In-Between World of Vikram Lall
M. G. Vassanji
A. Knopf, 370 pages, $25
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.” This total self-indictment introduces
us to the narrator of M. G. Vassanji’s The In-Between World
of Vikram Lall. When it’s all over, however, Vik’s worst
crime appears actually to have been a failure of passion and
the heart, but as we discover this, we are also told a multilayered
tale of life in Kenya’s Indian community, starting in the
murderous Mau Mau years of the 1950s, through the heady possibilities
of independence, and into the Cold War morass of corruption
and collapse. This is a tale of struggling, mostly decent,
individuals who must live out their lives in a political world
that warps, twists, and destroys. The author writes realistically—no
self-referential trickery, no magical realism, nothing beyond
an obtuse narrator—which is a wise decision because Vassanji
provides such richly nuanced perceptions that the book would
sink under additional stylistic elaboration.
The novel tells what happens to Vik Lall, a quiet Indian boy,
born in Kenya’s Rift Valley, who used to play with Deepa,
his beloved sister, Njoroge, his best friend, a young African
boy, and Bill and Alice, two British children. Vik tells his
story when he’s in his 60s, hiding out in Canada. Deepa has
asked him to look after Joseph, Njoroge’s angry young son,
who’s shortly to begin college in Toronto. Vik’s tense relationship
with Joseph, who despises Vik for plundering his country,
sets Vik reflecting on the past.
He begins with 1953, the year he, Njoroge, and Deepa met Bill
and Alice. They all lived in Nakuru, a backwater town on the
railway line built by Vik’s grandfather and other Indian coolies
brought in by the British. Having survived appalling conditions—“for
every mile of track, four Indians died”—Vik’s grandfather
married a local Indian girl and settled down to run a small
grocery. Following World War II, however, insurgencies multiplied
throughout the British Empire, and now atrocities committed
by the native Mau Mau (and British hyper-retaliations) are
everywhere the frightened talk of Kenya. But Vik lives surrounded
by loving family, friends, and amazing quantities of Indian
food. Yes, Mahesh Uncle irritates Vik’s father, who loves
“our Glorious Queen Elizabeth,” with his communist arguments,
and yes, Vik’s father has to do nightly Home Guard patrol,
carrying a revolver no less. Njoroge’s parents seem to have
mysteriously disappeared—he lives with his grandfather—but
Vik’s mother dotes on Njoroge like another of her children.
Yes, Soames and Boniface, the British officers in charge of
the local police, conduct brutal searches and interrogations.
And yes, Vik does take a secret blood oath with Njoroge to
support Jomo Kenyatta, “the Moses of our people.” Vik also
knows that his uncle is helping the rebels. But all the horrors
and hostility slide to one side as Vik fondly remembers the
warmth of family affection, his grandfather’s pride in the
railway, and his own happiness playing with his friends.
In this first section Nassanji creates a world of immigrants
that is a classic, with all the tensions between the generations
and the desire to become part of a new land without losing
the old culture. Vik’s world has an added complication: the
Indians, brought in as cheap, reliable, if despised, labor
by the British, are regarded as outsiders by the Africans.
Among the Indians themselves, age-old animosities from home
continue, exacerbated by the savagely murderous partition
of India. The Lalls, Hindus from Peshawar in what is now Muslim
Pakistan, no longer have a “home,” even if they wanted to
return. The author handles the myriad aspects of immigrant
life with enormous dexterity, a good deal of humor, and a
profound awareness that individual experiences differed greatly.
Then horrible disaster strikes, and all are expelled from
Vik’s remembered Eden.
The novel resumes in 1965, after Kenya has achieved independence.
Vik’s family now lives in the capital, Nairobi. One day Njoroge
shows up, handsome, personable, well-educated, and idealistic.
The Lalls haven’t seen him since his grandfather “died in
custody.” “A long-lost brother to Vikram and Deepa,” Vik’s
mother declares, vainly attempting to stamp out the romance
obviously re-igniting between Deepa and Njoroge. Vik, now
a college student, connives with the couple, but witnesses
their passion in a curiously deadened fashion—his emotional
life stunted by an awful death—much as he observes with a
chilly detachment his own doomed romance with a Muslim girl.
Vassanji displays no sentimentality as he takes us through
the pain and perils of cross-racial and cross-community love.
The final section, except for a brief coda, is called “The
Years of Betrayal.” We follow Vik as he accepts a job, despite
Njoroge’s warning, as assistant to a powerful man in the new
African government, and gradually becomes involved in increasingly
questionable activities. Even his dismissal in disgrace—as
an Indian, he is the perfect scapegoat—merely increases his
subsequent usefulness to those in power. Deepa, Njoroge, and
finally Vik make appropriate marriages, but these relationships
provide little emotional sustenance or, finally, protection.
So in this final section the author delineates corruption—in
family life, society, politics, economic life. “Total corruption,”
Vik says, “occurs in inches and proceeds through veils of
The author allows the adult Vik only two moments of respite,
the first when he briefly works for his beloved railroad,
and the second (somewhat less successful) when he befriends
an old couple who barely scratch out a living in the middle
of nowhere. She is a British woman whose husband and two children
were slaughtered by the Mau Mau; he is an African who helped
her survive. Although ultimately an unsettling book, this
is a fiercely honest novel, replete with story, description,
and, despite all, even humor.