Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

Title:  The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
Author:  M.G. Vassanji
Publication Year:  2004

I Gave It:  5 Stars

Vikram Lall is an Indian boy growing up in Kenya during colonial times; his grandfather left his homeland of India to work on the Kenyan railways, laying down its rails and the foundation for his family’s life in this new, breath-takingly beautiful country.  He and his sister, Deepa, befriend a Kikuyu boy Njoroge and two British children, brother and sister Bill and Annie Bruce.  The five of them form a complicated bond during a time when the British were in power, and were using the Asians to aid in suppressing the Africans.  All the while, Asians and Africans were forming friendships by a very loose definition, and some were even finding love.  Vassanji’s powerful prose demonstrates the destructive racism that dwelled among the three groups - heart-wrenching and true to the letter.  Love was one thing; disgracing your family or your tribe was another and the majority opinion was that complete intermingling would simply not be tolerated. 

In the dark, lush forests, the Mau Mau (a Kikuyu group) were plotting the uprising of the Africans and gaining a reputation as murderers.  In their wake, many British families were killed which brought further wrath upon the other Africans and a tighter noose around the Asians’ necks.  Vikram’s family is devastated by the murders of some of the British who became close to them by way of customers in their provisions store, increasing the fear and racism within their family and the Asian community at large.  Where does this leave Deepa and Njoroge who can no longer deny that their childhood closeness has led to something more?

Vassanji brilliantly executes the plot with strong characters.  Even Vikram, the restrained, almost indifferent character who ends up a key player in post-colonial Kenya’s political scandals, exemplifies the by-stander role of the Asian in Kenya’s history.  I am grateful for Vassanji’s character, Mahesh Uncle, who is Vikram’s mother’s brother – a Mau Mau supporter and revolutionist – as he shows a side of humanity that may be overlooked in a community that largely chose to stay “in the middle”.    

Thus the in-between world of Vikram Lall is a story of identity and the struggle to find it as a third generation Kenyan Indian – not British, not African – with no real ties to India.  This in-between world is easy to relate to when you are like me:  the daughter of Vikram Lall’s generation – not fully Indian, definitely not African (though I speak more Swahili than even I was aware), mostly Canadian...and always stumped by the question “So, where are you from?”

I highly recommend this book to you if you:
·        want to learn about the incredible times of colonial and post-colonial East Africa    
·        love a heart-wrenching story of passion
·        enjoy prose that reads like a poem and paints vivid images that will stay with you long after the last page is turned