The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

by M. G. Vassanji

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Overview

Vikram Lall comes of age in 1950s Kenya, at the same time that the colony is struggling towards independence. Against the unsettling backdrop of Mau Mau violence, Vic and his sister Deepa, the grandchildren of an Indian railroad worker, search for their place in a world sharply divided between Kenyans and the British. We follow Vic from a changing Africa in the fifties, to the hope of the sixties, and through the corruption and fear of the seventies and eighties. Hauntingly told in the voice of the now exiled Vic, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is an acute and bittersweet novel of identity and family, of lost love and abiding friendship, and of the insidious legacy of the British Empire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400076567
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/08/2005
Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,078,003
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, and raised in Tanzania. He took a doctorate in physics at M.I.T. and came to Canada in 1978. While working as a research associate and lecturer at the University of Toronto in the 1980s he began to dedicate himself seriously to a longstanding passion: writing.His first novel, The Gunny Sack, won a regional Commonwealth Writers Prize, and he was invited to be writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The novel’s success was a spur, Vassanji has commented: “It was translated into several languages. I was confident that this was what I could do, that writing was not just wishful thinking. In 1989 I quit my full-time job and began researching The Book of Secrets.” That celebrated, bestselling novel won the inaugural Giller Prize, in 1994.Vassanji’s other books include the acclaimed novels No New Land (1991) and Amriika (1999), and Uhuru Street (1991), a collection of stories. His unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant, classical style, his narrative reach, and his interest in characters trying to reconcile different worlds within themselves. The subtle relations of the past and present are also constants in his writing: “When someone asks you where you are from or who you are, there is a whole resume of who you are. I know very few people who do not have a past to explain. That awareness is part of my work.”M.G. Vassanji was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994 in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve Canadians on Maclean’s Honour Roll. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.

Read an Excerpt

“Who is the third who walks always beside you?” — T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

“Neti, neti.” (Not this, not that.) — Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

“Po pote niendapo anifuata.” (Wherever I go he follows me.) — Swahili riddle; answer: shadow


My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation — and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.

I am quite an ordinary man, as you will discover, and moderate almost to a fault. How I came upon my career and my distinction is a surprise even to me. But my times were exceptional and they would leave no one unscathed.


Part 1 — The Year of Our Loves and Friendships

One
Njoroge who was also called William loved my sister Deepa; I was infatuated with another whose name I cannot utter yet, whose brother was another William; we called him Bill. We had all become playmates recently. It was 1953, the coronation year of our new monarch who looked upon us from afar, a cold England of pastel, watery shades, and I was eight years old.

I call forth for you here my beginning, the world of my childhood, in that fateful year of our friendships. It was a world of innocence and play, under a guileless constant sun; as well, of barbarous cruelty and terror lurking in darkest night; a colonial world of repressive, undignified subjecthood, as also of seductive order and security — so that long afterwards we would be tempted to wonder if we did not hurry forth too fast straight into the morass that is now our malformed freedom.

Imagine an outdoor mall, the type we still call a shopping centre there, a plain stubby strip of shops on open land, with unpaved parking in front. It was accessible from a side road that left the highway, less than a mile away, at the railway station. Far out in the distance, the farthest that you could see through the haze over the flat yellow plains, rose the steep green slopes of the great Rift Valley, down which both the railway and the highway descended to reach us at the floor. Behind us lay most of the rest of Nakuru, the principal town of our province.

My family ran a provision store at this Valley Shopping Centre, which was ten minutes’ walk from the Asian development where we lived. We sold Ovaltine and Milo and Waterbury’s Compound and Horlicks — how they roll past memory’s roadblocks, these trademarks of a childhood — and macaroni and marmalade, cheeses and olives, and other such items that the Europeans and the rich Indians who emulated them were used to. Beside us was a small bakery-café run by a Greek woman, Mrs. Arnauti, for the Europeans — as all the whites were called — who trundled down from their farms in their dust-draped vans and pickups to stop by for tea or coffee and colourful iced cakes and neat white sandwiches. Next to it was Alidina Greengrocers. On Saturday mornings, with the schools closed, my sister and I went down to the shop with our parents. Sun-drenched Saturdays is how I think of those days, what memory’s trapped for me: days of play. Though it could get cold at times, and in the morning the ground might be covered in frost. At the other end of the mall from us, Lakshmi Sweets was always bustling at midmorning, Indian families having stopped over in their cars for bhajias, samosas, dhokras, bhel-puri, and tea, which they consumed noisily and with gusto. By comparison our end was sedate, orderly: a few vehicles parked, a few rickety white tables outside Arnauti’s occupied by Europeans on a good day. My father and mother always ordered tea and snacks from Lakshmi, and my sister and I could go to Arnauti’s, where we were allowed a corner table outside, though not our black friend Njoroge, who with quite a straight face, head in the air and hands in his pockets, would proudly wander off.

After hastily consuming sticky Swiss rolls and doughy cheese or spinach pies, Deepa and I ran out to play. There were two handcarts outside the shop for pulling loads, one of them had its handle broken and no one usually minded when we took it out to give each other rides. Deepa, who was seven, ran along beside Njoroge and me, and habitually, in domineering big-brother fashion, I refused her a place in our conveyance, became annoyed at her for running after us, a girl in her two long pigtails and Punjabi pyjama and long shirt. She cried, and every time she did that Njoroge would give her a ride, obligingly push the cart for her all around the parking lot, and I believed they had more fun together than he had with me. That was why I thought he was in love with my sister. Every time I said that, Mother would have a fit, but she never objected to our playing with our friend.

One morning just before noon a green Ford pickup drove up and parked outside our store; from it emerged a tall and slim white woman, with brown curls to her shoulders and trousers that seemed rather broad at the hips. She had a long and ruddy face with a pointed chin. She paused to scrutinize the shops in the mall and, I thought, stared severely for a moment at me and my companions, before bending to say something to the two children who were in the passenger seat. The door opened on the other side and out tumbled a boy of my age and a young girl who could have been six; from the back jumped out with some flair an African servant–well dressed in expensive hand-me-downs, as the more favoured servants of the Europeans usually were, much to the envy of other servants. This one sported a brown woollen vest and a tweed jacket. The woman escorted her two children to Arnauti’s, where they sat at a table outside and in loud voices ordered from the waiter who had come running out to attend, and then she went over to my father’s shop. Soon our own barefoot servant hurried out to hand the European woman’s servant a bottle of Coke.

When she had finished her shopping, her servant was called and he carried her two cartons of purchases to the back of the pickup. Then Mrs. Bruce, as was her name, returned to Arnauti’s patio and joined a table with two other women and a man. Her two children came out, where Njoroge, Deepa, and I, upon seeing them, now somewhat self-consciously continued our preoccupations with each other and our cart. The boy and girl stood quite still, outside the guardrail, staring at us.

Do you want a ride? I asked the boy suddenly.

Without a word he came and sat in the cart and we pushed him away at top speed with hoots and growls to simulate various engine sounds. When we stopped, after a distance, having gathered up a cloud of dust across the parking lot, the boy got out and dusted himself off as his sister whined, Now me, Willie, it’s my turn now.

He paid her no attention but shook Njoroge’s and my hands solemnly, saying, William — call me Bill, and pleased to meet you.

We shook hands wordlessly, then I pointed to my friend and said hesitantly: Njoroge.

That day Deepa and I stopped calling Njoroge by his English name. And I believe he also stopped using it for himself.

Now he in his turn pointed at me and said: Vic—Vikram.

Well then — jolly good, Bill said. Let’s give those two girls a ride —

He wore shorts of grey wool, with a rather fine blue checked shirt. His hair, like that of his sister, was a light brown. And both wore black shoes and white socks. The girl was in red overalls, and two ribbons of a like colour tied her hair in clumps at the back. We drove the two girls with speed right up to the line of shops, as they hung on, clutching for dear life, screaming with joy.

Reading Group Guide

Double Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a haunting novel of corruption and regret that brings to life the complexity and turbulence of Kenyan society in the last five decades. Rich in sensuous detail and historical insight, this is a powerful story of passionate betrayals and political violence, racial tension and the strictures of tradition, told in elegant, assured prose.

The novel begins in 1953, with eight-year-old Vikram Lall a witness to the celebrations around the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, just as the Mau Mau guerilla war for independence from Britain begins to gain strength. In a land torn apart by idealism, doubt, political upheaval and terrible acts of violence, Vic and his sister Deepa must find their place among a new generation. Neither colonists nor African, neither white nor black, the Indian brother and sister find themselves somewhere in between in their band of playmates: Bill and Annie, British children, and Njoroge, an African boy. These are the relationships that will shape the rest of their lives.

We follow Vikram through the changes in East African society, the immense promise of the fifties and sixties. But when that hope is betrayed by the corruption and violence of the following decades, Vic is drawn into the Kenyatta government’s orbit of graft and power-broking. Njoroge, his childhood friend, can abandon neither the idealism of his youth nor his love for Vic’s sister Deepa. But neither the idealism of the one nor the passive cynicism of the other can avert the tragedies that await them.

In interviews given when the novel was published, Vassanji commented that The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is the first of his books to deal with his memories of Kenya, where he spent the first 5 years of his life: “I remember these images of fear, of terror. And I thought I had to come back to that and see the whole Mau Mau episode from the Asian point of view. I had never written a book set in Kenya, where my father was from. And when I did, I just felt good about it, because I was going back to one part, one of many homes.”

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a compelling record in the voice of a character described as “a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning,” took three years to write. After research in Kenya and Britain, M.G. Vassanji devoted himself to the novel in a dark office at the University of Toronto. It was a hard process of creation and discovery, especially as Vassanji is an assiduous editor of his own work: “I come back to it over and over. For me, it’s like working on a sculpture. You sort of chip away a bit at a time until you tell yourself it’s as perfect as you can make it.” Vassanji’s fifth novel met with immense Canadian and international success. As well as making him the first author to win the Giller Prize twice, the book was a #1 national bestseller.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is a profound and careful examination of one man’s search for his place in the world; it also takes up themes that have run through Vassanji’s work, such as the nature of community in a volatile society, the relations between colony and colonizer, and the inescapable presence of the past. It is also, finally, a deeply personal book:

“The major thing that stands out in the book is people who are in-between. The feeling of belonging and not belonging is very central to the book. And that also played out in my life. When we lived in Tanzania we belonged and did not belong because we had come from Kenya. That has been a major thread in my life.”


From the Hardcover edition.|

1. What is the significance of the three epigraphs to the book -- quoted from T.S. Eliot, the Upanishads, and a Swahili proverb? Think about the epigraphs, but also the sources from which they are taken.

2. “We remained that enigma, the Asians of Africa.” How does M.G. Vassanji explore the “in-between” status of Indians in Kenyan society? Does it change over the course of the novel? How do its effects play out in the lives of different members of the Lall family?

3. How does the novel handle the competing claims of the personal and the political? How does it treat characters who favour of political violence and those who are scarred by it? Do you feel that it makes a judgment about violence?

4. Were you surprised that Njoroge gives up Deepa when her mother insists? Why does he accede?

5. How does The In-Between World of Vikram Lall compare with another novel you have read that grapples with political issues (such as one by V. S. Naipaul, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy…)

6. What is the importance of the stories of people besides the narrator in the novel? For example, the railway stories of Vic’s grandfather; the history of the couple in Jamieson, etc.

7. How does the subtle repetition of “third wheels” in the novel connect to its deeper themes? Think of Vikram’s father excluded from the bond between his mother and Mahesh; Vikram himself left outside the bond between Njoroge and Deepa.

8. What are the roles of fathers, real and symbolic, in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall? Consider Vikram’s father, Inspector Verma, Jomo Kenyatta, etc.

9. How is colonialism experienced in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall? And independence?

10. Look back at some of Vikram’s descriptions of himself: “There was a frozen core buried deep inside me that I could not dislodge or melt, that held me back”; “I have said that I could not engage morally in my world”; “I don’t know what is happening to me”; “I noticed a certain self-detachment in myself.”
To what extent is this honest reflection? Defensive self-justification?

11. What did you make of the “frame” of the small Ontario town from which Vikram Lall tells much of what happens in the novel? Did you find Seema Chatterjee and Joseph important characters? Is there the beginning of a comparison between Kenyan society and Canadian society at work here?

12. At various times the narrator pauses in his recollections to explain the historical context of the times he is describing. How did you feel about these passages?

13. “It was mother who still said, We have to think of the samaj, the community, don’t we; the world watches us…” How do the claims of community and tradition pull at the principal characters?

14. Choose one of the minor characters in the novel -- Sophia, Mahesh, Khiakia, Inspector Soames, etc. -- and consider what he or she contributes to the book as a whole.

15. Why does Vikram Lall decide to return home?

16. Discuss: servants / Jamieson / songs / the Masai in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.

17. Did you find Vikram Lall to be a sympathetic character in his own story?

18. How did you feel about the ending of the novel?

Anchor Canada|

Foreword

1. What is the significance of the three epigraphs to the book — quoted from T.S. Eliot, the Upanishads, and a Swahili proverb? Think about the epigraphs, but also the sources from which they are taken.

2. “We remained that enigma, the Asians of Africa.” How does M.G. Vassanji explore the “in-between” status of Indians in Kenyan society? Does it change over the course of the novel? How do its effects play out in the lives of different members of the Lall family?

3. How does the novel handle the competing claims of the personal and the political? How does it treat characters who favour of political violence and those who are scarred by it? Do you feel that it makes a judgment about violence?

4. Were you surprised that Njoroge gives up Deepa when her mother insists? Why does he accede?

5. How does The In-Between World of Vikram Lall compare with another novel you have read that grapples with political issues (such as one by V. S. Naipaul, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy…)

6. What is the importance of the stories of people besides the narrator in the novel? For example, the railway stories of Vic’s grandfather; the history of the couple in Jamieson, etc.

7. How does the subtle repetition of “third wheels” in the novel connect to its deeper themes? Think of Vikram’s father excluded from the bond between his mother and Mahesh; Vikram himself left outside the bond between Njoroge and Deepa.

8. What are the roles of fathers, real and symbolic, in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall? Consider Vikram’s father, Inspector Verma, JomoKenyatta, etc.

9. How is colonialism experienced in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall? And independence?

10. Look back at some of Vikram’s descriptions of himself: “There was a frozen core buried deep inside me that I could not dislodge or melt, that held me back”; “I have said that I could not engage morally in my world”; “I don’t know what is happening to me”; “I noticed a certain self-detachment in myself.”
To what extent is this honest reflection? Defensive self-justification?

11. What did you make of the “frame” of the small Ontario town from which Vikram Lall tells much of what happens in the novel? Did you find Seema Chatterjee and Joseph important characters? Is there the beginning of a comparison between Kenyan society and Canadian society at work here?

12. At various times the narrator pauses in his recollections to explain the historical context of the times he is describing. How did you feel about these passages?

13. “It was mother who still said, We have to think of the samaj, the community, don’t we; the world watches us…” How do the claims of community and tradition pull at the principal characters?

14. Choose one of the minor characters in the novel — Sophia, Mahesh, Khiakia, Inspector Soames, etc. — and consider what he or she contributes to the book as a whole.

15. Why does Vikram Lall decide to return home?

16. Discuss: servants / Jamieson / songs / the Masai in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.

17. Did you find Vikram Lall to be a sympathetic character in his own story?

18. How did you feel about the ending of the novel?

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In-Between World of Vikram Lall 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
ashleighbh More than 1 year ago
I have shared this book with 4 friends and actually had to rebuy just to keep a copy! I really appreciated the depth of the characters, I felt like I was walking through life with them. I had to take a breather from beginning a new book after finishing this one. It took me a few days to mull this over, let it all sink in and move on. I actually lent it to my neighbor just so I would have someone to talk with about it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Vassanji's richly detailed and thoroughly engrossing style of prose alone makes this novel worth reading; the story itself is a bonus. The nuances of culture, the clashes of generations, the ambiguities of being a native but also a foreigner, the machinations of the political process, the search for identity, and the quest for redemption are all beautifully addressed in this novel. There is not one thing that this novel is about; indeed, it is a novel of Kenya during it's tumultous jettison into independence, a novel of inter-racial love and friendship, a novel of familial obligation, and a novel of coming to terms with one's life. I heartily recommend this novel to anyone interested in a good story, East Africa, Indian culture, or simply savoring the English language as a work of art.
djp2.0 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of my favourite books. Vassanji somehow fills the novel with a sense of foreboding, each chapter seeming to inch closer to some kind of ugly truth. As others have mentioned, the narrator does sometimes seem a little dull, removed - shellshocked is the word I might use - but this works to the novel's advantage. He is after all a person who has been caught in the middle throughout his life, falling into place without ever really understanding the horrors going on around him. From heartbreaking descriptions of his white, African, and Indian childhood friends - all taken in different directions by tragic events beyond their control or comprehension - to the novel's ambiguous and complex ending, I think this is one of the best books I've read, and after reading it again my opinion stays the same.
theageofsilt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The narrator of the book, Mr. Lall, is emotionally stunted and I found him lacking in interest as a central character. The setting of the story, Kenya at the end of British control, is intriguing. The novel explores the "in-between" character of the Indian community there - not seen as truly African despite several generations born there, but certainly not belonging to the English establishment. Vikram Lall is also an unsettled figure. His only deep emotional attachments relate to his childhood - his family and boyhood friends. He has a chilly relationship with his wife, by an arranged marriage, and his children are scarcely mentioned. He becomes a corrupt bureaucrat within the newly independent Kenyan government, but his motivations are dim. He accepts enourmous bribes, but does not seem to be motivated by greed and certainly gives no thought to harm to the ordinary Kenyan who never benefits from the foreign aid stolen by the corrupt politicans. I've read many books written by Indians and they tend to include two threads - what everyone is eating and how parents manipulate their children into unhappy marriages. I would have enjoyed this book more without these cliches and with a narrator who had a little more passion.
ilovecookies on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Awesome book. I did not think the subject would be of interest to me but this is an amazing book and it is not hard to see why it is an award-winning book.
Romonko on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is another worthy winner of the prestigious Giller Prize. It won the award in 2003. It is written by an author that really knows how to tell a story. The story spans 4 decades of time and is located mostly in Kenya, but switches back regularly to present-day Canada near Lake Ontario. Vikram Lall is a character that you will never forget. Born to Indian parents in African Kenya, we see his life as it unfolds around all the political turmoil in this former British colony. But there is so much moe than politics in Kenya in this book. We actually see how a man can grow from a rather studious boy to one of the most powerful financial figures in the politically corrupt Kenya of the 70's and 80's. It is a remarkable story that captivated me from the first page. It is so well written and the characters so clearly defined that it was like actually stepping back into the settings and to the times. I loved this book.
piefuchs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The life of an man with Indian parents, forced, due to his own actions, to leave his home in Africa for Canada. The story of how a seemingly mature and intelligent man slowly becomes a player in a corrupt and brutal dictatorship. As exceptionally well written, engaging story, that the author uses as a vehicle to provide unique observations on cultural differences, the immigrant experience, and human fraility. By the end you feel very sympathetic to the narrator, in spite of all he has done.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a great storyteller!It was one of those books you really want to go on and you are sorry when they finish. It's about the world between honesty and crime and three cultures, a compromised life, compromised love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago