Memories of Mau Mau
Helon Habila enjoys MG Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a story about revolution and corruption in the making of Kenya
Saturday September 18, 2004
"The [white] settlers saw it as another South Africa ... except this would be better, more like Devonshire or Surrey, with the Africans their happy servants or junior partners. And the Indians ... almost as racist as the whites - and lazy." Welcome to Kenya, and MG Vassanji's The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. The novel is an account not only of Kenya's colonial past, but also its post-colonial and neo-colonial present; it is about the three races whose intersection in that place and at that time shaped the present reality.
Vikram's family forms the conduit for the story's transmission. His grandfather and other indentured labourers were "recruited from an assortment of towns in northwest India and brought to an alien, beautiful, and wild country at the dawn of the twentieth century". He falls in love with the beautiful country and decides to make it his home. Migrants, migration and the xenophobia that often accompanies them are strong sub-themes in the book. The narrator ponders: "What makes a man leave the land of his birth, the home of his childhood memories ... ?" He makes this observation in a hide-out in Canada - unlike his grandfather, the "home of his childhood memories" is not India but Kenya; again unlike his grandfather he did not leave his home as an economic migrant, but as a fugitive, "one of Africa's most corrupt men".
Many books (Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Weep Not, Child comes to mind) have proved that any meaningful examination of Kenya's murky political present must take a step into the past, particularly to the emergency of 1952-60, also known as the Mau Mau uprising. Vassanji's narrator, Vikram Lall, describes that past as "a colonial world of repressive, undignified subjecthood". This is the world in which he grows up with his sister, Deepa, and their friends: the African, Njoroge, and the British, Bill and Ann. It is here that they discover love, a discovery that will haunt their later lives. It is here that Vikram gets his first political education one day when Bill, Ann and their parents are brutally murdered by the Mau Mau.
Vikram's father, Ashok, is one of those peculiar products of the colonial period - loyal to the Queen, a member of the Asian Home Guard troops used by the British to suppress the Africans. Vikram's mother, Sheila, is a racist Punjabi housewife who just can't understand why her only daughter would fall in love with Njoroge, "that Kikuyu".
Mwangi, the gentle gardener and Njoroge's grandfather, turns out to be the Mau Mau oath-giver and is killed by the British; Mahesh Uncle, Vikram's charming uncle, turns out to be a covert Mau Mau supporter and Marxist revolutionary and is later deported back to India by the new African leaders. Njoroge's idealism finally leads to his assassination. Only Vikram judges the fickle temper of the times correctly and wisely refuses to take sides: "It was not for me to change this world. Moral judgments, therefore, I shied away from ... I therefore prefer my place in the middle, watch events run their course. This is easy, being an Asian, it is my natural place."
The book is about survival, political and personal. Vikram becomes the middleman, the moneychanger, the fixer, to ensure his place and his family's in the new Kenya. The British, to ensure the survival of their legacy, installed the new leaders - men not necessarily of the best quality, but reliable because of their greed and contempt for the people - as buffers against the rising tide of Marxism/socialism that had overrun neighbouring Tanzania. Sometimes Vassanji's image of the corrupt African politician - lugging a suitcase full of cash - verges on cliché, but his use of real political figures is daring.
Vassanji deliberately blurs the line between victim and victimiser. The new African elite suddenly begin to act more and more like their British predecessors. The Mau Mau freedom fighters who gave up everything to fight the colonialists are now hounded on the streets and arrested for the flimsiest reasons. The same colonial policemen and their African collaborators who tortured the Mau Mau and other blacks during the emergency are still in office as security advisers for the new ruling class.
The In-Between World is a good example of how the post-colonial novel should be written, dispassionately, avoiding the easy pitfalls of nostalgia and essentialism. Vassanji writes with admirable restraint; the first part is the hardest to read - one often feels like giving the plot a kick to get it moving. But the slow pace is understandable if one considers that Vassanji, himself born in Kenya, is returning to the scenes of his childhood with all its memories. This is the work of a writer at the top of his form. My only regret is that some characters, like Njoroge and Mahesh Uncle, are under-utilised, their revolutionary possibilities not fully exploited - but of course this is not a book about revolutions. It is mostly about the futility of revolutions, and the triumph of reactionaries.
Book ID 843