From the Publisher
Double Giller Prize winner M.G. Vassanji's The In-Between
World of Vikram Lall is a haunting novel of
corruption and regret that brings to life the complexity and
turbulence of Kenyan society in the last five decades. Rich in
sensuous detail and historical insight, this is a powerful story of
passionate betrayals and political violence, racial tension and the
strictures of tradition, told in elegant, assured prose.
The novel begins in 1953, with eight-year-old Vikram Lall a witness
to the celebrations around the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II,
just as the Mau Mau guerilla war for independence from Britain
begins to gain strength. In a land torn apart by idealism, doubt,
political upheaval and terrible acts of violence, Vic and his
sister Deepa must find their place among a new generation. Neither
colonists nor African, neither white nor black, the Indian brother
and sister find themselves somewhere in between in their band of
playmates: Bill and Annie, British children, and Njoroge, an
African boy. These are the relationships that will shape the rest
of their lives.
We follow Vikram through the changes in East African society, the
immense promise of the fifties and sixties. But when that hope is
betrayed by the corruption and violence of the following decades,
Vic is drawn into the Kenyatta government's orbit of graft and
power-broking. Njoroge, his childhood friend, can abandon neither
the idealism of his youth nor his love for Vic's sister Deepa. But
neither the idealism of the one nor the passive cynicism of the
other can avert the tragedies that await them.
In interviews given when the novel was published, Vassanji
commented that The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
is the first of his books to deal with his memories of Kenya, where
he spent the first 5 years of his life: "I remember these images of
fear, of terror. And I thought I had to come back to that and see
the whole Mau Mau episode from the Asian point of view. I had never
written a book set in Kenya, where my father was from. And when I
did, I just felt good about it, because I was going back to one
part, one of many homes."
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, a compelling
record in the voice of a character described as "a cheat of
monstrous and reptilian cunning," took three years to write. After
research in Kenya and Britain, M.G. Vassanji devoted himself to the
novel in a dark office at the University of Toronto. It was a hard
process of creation and discovery, especially as Vassanji is an
assiduous editor of his own work: "I come back to it over and over.
For me, it's like working on a sculpture. You sort of chip away a
bit at a time until you tell yourself it's as perfect as you can
make it." Vassanji's fifth novel met with immense Canadian and
international success. As well as making him the first author to
win the Giller Prize twice, the book was a #1 national bestseller.
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
is a profound and careful examination of one man's search
for his place in the world; it also takes up themes that have run
through Vassanji's work, such as the nature of community in a
volatile society, the relations between colony and colonizer, and
the inescapable presence of the past. It is also, finally, a deeply
"The major thing that stands out in the book is people who are
in-between. The feeling of belonging and not belonging is very
central to the book. And that also played out in my life. When we
lived in Tanzania we belonged and did not belong because we had
come from Kenya. That has been a major thread in my life."
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, and raised in Tanzania. He took a
doctorate in physics at M.I.T. and came to Canada in 1978. While
working as a research associate and lecturer at the University of
Toronto in the 1980s he began to dedicate himself seriously to a
longstanding passion: writing.
His first novel, The Gunny Sack, won a regional
Commonwealth Writers Prize, and he was invited to be
writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa. The novel's success
was a spur, Vassanji has commented: "It was translated into several
languages. I was confident that this was what I could do, that
writing was not just wishful thinking. In 1989 I quit my full-time
job and began researching The Book of Secrets."
That celebrated, bestselling novel won the inaugural Giller Prize,
Vassanji's other books include the acclaimed novels No New
Land (1991) and Amriika (1999), and
Uhuru Street (1991), a collection of stories. His
unique place in Canadian literature comes from his elegant,
classical style, his narrative reach, and his interest in
characters trying to reconcile different worlds within themselves.
The subtle relations of the past and present are also constants in
his writing: "When someone asks you where you are from or who you
are, there is a whole resume of who you are. I know very few people
who do not have a past to explain. That awareness is part of my
M.G. Vassanji was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994
in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world
of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve
Canadians on Maclean's Honour Roll. He lives in Toronto
with his wife and two sons.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What is the significance of the three epigraphs to the book
-- quoted from T.S. Eliot, the Upanishads, and a Swahili proverb?
Think about the epigraphs, but also the sources from which they are
2. "We remained that enigma, the Asians of Africa." How does
M.G. Vassanji explore the "in-between" status of Indians in Kenyan
society? Does it change over the course of the novel? How do its
effects play out in the lives of different members of the Lall
3. How does the novel handle the competing claims of the
personal and the political? How does it treat characters who favour
of political violence and those who are scarred by it? Do you feel
that it makes a judgment about violence?
4. Were you surprised that Njoroge gives up Deepa when her
mother insists? Why does he accede?
5. How does The In-Between World of Vikram Lall
compare with another novel you have read that grapples with
political issues (such as one by V. S. Naipaul, George Orwell,
Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy…)
6. What is the importance of the stories of people besides the
narrator in the novel? For example, the railway stories of Vic's
grandfather; the history of the couple in Jamieson, etc.
7. How does the subtle repetition of "third wheels" in the novel
connect to its deeper themes? Think of Vikram's
father excluded from the bond between his mother and Mahesh; Vikram
himself left outside the bond between Njoroge and Deepa.
8. What are the roles of fathers, real and symbolic, in
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall? Consider
Vikram's father, Inspector Verma, Jomo Kenyatta, etc.
9. How is colonialism experienced in The In-Between
World of Vikram Lall? And independence?
10. Look back at some of Vikram's descriptions of himself:
"There was a frozen core buried deep inside me that I could not
dislodge or melt, that held me back"; "I have said that I could not
engage morally in my world"; "I don't know what is happening to
me"; "I noticed a certain self-detachment in myself."
To what extent is this honest reflection? Defensive
11. What did you make of the "frame" of the small Ontario town
from which Vikram Lall tells much of what happens in the novel? Did
you find Seema Chatterjee and Joseph important characters? Is there
the beginning of a comparison between Kenyan society and Canadian
society at work here?
12. At various times the narrator pauses in his recollections to
explain the historical context of the times he is describing. How
did you feel about these passages?
13. "It was mother who still said, We have to think of the
samaj, the community, don't we; the world watches us…" How do the
claims of community and tradition pull at the principal
14. Choose one of the minor characters in the novel -- Sophia,
Mahesh, Khiakia, Inspector Soames, etc. -- and consider what he or
she contributes to the book as a whole.
15. Why does Vikram Lall decide to return home?
16. Discuss: servants / Jamieson / songs / the Masai in
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
17. Did you find Vikram Lall to be a sympathetic character in
his own story?
18. How did you feel about the ending of the novel?