Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Sagas

The Gunny Sack

by (author) M.G. Vassanji

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
May 2005
Sagas, Family Life, Multiple Timelines
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2005
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Memory, Ji Bai would say, is this old sack here, this poor dear that nobody has any use for any more.
As the novel begins, Salim Juma, in exile from Tanzania, opens up a gunny sack bequeathed to him by a beloved great-aunt. Inside it he discovers the past — his own family’s history and the story of the Asian experience in East Africa. Its relics and artefacts bring with them the lives of Salim’s Indian great-grandfather, Dhanji Govindji, his extensive family, and all their loves and betrayals.

Dhanji Govindji arrives in Matamu — from Zanzibar, Porbander, and ultimately Junapur — and has a son with an African slave named Bibi Taratibu. Later, growing in prosperity, he marries Fatima, the woman who will bear his other children. But when his half-African son Husein disappears, Dhanji Govindji pays out his fortune in trying to find him again. As the tentacles of the First World War reach into Africa, with the local German colonists fighting British invaders, he spends more and more time searching. One morning he is suddenly murdered: he had spent not just his own money but embezzled that of others to finance the quest for his lost son.

“Well, listen, son of Juma, you listen to me and I shall give you your father Juma and his father Husein and his father…”
Part II of the novel is named for Kulsum, who marries Juma, Husein’s son; she is the mother of the narrator, Salim. We learn of Juma’s childhood as a second-class member of his stepmother’s family after his mother, Moti, dies. After his wedding to Kulsum there is a long wait in the unloving bosom of his stepfamily for their first child, Begum. It is the 1950s, and whispers are beginning of the Mau Mau rebellion.

Among the stories tumbling from the gunny sack comes the tailor Edward bin Hadith’s story of the naming of Dar es Salaam, the city Kulsum moves to with her children after her husband’s death. And gradually her son takes over the telling, recalling his own childhood. His life guides the narrative from here on. He remembers his mother’s store and neighbours’ intrigues, the beauty of his pristine English teacher at primary school, cricket matches, and attempts to commune with the ghost of his father. It is a vibrantly described, deeply felt childhood. The nation, meanwhile, is racked by political tensions on its road to independence, which comes about as Salim Juma reaches adolescence. With the surge in racial tension and nationalist rioting, several members of his close-knit community leave the country for England, America, and Canada.

I see this comedy now as an attempt to foil the workings of fate: how else to explain, what else to call, the irrevocable relentless chain of events that unfolded…
The title of Part III, Amina, is the name of Salim’s great unfulfilled love, and will also be the name of his daughter. He meets the first Amina while doing his National Service at Camp Uhuru, a place he feels he has been sent to in error. Amina is African, and their relationship inevitably causes his family anxiety, until the increasingly militant Amina leaves for New York. Salim becomes a teacher at his old school, and marries, but keeps a place for Amina in his heart. When she returns and is arrested by the more and more repressive government, Salim is hurriedly exiled abroad. He leaves his wife and daughter with the promise that he will send for them, knowing that he will not. The novel ends with Salim alone, the last memories coming out of the gunny sack, hoping that he will be his family’s last runaway.

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.

M.G. Vassanji's profile page


  • Winner, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book

Excerpt: The Gunny Sack (by (author) M.G. Vassanji)


Memory, Ji Bai would say, is this old sack here, this poor dear that nobody has any use for any more. Stroking the sagging brown shape with affection she would drag it closer, to sit at her feet like a favourite child. In would plunge her hand through the gaping hole of a mouth, and she would rummage inside. Now you feel this thing here, you fondle that one, you bring out this naughty little nut and everything else in it rearranges itself. Out would come from the dusty depths some knickknack of yesteryear: a bead necklace shorn of its polish; a rolled-up torn photograph; a cowrie shell; a brass incense holder; a Swahili cap so softened by age that it folded neatly into a small square; a broken rosary tied up crudely to save the remaining beads; a bloodstained muslin shirt; a little book. There were three books in that old gunny that never left her bedside, four-by-six-inch, green, tablet-like, the front cover folding over into a flap fastened with a tiny padlock! On the cover of each, neatly carved, two faded inscriptions in gold, wriggling in opposite directions: one in an Arabic-looking hand, the other indecipherable, supposedly in a secret script. “He who opens it will suffer the consequences,” she, who did not read, would gravely pronounce to her awed listener.

We buried Ji Bai a few weeks ago on a cold November afternoon . . .

From near and far, young and old, they came to see her go, in this small overseas community. Not that many here knew her or had even heard of her; she was only passing through, a traveller. But they would go away the wiser, about her and themselves and the common links between them. Such are the merits of a funeral. The converted supermarket was half full. The old, the exiled old, sitting on chairs on one side, visible but unobtrusive, outwardly implacable and unperturbed, watching the funeral ceremony proceeding with clockwork precision in the hands of the Westernised funeral committee. What thoughts behind those stony masks? The rest of the congregation, the younger members, sat on the floor, facing the ceremony. With practised precision, with appropriate gravity of speech and bearing, the head of the committee led formations of select relatives and friends to partake in the more intimate rituals. She lay inside a raised open coffin, a younger, doll-like Ji Bai, face flushed pink but hideous and grim. What have they done to you, Ji Bai? Someone had taken the pains to iron out every wrinkle on her face, to clean out the grey, to stretch the skin taut like a cellophane wrapper. Once, when time was plenty and the hourglass slow, every man, woman and child present would come and kneel before the dead and beg forgiveness and pay their last respects. Now, in collective homage the congregation filed past the pink face in the coffin; the women took their seats, the men formed two closely spaced rows. A sob stifled, a wail choked (practised wailers, some of these), the coffin was closed.

“Stand back,” said the leader, gruffly. “Stand back!”

“Praise the Prophet!” The coffin was slowly if shakily lifted on to the shoulders of the male relatives and the committee members. Then it took purchase and at shoulder height bobbed away easily like a boat in a slight current, between the two rows of males, as anyone who could gave it a shoulder or even a slight shove on its way to be rolled into the black funeral car outside. An older, experienced voice, rich with feeling, took away the chant:

There is none but Him
There is none but Him
There is none but Him
—and Muhammad is His Prophet . . .

(Once, a rickety yellow and green truck with men sitting on both sides of the coffin at the back chanting the shahada, at the sight of which pedestrians would stop and fold their hands in respect.)

Afterwards, I watched from a distance the last clod of earth thrown perfunctorily on the grave, the last of the congregation — how can I call them mourners? — leave. Someone made a gesture in my direction but then thought the better of it. I was left alone. Trees rustled in the wind, dead leaves scraped the ground. In the distance another burial was in progress, this one more opulent, its mourners in black, with bigger and better wreaths, bigger and better cars. Traffic zipped along the highway. What cold comfort, Ji Bai, I thought. Even worms couldn’t survive in such a grave. I had a vision of her small frail body under six feet of cold earth that would soon freeze. I could see the body shrink, under icy pressure, the skin dry and peel off and fly away like a kite, the skeleton rattle and fold and rearrange itself to form a neat square heap like the firewood that was once sold outside her store in Dar.

A week later Aziz her grand nephew stumbled in to see me with a large blue vinyl suitcase.

“With the compliments of Ji Bai!” he announced cheerfully.

“What? A suitcase?”

A vinyl legacy from a vinyl-faced Ji Bai? No . . . The twinkle in his eyes recalled the mischief in Ji Bai’s, as with a flourish he proceeded to lay it on its side, and like a salesman swung it open as if to display its capacity and interior. A ball of kapok glided out and sailed away.

“The gunny sack,” he spoke, the same instant I saw it, brown and dusty, looking threatened and helpless in the brand-new interior. It was drawn loosely shut with a sisal string. “You used to sit before it so long, she thought it should be yours.”

“Isn’t it rightfully yours?” I asked.

“No. It’s yours. She wanted you to have it.”

“Come, come . . . what if she had died there? Would you have posted it?”

“But she died here.”

Young Aziz, he knew more than he let on. He was Ji Bai’s companion during the last few years of her life. She had said she would travel, and Aziz accompanied her, first to India then here. Wherever she went, her gunny went with her. Did she know she would die in this foreign place, then? With Ji Bai there was no telling.

He said, “If my family had had their way they would have burnt it long ago. It’s brought nothing but bad luck, they say. They want you to burn it, once and for all to bury the past.”

“And you — do you want me to burn it?”

“Look at it first — it’s what she wanted, after all. Then, maybe burn it. To tell you the truth, I almost burnt it instead of bringing it here.”

Editorial Reviews

“Vassanji is one of the country’s finest storytellers.”
Quill & Quire

“Vassanji captures a wide and authentic perspective that ranks with V. S. Naipaul and Graham Greene.”
The Times (London)

Other titles by M.G. Vassanji