Q&A| MG Vassanji

Perhaps one of the most overlooked writers in Indian writing in English also happens to be a major African writer. Moyez G. Vassanji is the author of eight works of fiction, among them the novels The In-Between World of Vikram Lall and The Book of Secrets, both winners of Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize, and two works of non-fiction, including his 2008 memoir, A Place Within: Rediscovering India.

Born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, he is an Ismaili Muslim of Gujarati origin. A nuclear physicist by training, he began his literary career in 1980 soon after he began his scientific research. In his writing, he has built an oeuvre which chronicles the experience and legacy of South Asians in east Africa. Trading links between the two continents have existed since the 13th century, and Vassanji has made their loaded history his terrain. With The Magic of Saida, his new novel about an Indian-African man who returns from Canada to find his childhood sweetheart, he makes further inroads into the human aspect of this exchange.

More voluble than one would imagine, yet loath to reveal his mysterious middle name, the writer spoke to Lounge during a quiet recent visit to Delhi at the India International Centre. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

The Magic of Saida: Penguin India, 320 pages, ₹ 499
The Magic of Saida: Penguin India, 320 pages, ₹ 499

In Toronto, I’m well-known. But it’s overrated. It was difficult to be writing what I wrote there; they were not used to writing about other places. But they were very embracing; its being a newer country makes Canada very adaptable. The idea of immigration has changed, become friendly. We don’t feel the stress and racial tension as much.

My history is here, and I’m also happy there. It’s a home. Why should one put a flag on any of our experiences?

The history of the world of Kilwa (known as Kilwa Kisiwani), the coastal East African town in Tanzania, which serves as the setting of Saida, has compelling ties to Indian history. What prompted you to look at it?

People were doing better in Africa than in Gujarat; they were dying in India in floods and so on. I learnt, in the US, how Indian communities came to Africa; found out they kept slaves. In the 19th century, concubines were common among Indians. I was intrigued by this. Some decided to stay on as soon as the women started arriving and the communities became stable. Indians spread out in these empty ghost towns; this was our world. When you live in a place it’s amazing how insular you get. It’s only when you get away you can see it, sometimes.

Do you believe in magic, which happens to be a central force in ‘Saida’?

I don’t, but I’m fascinated that people believe in it. When I wrote the book, I had to go see one of the magicians I’ve described, though, and I had to make up an excuse to need to see them. When I write I go black.

Where did your characters come from?

I’ve based the central story on a real poet, and on two brothers, the idea of collaboration as bearing witness; the person who resisted the past is important.

You can see the humanity, but all are corrupt. The publisher, who tells the story, is also based on someone I know.

Is ‘Saida’ a love story?

In Saida, the love story is used to explore the idea of going back. People go back to Jamnagar, and to other places. People go back in very odd ways. The central character, Kamal Punja, gets closure in a very brutal manner.

How is your work received in Africa?

People know about me and my work in Africa, but it is difficult to get my books there. In Nairobi there is a Gujarati man who buys 40 or so of my books when I bring them over, to sell. He could be selling pakoras (laughs)! At some point you give up.

When I was in Africa two years ago, the young people said, “Why do I have to publish? I have a blog." Maybe the days of serious writing are gone. The nature of reading will also change; it’s not a fully crafted thing. When I give a talk at schools there I say, if we don’t tell our stories, others will.

How do you identify with your work?

The Assassin’s Song is closest to me. In a spiritual sense, it’s very close. Some of the characters are real, some imagined. Its shrine relates to the background I come from. I was brought up in a syncretic tradition. Bhakti, mythology, growing up in a dargah, the baobab tree at night—The Assassin’s Song is a miracle. I don’t know how I managed it.

Amriika, about a student who arrives in America amid its 1960s revolution, deals with my kind of growing up. A rebirth, discovering your real self. People were awakening, it was a tumultuous time.

As a physical place, Africa is closest. In Vikram Lall, I felt close to that personal sense of having missed a father, growing up.

How did you begin to write?

I graduated as a nuclear physicist, and became a writer. Both are consuming. To write with a view to an end; that’s why I started. I just kept getting stories out. I have two collections of short stories. The first collection is set in the street I grew up in. To bring it alive, I had to try a hand at telling short stories. I was starting out.

My first ambitious novel idea was The Gunny Sack (1989). That took a long time to develop; eight years for the idea to change.

What are you working on at the moment?

Now, I am writing a travel memoir, feeling the land and travelling around it. Africa is so misrepresented. I’d like to give it a texture.

Write to lounge@livemint.com.