Born and raised in East Africa, Indian Vassanji describes in spare but resonant prose the depressing realities of post-colonial Africa in telling the story of a man whose life is blighted by the times.
Having fled Kenya and now living in Canada, where he’s been accused of bribery, Vikram poignantly recalls the past and his childhood home, even though as an Indian he was never fully accepted by Africans. In 1953, Vikram is an eight-year-old living contentedly with his family in a Kenyan village where his father runs a general store. Vikram, like his younger sister Deepa, is a third-generation African-Indian—their grandfather came from India to build the railroad in the late 1800s—and Kenya indeed is home. The siblings are close friends of the white Bruce children, as well as of Kikuyu Njoroge, whom Vikram’s mother calls her son. But the times are not propitious for interracial harmony: the famous “winds of change” are blowing through Africa, promising an end to British rule. The Mau Mau, the notorious Kikuya freedom fighters, brutally kill the entire Bruce family, and when Njoroge’s grandfather is arrested as a suspect, Njoroge has to go away to school. With Independence, the Lalls move to Nairobi, where, initially, they prosper. Like Njoroge, whom he meets up with again, Vikram admires President Kenyatta, but their early optimism sours as politicians demand bribes and Indians are increasingly threatened by violence unless they hand over their businesses. Njoroge, in love with Deepa, who loves him in return even though her family insists she marry an Indian, is soon involved in dangerous opposition politics. Though Vikram flourishes, it’s at a price—friends are murdered, families emigrate, and no one can be trusted. Yet the cost of exile is even higher. His past thus revisited, Vikram decides now to clear his name, even if so doing endangers his life.
A bleak but affecting portrait of loss by a master writer (Amerika, 2001, etc.) come fully into his own. (N.B.: This is Vassanji’s fifth novel and second Giller Prize winner.)