The travels and travails of the Asian migrant has long been a key focus of contemporary literature. As the same migrants now become more deeply rooted in their new ethos, their varied and diverse experiences often help them play an enriching role in their fresh environs. But a psychological sense forever abides with many that home is never a single place, or even that nowhere is home. Their present forever interacts with their past, and the result is often the cause of an emotional turmoil in their minds. Some can overcome them and forge ahead in their new lives, but some others, sadly, cannot.
The Reading Circle (TRC), the Dhaka-based literary club, recently deliberated on this subject, when it met to discuss the novel "The In-Between World of Vikram Lall" by MG Vassanji on 29th July. Members from home and abroad participated in the virtual event, chaired by Professor Niaz Zaman. The initial presentation, a thought- provoking analyses of the volume, was made by Nusrat Huq. It was followed by remarks by Asfa Hussain, Ameenah Ahmed, Jahanara Tariq, Sarazeen Ahana, and me. Thereafter there was a most stimulating exchange of ideas and views, with contributions by other attendees as well.
This essay is based on my own thoughts on the topic. In this regard, I wish to make three points. First, on the writer, and the genre of the writing. In the post-colonial era, a type that represented English writings outside the Anglo-American tradition emerged. This was broadly called The New Commonwealth Literature. It was very popular when I was a student in Australia. In the 1960s and 70s, a prime example was Vidyadhar Surajprasad Naipaul from Trinidad author of The Wounded Civilization. Another was the Fijian, Satendra Nandan, whom I had known during my years at the Australian National University in Canberra. His autobiographical novel, obviously influenced by Naipaul was called The Wounded Sea. This genre reflected the varying patters of human experience and cultural heritages of peoples. They were as diverse as those from India to Nigeria, Canada to Kenya and Australia to Pakistan.
What linked this disparate community together was the English language. This fact also prompted migrations from one constituent component of the English-speaking world to another. It was often from a less-developed part like Africa, India or Fiji to more developed ones like the UK-US Canada and Australia. I would place MG Vassanji as a contemporary member of that school. Like many of his ilk Vassanji experienced "two stage -migration." It involved one from one colony to another for work, as from India to Africa. The next stage was migration from the place of work to the advanced metropolis. In other words, from Africa to Anglo-America or from the South Pacific to Australia.
So Vassanji' s is a 'homodiegetic' novel. The expression "homodiegetic" means that it records the narrator's personal experience. It is crafted in a style that is elegantly mellifluous and hugely readable. Vassanji' s own recollections of real-life is reflected in the voice of the protagonist of the story Vikram Lall. It belongs to the broad school of what the Germans would call a "Bildungsroman". Translated into English, "Bildung" means 'education' and "roman" is novel. This type of litert6ure is often about the life of a young person growing naturally and psychologically into adulthood. Examples we all would be familiar with are, say, young Pip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, or little Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.
My second point is the content of this eponymous novel, named after the principal character, and the message conveyed. Lall is well and truly an "in-between person". He is what is called a WAHINDI in Swahili, something akin to a metaphor of the "golden mean", not belonging entirely to one side or the other. For instance, he is 'in -between' the Asian and the African, 'in-between' a moral and an immoral being, 'in-between' an actor and an observer. The work itself is an in-between tale of an individual and a nation. At one level, it is a historical metafiction (a metafiction is one that constantly reminds the audience that it is a fiction) of Kenya, about a struggle for socio-political liberation that went awry. Lall bemoans the experience of the ex-Mau Mau combatant, who lost his property and reputation in the struggle for independence, only to find his dream of UHURU (or 'freedom' in Swahili) betrayed by the politician. And who and what was this post-colonial politician? He was the "" Was it the destiny of the Kenyans to suffer so hard and so long in their struggle against colonialism, only to become a nation of ten millionaires and ten million paupers?
At the same time, it is also the soul-wrenching journey of a man who had to come to terms with himself and the future he had carved out from the past. This is by no means high- literature. But readers have reported a sense of emotional proximity they have sensed between this slow-moving but immensely readable work, and Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, at least in the sense that it forces you to delve into history of Russia in the case of Tolstoy and Africa in the case of Vassanji.
The third and final point is the novel's take-away lessons. It both teaches and cautions, as well as informs and enchants. Vikram Lall is every-man writ large. He is also everyman writ small. The futility in the search for perfection comes out in broad relief in the narration. The narratives are woven into the form of a novel that details hard work, traditional values, electronic transfers of ill-gotten money, and the slippery slope between moral living and corruption. But as in some similar stories of migration we have read at TRC, this is also often the perennial struggle of the migrant. Many migrants may want old memories erased and supplanted by new ones. They do so because they want to better cohere with the new life. But will it always help them be better integrated? Would it be possible for, say, a Rishi Sunak, now very wealthy, but also with Kenya-Uganda Railway background like characters in our novel, to be Prime Minister of the UK? It is one thing for him to be endorsed by his Oxbridge educated peers in Parliament. But can he obtain the support that he now needs of the 200, 000 common British members of the Tory Party, who are but ordinary men and women in the proverbial Clapham Omnibus? We shall see!
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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