Friday, 12 September 2014 09:08

Evolution of female identity in Moyez Vassanji’s novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

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Since the period of formation of post-colonial theory, the notion of identity has occupied its rightful place as one of the key concepts of this theory. This paper tries to explore the changing identities in M.G.Vassanji's novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2003), specifically focusing on female characters, for, in our opinion, the evolution of these characters in the novel may be considered paradigmatic for societies that went through colonial to post-colonial stage.

Two main female characters of the novel - Mrs Lall, mother of Vikram, the narrator, and her daughter and Vikram's sister Deepa – represent two generations of the Lall family. And in terms of their self-identification, both women reveal a very sharp contrast to male personages of the book. The older generation of the family – Vikram's grandfathers Anand and Verma – demonstrate firm attachment to British empire, in fact eagerly identifying themselves as its subjects. The same attitude characterises Mr Lall, the head of the family, whom his son Vikram describes as 'proudly Kenyan' (Mr Lall even dislikes India, his ancestral land) and 'hopelessly colonial'.

Contrary to them, Mrs Lall (her first name is Sheila, but it is mentioned very few times in the novel) demonstrates a strikingly different, even opposed, type of identity, which, paraphrasing her son, may be called 'proudly Indian and hopefully anti-colonial'. She kept all her life her devotion to India, the country of her birth and youth, and it always remained for her a criterion of what is good and acceptable ('This is India' – a compliment she pays to Mombasa town, the stay in which she thoroughly enjoyed –111-112). Also all her life she nursed the dream to come back to the land of the ancestors, but, by bitter irony of fate and post-colonial developments, she never returned there, her last decisive attempt being cut by terminal disease. Mrs Lall never perceived Kenya as anything but, in her own voice, the land 'where I have married and made my home, [...] my husband's and children's country' (106). Along with her devotion to the motherland, Mrs Lall strongly disliked the British, and occasionally dared to demonstrate this – she disapproved of her children keeping friendship with a British settler's family, and refused to accompany her husband to London ('I have no desire to see London, anyway' – 294). Moreover, Mrs Lall seemed to have a genuine empathy to all the other people around her who were subjected to the colonial powers, first of all Africans, which is demonstrated by her kind treatment of Njoroge, the son of their servant and gardener Mwangi.

However, the further development of events show that Mrs Lall's mentality harboured quite a lot of pre-colonial and especially colonial ethnic and other prejudices, directed, surprisingly, at her fellow colonial subjects. She is harshly disparaging to Bengalis, because traditionally they were considered by her people, the Punjabi, an inferior race, and despises them even more than the British – she scorns Chandra Bose, Indian freedom fighter, for the mere fact that he was a Bengali.

The strength of these prejudices is also clearly demonstrated by her further treatment of Njoroge - she was kind and sympathetic to him as long as he remained a fellow victim of hateful colonisers; but things changed radically when Njoroge, already after Independence, started wooing her daughter. This turned Mrs Lall into a furious warrior, defending her worldview based on hierarchical differences in gender, age, race, class, on the foundations of patriarchy, compartmentalisation and nativism, which found the concise expression in her phrase: 'There is nothing wrong with being an African or Asian or European; but they can't mix. It does not work' (178).

Thus, we assume that Mrs Lall was also, in fact, the bearer of an identity very close to that of her husband and his father – only in her case it can be considered as a 'reverse' type of colonial identity. No matter how different or even opposed the sentiments may be, the founding traits of these two types of identity are similar. We seem to notice the loss of initial Indian identity, largely destroyed by ideological, political, and emotional fractures, and shift to an identity of a colonial subject (be it that of 'unwillingly Indian' or 'proudly Indian'), identity founded on various well-soaked and/or newly generated prejudices – racial, social, gender – and largely stipulated by the same colonial and even pre-colonial structures.

Mrs Lall's daughter Deepa, the most attractive personage of the book, presents a totally different identity. The main difference between the worldview (and, in that, identity) of Deepa and of the other characters in the novel lies, in our opinion, in the fact that the world views of Vic's sister is largely based on idealism. In this case, we interpret the term 'idealism' positively, as the vision of a new world, the world where all the currently existent prejudices about race, ethnicity, gender, culture, religion, etc. will cease to be, and in which one will become a sole decision maker in the matters of his or her life. The vision of such a world is expressed by Deepa through her love relationship with Njoroge.When Njoroge shares his concern about their relations – 'Your father and mother, he began. They will surely object' – Deepa firmly answers: 'This is a new Africa, Njo [...] We are the next generation' (177).

Deepa's evolution of identity also seems to be accelerated by another idea – that of self-independence, self-made decisions; the first episode that caused the major concern of her parents was, in fact, her statement – in reply to her mother's umpteenth marriage arrangement, this time to a friends' son – that 'I'll marry whom I want, mother, and I am not going to marry Dilip' (174). Apparently these ideas are not 'internally generated' – Nairobi, a cosmopolitan city, is open to the world, and one of the strongest arguments that Deepa poses against racial and ethnic divisions is that 'the rest of the world does not behave in this manner' (278).

Deepa's tolerance and respect to people from different races and cultures is genuine and natural – she easily made friends with an African woman, a street vendor outside her school; later Deepa adapts successfully to an altogether different environment in Canada. We can see that in these and many other aspects Deepa's identity drastically differs from the colonial one – she is far from bowing to the British masters, she wants to remain an Indian, a Kenyan, but an Indian Kenyan free from the shatters of both patriarchal and colonial subject-hood, when, in both cases, she is not allowed to make choices and decisions about her life, where she is 'told'whom to like and whom to despise, and decisions are made by dominating others. Similarly, while retaining her Indianness, Deepa seeks to break from the fetters of nativism that dictate to her, through her parents, that people of different races can't mix. Deepa feels the contrary – she wants to break from all the forms of subject-hood, be they indigenous by nature or created by colonial and post-colonial structures. And Deepa does it in no less radical a way – as her brother stated with a mixture of sympathy and regret: 'Times were changing, certainly, but Deepa in her typical impulsive way had leaped ahead of them' (175) – for their love had an abrupt and disastrous ending.

We suggest calling this new identity, demonstrated by Deepa (and her sweetheart Njoroge) a hybrid identity. Of course we suggest it conditionally – since even the identities of Deepa's parents and grandparents, as well as that of Njoroge's granddad and other African characters in the novel, are also characterised with their own kind of hybridity. We would, however, refer to the hybridity featured in the characters of Deepa and Njoroge as constructive hybridity, featuring, on the one hand, their own cultural background that they do not deny, but are deeply devoted to, and on the other – tolerance to and respect of other cultures, religions, races (note the devotion with which they visit the temples of each other's religions - 197), fascination with Western idea of individuality and personal independence and genuine concern for the fate of their newly born country. Although largely based on idealism, this hybridity gives an idea of a new world, a world in which, as put by Homi Bhabha, 'The people are now the very principle of dialectical reorganisation, and they construct their culture from the national text translated into modern Western forms of information, technology, language, dress. The changed political and historical site of enunciation transforms the meanings of the colonial inheritance into the liberatory signs of the people of the future' (Bhabha 2008:157). For Deepa and Njoroge this future was not going to happen, but through them the author seems to send a message about the general possibility and, moreover, desirability to build a new society, free of all the artificial divides.


Bhabha, Homi K. 1985. "Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi, may 1817", Critical Inquiry 12 (1), Autumn: pp. 144-165

Vassanji, Moyez G. 2003. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. New York: Vintage Books, 2003


Alinaby Alina Rinkanya
Alina Rinkanya is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi. She is a PhD holder from the Gorky Institute of World Literature, a research institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

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