s hard to write about this book; it must be read, savoured, experienced for itself. Also, my own response to it was so personal that I’m not sure others will react to it the same way. But speaking generally, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a beautifully written, compelling portrait of a man who always feels himself to be on the periphery of things, on the outside looking in. He is influenced in invisible ways by external forces and in turn, his actions affect his country’s history. In that sense, he could be any of us, even if our lives aren’t quite as dramatic.

I love the cover of the book's Vintage edition, which I’ve put up with this post


  1. Pretty late to leave a comment on an article written more than 4 years back but I just finished reading the book and I share the emotions. As you said, it seemed to touch me at a personal level and the chracter Vikram and the rest of the cast feels all so real.The story may be set in Kenya but I am able to relate to it. Wonder why I di dnot hear about this book or as a matter of fact M G Vassanji earlier..

  2. Yeah pretty late to comment, for me too. However, it was interesting to know about this book. I know neither abt it nor abt its author. Thanks.

  3. This story niether touched or inspired me. The first 150 pages are shear torture and i nearly passed out during part two from bordom intoxication. You might say I have no appreaciation towarads a beautifully written piece of literature, and thats fine. I just think it's quite tedious.