Author: M G Vassanji
Publ: Doubleday, Canada, 2012
ISBN: 978038 5667142
Reviewer: Dr Asma Sayed
The prolific Canadian writer M G Vassanji writes transnationally, his work shifting between Canada, India and Africa.The author of two short story collections, a memoir about India and a biography of Canadian author Mordecai Richler, he has recently published his seventh novel The Magic of Saida, which is yet another triumph for the two time winner of Giller Prize, the top Canadian literary award.
The Magic of Saida is set in Tanzania, East Africa. The protagonist of the novel, Kamal Punja, was born in Kilwa in East Africa, a town ‘whose recorded history and culture go back a thousand years and more.’ This fictive resident of Western Canada’s northernmost metropolis Edmonton is at the centre of a family saga with ties to India and intriguing tales of love, magic, memory and history of colonial legacies. Kamal, a descendent of Punja Devraj, a Gujarati from India who had come to Zanzibar as a trader, is raised by an African single mother of slave ancestry. Kamal’s Indian father left his mother to go back to India; at the age of eleven Kamal is adopted by his paternal uncle who then raises him in Dar es Salaam, according to Indian tradition. As Kamal is sent off by his mother to join his uncle’s family and ‘become an Indian,’ he also has to desert Saida, his friend and childhood love. Saida, the granddaughter of Omari bin Tamim – a poet who is rumored to be aided by djinn in his writing, and whose involvement with German colonizers is a matter of debate – is also at the centre of the mystery in the novel; the story of the search for Saida connects the narrative. As the plot progresses, Kamal goes to Uganda for further study, but when Idi Amin seizes power and expels all the Asians, he, with his friend Shamim who will become his wife, flees to Canada. There Kamal becomes occupied with his medical practice and family life. But the past keeps beckoning him.After thirty five years and the break-up of his marriage, with his children now grown, he decides to return to Tanzania to look for Saida—to fulfill the promise he had made to her many years before. On arrival in Kilwa he experiences a night of magical rites that is horrifying and revealing.
The tale of Kamal’s quest for Saida evolves in the context of other histories including the German occupation of Tanzania, the Maji Maji rebellion, the reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, all intertwined with the histories of Indians in Africa and Africans in India. Indians came to Africa for a variety of reasons and their involvement with African communities and colonial forces has been complex for they held African slaves, and African women as concubines. As Vassanji mentions in a recent interview with the author of this review, having concubines was not looked down upon at the time, as it was a common practice: women were sold and thus people bought them. However, one rarely one rarely discussed historical issue Vassanji does allude to is that Indians in Africa were involved in the slave trade, often as financiers. He also focuses on the history of the Sidis – Africans in India - which is underexplored and has only recently become the subject of academic inquiry, particularly in the UK. In the novel, the intricate interweaving of these various histories provides nuance to the plot and contributes to the richness of the characters’varied identities.
Vassanji’s characters are individuals caught in an in-between world that is suspended in different countries, histories, and times. The liminal world of Kamal, being an Indian and an African trapped in the web of past memories and present quests reminds readers that identity – racial, national, religious – is intricate. History and memory are convoluted. There are no black and white answers. As Kamal says, ‘[T]hat so much of our history lies scattered in fragments in the most diverse places and forms – fading memories, brief asides or incidentals in books and archives – is lamentable, but at least they exist. All we need to do is call up the fragments, reconfigure the past.’ Vassanji’s attempt to resurrect a particular history comes forth in a multi-layered narrative: Martin Kigoma, a publisher within the novel, recounts the story as it is told to him by Kamal when he is lying in a hospital bed; but the account is layered as Kamal is not only relaying his own story to Kigoma, but also the one that Omari bin Tamim wrote in his poetic magnum opus, The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age.
With this extremely poetic chronicle, reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s works, M G Vassanji has reached new literary heights.