Magazine article The Spectator

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

Magazine article The Spectator

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

Article excerpt

Kenya's hopes and horrors THE IN-BETWEEN WORLD OF VIKRAM LALL by M. G. Vassanji Canongate, £14.99, pp. 439, ISBN 1841955388 £12.99 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Novels set in Kenya by Europeans are so different from those by black Africans that one struggles to imagine they're about life in the same place. The same might be true of works by Kenyan Asians, the third group in our messy ethnic ménage-à-trois, but sadly I can't judge because I haven't read any. That Vikram Lull is quite unlike Elspeth Huxley or Meja Mwangi or anything I've read before is just one reason to like it immensely.

Another is that the story of the people who migrated from the subcontinent to East Africa must be among the most incredible that the empire and commonwealth have to yield. This is material that forces reviewers to use phrases like 'magisterial, epic sweep'. Consider, please. These people arrived as indentured coolies to build the 'Lunatic Express' railway to Uganda. They braved man-eating lions, had as many adventures as European pioneers, and overcame white bigotry in myriad entrepreneurial schemes that served to make them very rich indeed. Inspired by Gandhi, they lent a rare dose of intellectual credibility to African nationalism. After 'Uhuru' black leaders like Idi Amin, 'Mwalimu' Nyererc - and even in a former life our own dear President Mwai Kibaki rewarded them for this with intimidation and expulsion. So what did the exiled Asians do? They rose to become the Western world's most talented industrialists, lawyers, doctors, Bank of England economists, and film directors. Meanwhile among the only reasons East Africa didn't completely implode is thanks to private capital, most of which is run by tenacious Asians who clung on.

The East African Asian 'experience', then, is dramatic stuff. But yet another reason to like this book is that in my view no recent novel better sums up the entire Kenyan experience over the last halfcentury for middle-class people of any background, Asian, black or European. What M. G. Vassanji relates in his fiction is what really happened to this very special country. The hopes that were so high in the 1960s have been steadily corroded over 40 years of misrule, relentless corruption, pig ignorance and selfish cynicism. By telling us what could have been, books like Vikram Lall help me feel that all is not lost. It just depresses me that African authors all seem to live in exile: J. M. Coetzee is in Adelaide, while Mr Vassanji has been in Canada since 1978.

As for the story itself, M. G. Vassanji's gives us a tale of the hopes, dreams, disappointments and tragedies suffered by a set of childhood friends growing up in the nation they all call home. He writes simply, in the style of a sad man's memoir. 'My name is Vikram Lall,' he begins, One of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous reptilian cunning.' Over 420 pages, we discover how he got to be in this position.

Growing up in the Rift Valley settler town of Nakuru, Vikram and his sister Deepa are friends with Njoroge, a lowly Kikuyu boy, and the more privileged European Bruce children. As can be expected, the racial strata that only slightly impinge on their innocent relationships very much affect their parents' lives. Yet despite his treatment by haughty colonials in his shop, Papa Lall sits glued to the radio listening to Queen Elizabeth's coronation. Later, when Mau Mau erupts, he obediently takes part in neighbourhood patrols until his licensed pistol is stolen. An African is arrested, but Vikram discovers that the thief is Uncle Mahesh, a radical out to assist the guerrillas. …

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