A Globe and Mail Best Book
It would take many lifetimes, it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. The desperation must have shown on my face to absorb and digest all I possibly could. This was not something I had articulated or resolved; and yet I recall an anxiety as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.
I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the homeland of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness; such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who’ve forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out? What was India to me?
The inimitable M.G. Vassanji turns his eye to India, the homeland of his ancestors, in this powerfully moving tale of family and country. Part travelogue, part history, A Place Within is M.G. Vassanji’s intelligent and beautifully written journey to explore where he belongs.
About the author
M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. He attended university in the United States, where he trained as a nuclear physicist, before coming to Canada in 1978. Vassanji is the author of six novels and two collections of short stories. His work has appeared in various countries and several languages, and he has twice won the Giller Prize. His most recent novel, The Assassin’s Song, was shortlisted for both the Giller Prize and the Governor-General’s Award. He is a member of the Order of Canada and lives in Toronto.
Excerpt: A Place Within: Rediscovering India (by (author) M.G. Vassanji)
It would take many lifetimes, it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. It was January 1993. The desperation must have shown on my face to take in all I possibly could. This was not something I had articulated or resolved, and yet I recall an anxiety as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.
I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the birthplace of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness, such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who’ve forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out?
What was India to me? I must put this in the past, because by now I have returned many times and my relationship to the country has evolved. Ever since that first visit, there has been the irrepressible urge to describe my experience of India; yet in spite of copious notes this was not easy, because that experience was deeply subjective, my India was essentially my own creation, what I put of myself in it. I grew up in Dar es Salaam, on the coast of East Africa; the memory and sight of that city, of that continent, evoke in me a deep nostalgia and love of place. India, on the other hand, seemed to do something to the soul; give it a certain ease, a sense of homecoming, quite another kind of nostalgia. During each visit I sought it more, as intensely as ever. There was no satisfaction.
I recall my maternal grandmother relating how one day as a child back in Gujarat in India she was lost, having gone out with her sister to bring home water. I also recall not paying any particular attention to this story set in a foreign land as it was being told to my elder siblings, who sat on the floor around her. But I seem to have paid more attention than I thought I did, for I always carried a picture of two Indian girls sitting under a tree in an open land, waiting to be rescued. And that was all there was to the story: getting lost and rescued somewhere in India.
The East African countries became independent from Britain in the early 1960s. But by then to my generation and in my community of people, our spiritual home, so we naively thought, was already England. We believed we could shed our ancestral connections for a thin veneer of colonialness, an ersatz sophistication. And so we chose to imagine India as poor, backward, and laughable – the past. It seems evident now that all that laughing and jeering was at ourselves, our colonial, racial insecurity; we were both the clown and its audience. It did not take long to be disillusioned.
There were always stories about India. One of them concerned my orphaned father, who apparently was something of a wanderer as a young man. All his travels were within the territory of East Africa, but once, according to my mother, he took it upon himself to board a ship bound from Mombasa to Bombay, without papers or much money. When he reached the great city, he was not allowed to disembark. He returned disappointed. I always imagine him watching Bombay wistfully through the portholes of that ship, until it finally turned around and crossed the Indian Ocean back to Africa. Another Bombay story, and repeated more often for its comic value, involved one of my uncles, my mother’s older brother, so excessively pious as to be considered nicely crazy. Apparently he reached Bombay and disembarked, but upon seeing the extreme poverty in evidence, he returned home on the same ship. I would picture him seated in misery atop his luggage outside the harbour, having given all his money to the swarm of beggars that had plagued him.
My mother held blithely contradictory views about India. On one hand it was the land of ruthless cunning and violence – which she could illustrate with colourful and often morbid tales heard from passersby in our shop. On the other hand, India was the land of primal morality – which was why she would allow us to go to the cinema, sometimes, to watch a tearful Bollywood social drama offering lessons in fortitude, piety, and family values, and songs to remember afterwards. In a grand gesture for our meagre means, she sent us all to the Odeon to watch the blockbuster Mother India: a widow brings up her two sons against much hardship, and triumphs at the end. My mother too was a widow, which was also why I could never hear firsthand the full story of my dad’s fruitless trip to Bombay. Mother India was perhaps the only film she herself saw in a decade.
There was, finally, the ancestral mythical memory of India. According to a founding legend of my people, the Gujarati Khojas, a Muslim holy man arrives in medieval times at a remote village in western Gujarat and joins the people in a traditional dance called the garba. As he dances, he sings them a song. The villagers and the mystic – for such he is – go around in circles, clapping hands in rhythm and singing. The people are poor and desperate, for the land is prone to drought; the visitor is new and charismatic and hopeful. They are Krishna devotees, whom he teaches to expect an incarnation of the god to come from the west. You should sing day and night, he sings to them – meaning, I am not sure what, but perhaps this was how they should express their new expectation and joy. Meanwhile they continued worshipping their beloved Krishna. These spiritual dance songs are called the garbi and belong to a larger corpus called ginans.
That syncretism, a happy combination of mystical and devotional Hinduism and Islam, without a thought to internal contradictions or to the mainstream traditions, inevitably defined my relationship with India. The existence of such inclusive systems of belief was proof of an essential historical quality of India, that of tolerance and flexibility, a certain laissez faire in matters of the spirit, at least at the local level, far away from the watchful eyes of orthodoxy. Therefore today I can only find the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim” too exacting, too excluding; I resist them. They carry the charge of recent history and a consequent bitterness, to which I refuse to subscribe. In my travels in India I would simply let people assume “what” I was, since according to them I had to be something. My two initials were my mask.
“What is this India?” asks Jawaharlal Nehru, in his book The Discovery of India, in a chapter titled, significantly, “The Quest.” For Nehru, India was a discovery, a reclamation. “What is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects? . . . India was in my blood and there was much in her that instinctively thrilled me. And yet I approached her almost as an alien critic . . .”
My first serious engagement with India began when as a student strolling along the aisles of a university book sale one spring in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I happened upon a remaindered copy of Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography and quickly – though I cannot say with what expectation – picked it up. Something of the liberal expansiveness of the author, educated in Harrow and that other Cambridge, in England, and his generosity of spirit, appealed to this expatriate student barely out of his teens and foundering upon questions of identity on alien shores. I was of Indian descent, born in East Africa, had recently seen the independence of my country, amidst great euphoria and hope for Africa. Nehru wrote his autobiography (as he did his Discovery) during one of his several terms in jail during India’s own struggle for independence. Reading him I became aware of India as a real, modern country – as opposed to a mythical one – a recent phenomenon, having achieved its independence a decade and a half before East Africa did, after a long struggle. I was reading, for the first time after a colonial education, words written by an Indian, and I felt a swell of pride in that. After Nehru I read Gandhi, in English at first, then later, falteringly, in what seemed a difficult Gujarati. (I grew up speaking this language, in addition to Kutchi, a more regional language, a smattering of Hindi, and of course Swahili.) Gandhi brought India even closer: he had lived many years in South Africa, and he had given an opinion regarding the so-called Indian Question in East Africa; and he was a Gujarati, from the same city, as I was to discover, as my maternal grandfather.
In the early 1970s, a time still of the hippies and the counterculture and the antiwar movement, India had a certain outré glamour for young people, denoting spirituality, austerity, and a Lucy-in-the-sky exoticism. The Beatles had visited India, all manner of gurus did their rounds of North America, books on spiritualism flourished. Louis Malle’s dense personal documentary Phantom India evoked the exotic and the mysterious at a time when the material and the rational, as symbols of weapons and war, were under attack by the young. To think that my roots were there, amidst all that magic of India. A Satyajit Ray retrospective, showing all his films in a college hall, was another revelation. In Ray’s sparsely drawn India, full of pithy reality, the characters reached out to me in all my Indian-ness. I did not have to speak Bengali to understand them. I could catch the fleeting shadow of sadness as it crossed the face of a mother, laugh at the banter of city youths out on a picnic, exult in the catchy, triumphant smile of a young father carrying his son on his shoulders.
I had long harboured a desire to visit India, ever since this youthful romance, but more immediate and mundane and adult concerns soon took the greater priority. The possibility receded in some back drawer of the mind, an experience put off indefinitely; its time would come. It did, two decades later, when through a fortuitous contact I published a novel in India. Finally, I told myself, I had made that visit, albeit symbolically. Soon after, as a corollary, came an invitation to go to India for a conference. Arrangements would be made for me to tour various places; just come, said my hosts. The current outbreak of riots in the country was of no concern, I was assured, they would not affect me. Yes, I replied promptly, in case they changed their minds, I will come to India. The significance of the journey that awaited seemed as profound as possible for a single human life.
And so to that first arrival. It was 3 a.m. in New Delhi’s airport; if I had not actually rehearsed this moment, I had thought of it many times. A return after three generations, if one wanted to lend it epic proportions, an element of drama. I recall African Americans arriving in Nairobi or Dar es Salaam in the sixties, a decade of intense black pride and consciousness, and kissing the sun-drenched earth of their forefathers. I was not of so dramatic an inclination, and my people had not been away as long as theirs had. And besides, I stepped out not onto the earth of India but upon the rubber mat of a covered portal and found myself walking through musty corridors into a dingy immigration hall, where I was hit by an overwhelmingly wretched sense of the familiar. Long lines, people jumping queues, patient, bemused officials. A tired and valiantly grinning host met me finally and took me to a hostel through dark Delhi streets; shown my room, I fell straight asleep.
At six the desk clerk woke me up to ask what my initials stood for. I had barely shut my eyes. Indulgently, I answered him, and reminded myself that I was here to garner impressions, not to make touristic scenes of outrage. Happily, that most wonderful of concoctions, “morning tea,” was brought for me on a tray and, the buses groaning on the road outside making it impossible to sleep, I was ready to begin my first day in India. Downstairs in the lobby, attendants and waiters went by wishing guests a happy New Year, murmuring the words with embarrassed religiosity every time they passed.
“A country you’ve seen in films; you’re linked to by tradition, culture, language. Where is it?” I asked myself, and kept asking throughout that visit.
Having postponed from the airport that moment of epiphany, I now awaited it anew. I remember contemplating the glass doors leading outside. There was a gate and a guardhouse beyond a yard, and farther, a few taxis at the street; the sun was bright, city life bustling. Should I walk out and experience the city, that first moment, by myself or simply await my escort for a guided tour? First impressions were surely important, even more for so momentous a visit. Inside, other visitors, Europeans and North Americans wearing thickbelted theft-proof fanny packs, had gathered for breakfast in the room adjoining the lobby, also ready to take on the city. I myself had been advised to wear a wallet inside my shirt, around my neck, and had dutifully and much to my later embarrassment done so, prepared for the numerous and cunning thieves of India. Newspapers lay around for those who had to wait. “Fight the menace politically,” began a grim editorial in the current edition of a Time-format newsmagazine, commenting on the recent demolition of the Babri Mosque by Hindu fanatics. More than half the issue analyzed the current crisis in the country – the communal divide that was widening, and the emerging threats to the secular ideals of the past. The forecasts were discouraging, except to those given to India’s eternal prayer of hope: Life goes on, it will be all right. But this was not the India I had come to experience; there was so much more of it, and anyway, I did not see myself as Hindu or Muslim.
“Strikingly written …beautifully observed, filled with myths, stories, legends, history, journal entries, and family narratives. It is an expertly stitched collage and, as much as it reveals about India, it is a great portrait of Vassanji himself…. Wonderful.”
— The Globe and Mail
“Vassanji brings a gifted storyteller’s eye to A Place Within, drawing entertainingly on extensive journals he kept on his Indian excursions…. He captures both the spiritual and the uglier sides of India, all the raw fundamentals of life there, but he always leads with what he sees as India’s ‘essential quality of tolerance and flexibility,’ and the overwhelming pull of ancestry.”
— Vancouver Sun
“A striking and rich melange of impression and experience, of the enchantments and disappointments of such an arduous and long-awaited pilgrimage.”
— London Free Press
“A lovely, deeply personal book — one entirely worthy of one of Canada’s top-shelf talents.”
— Edmonton Journal