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Honestly Corrupt
By Margaret Black

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
By M. G. Vassanji
Alfred A. Knopf, 370 pages, $25

‘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.” 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 ambiguity.”

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.

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