Both the novels and the biography of M.G. Vassanji—born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Gujarati immigrants in the middle of the 20th century, just before the wave of African decolonization, and a resident of Canada from mid-life onwards—are an embodiment of the winding path of history, of journeys that yield both gains and losses. Vassanji’s work often tracks those communities or practices made marginal or invisible by the march of time (as in his majestic novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall , set among Indians trapped between the political binaries of black and white in Kenya), or individuals seeking to excavate their history and traditions in order to understand themselves better.
Vassanji celebrates the history and flavour of old Delhi.
With his previous book, The Assassin’s Song, Vassanji chose an Indian setting for the first time, giving us the story of the keeper of a Sufi shrine in the wake of the Gujarat violence of 2002. Now, A Place Within, Vassanji’s memoir of his visits to, and travels within, India over the last two decades, demonstrates the depth of his engagement with the country of his ancestors. One could say that Vassanji has taken the usual questions that inform his novelistic practice and turned them upon himself to ask: Where do I come from? What meaning does my community’s past hold for me in an increasingly rootless world, and what are my own responsibilities towards the past?
The question also has a political valency because historically Vassanji’s people, the Khoja community of Gujarat, were practitioners of an “odd, syncretistic faith” combining elements of Hinduism and Islam. Vassanji’s meditation on questions of identity and Indianness through the linked channels of history, travel and self makes for a strikingly alert and controlled narrative. Especially noteworthy is his refusal to shirk the difficult questions of history—the fact that the Indian past is not just one of a fabled tolerance that we should all take a leaf from but also one of considerable hatred and violence.
The highlight of A Place Within is a long section on Delhi—really, the many Delhis of history founded by a series of dynasties, each one replacing but not quite erasing the other—that will surprise even those, like myself, who have lived in the city and thought they knew it. Vassanji shows how, for the longest time, Delhi was a city moving ever northward, from the Qutub Minar of Qutubuddin Aibak to the Lal Qila and Jama Masjid of Shah Jahan, till after independence and the inflow of refugees, the process was reversed and it has begun to expand southwards again, “towards the oldest Delhis and beyond”. Whether quoting from the imperial historians Amir Khusrau, Alberuni and Zia Barni, journeying to distant, unpromising Tughlaqabad, or ferreting for Mirza Ghalib’s house in old Delhi, Vassanji is consistently interesting.
While Delhi is a city that celebrates its great history, Vassanji finds no such consciousness in Ahmedabad, a city older than old Delhi, but one that seems “uneasy with time and history”. Vassanji’s search in Gujarat for the shrines and settlements of his ancestors, the Khojas, and for the icons and songs taught to him in the small Khoja redoubt of his African childhood, yields a section as moving and as beautiful as any of the great narratives of spiritual seeking in our literature. This, even though the author acknowledges that he is “a rationalized being who is acquainted with spiritual longing but cannot yield to it”, cannot cajole and implore and supplicate before God as so many do.
Roving beyond the usual roll-call of tourist destinations, Vassanji discovers at many religious sites, even in communally sensitive Gujarat, “a certain laissez faire in matters of the spirit” that seems to be on the retreat. If he resists the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim”, he writes, it is not because they don’t have an element of truth, but rather because they are “too exacting, too excluding”, and they mask the extent to which the past is a foreign country. At the same time, he casts an astringent eye on both the excesses of Hindu chauvinism and the tendency of Indian Muslims to adopt “a primary identity defined by faith, in a unity (the “umma”) that transcends political, cultural, and ethnic boundaries”.
Narrated in the distinctive cadences of a novelist in possession of a secure style and animated by a love of both language and place, and a powerful longing for the past, this book about coming home to India cannot but make a richer person of every Indian reader.
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