A PLACE WITHIN: REDISCOVERING INDIA M.G. Vassanji
Pity the poor travel writer. Long gone are the days when all that was needed to gather material for a new book was to stick a pin into an atlas to find an unexplored corner of the world, and then return with tales of how they do things differently there. This Eurocentric model has been replaced by tales of heroism and endurance – the north face of the Eiger, anyone? – or inventive means of structuring the journey, be it circumnavigating
The plot thickens if the traveller visits a place that he’s linked to by history: then, even a first-time visit is shot through by ancestral anecdotes and childhood memories of where one’s parents and grandparents came from. The one book that springs to mind in this regard is, of course, V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness, a map of the writer’s disillusionment with the country of his forebears.
Like Naipaul, M.G. Vassanji can trace his ancestry back to
The self-described “Indo-African Canadian writer” has said of his first novel, The Gunny Sack, that it was a novelistic organization of “memories, oral histories, and myths”; A Place Within is comprised of much the same elements.
Vassanji’s is a less caustic eye than Naipaul’s, and India’s poor infrastructure, dirt and difficulty for the foreign visitor draw no more than pained sighs and sometimes, bemused wonderment at the state of affairs. In this manner, he meets the taxi strikes, delayed trains and indifferent accommodation that he’s sometimes had to face. Clearly, he has tried to immerse himself in the country, not just view it through a pane of glass, as his accounts of train travel, treks to pilgrimage spots on foot, eating with hands and – on at least one occasion -- cleaning teeth with charcoal powder will testify.
It may well be his scientific background, but Vassanji’s approach to the places he visits is to dig deep into their histories in an effort to link them to the present. Such recounting of the past, coupled with his personal sojourns in the present, then, is Vassanji’s attempt to understand the influences that have created him, in cultural, geographical and historical terms. As he writes: “When I was a boy in colonial Africa, history began and ended with the arrival in
Thus, for instance, there are long sections on the growth and decay of
In many ways, Vassanji’s trips to
He visits and analyses cities and towns, stopping at formerly riot-hit areas, shrines, monuments and ruins: “In
The urge to capture all his impressions in one volume, however, lets Vassanji down in terms of structure. He often gives in to the temptation of appending extracts and fragments of memories drawn from his trips over the years. The intention, that of encompassing all of his experiences, may be laudable but the book’s focus becomes diffused.
Vassanji also spent some months at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla, writing parts of what was to become The Assassin’s Song – the first of his novels to be based in
Naipaul’s book ended in