When memories come calling

Written by Diana Ningthoujam | Updated: Nov 18 2012, 06:46am hrs
In his latest novel, MG Vassanji has woven a rich story of memory and history, of past and identity, in prose so evocative, yet so restrained

The Magic of Saida

MG Vassanji

Penguin

Rs. 499

Pg 305

With The Magic of Saida, MG Vassanji has taken yet another plunge into past, the cloistered part of our existence, ever eager to poke its ugly (beautiful) head. This is Vassanjis seventh novel and like his other works, which comprise six novels, two works of non fiction and two collections of short fiction, this is also a richly nuanced perception of history and identity. There are varied layers to Vassanjis narrative in The Magic of Saida; a narrative neither incongruous nor discordant, which makes poignant revelations of the past in prose so evocative, yet so restrained.

Kamla Punja is the protagonist of the novel haunted by memories of his past; a past embodied by his childhood friend and sweetheart Saida, whose resonating echo pulls him back to his birthplace, Kilwa, a village on the coast of Tanzania. He embarks on a Quixotic, hopeless quest, partly fuelled by his love for Saida and partly driven by his guilt for abandoning her. Born to a Gujarati trader, who leaves him when he was just a child, and a mother descended from slaves, Kamal grows up with a fractured identity. He is an Indian more African than all the Africans walking about. And a better Indian than all the Banyani shopkeepers.

The novel opens shrouded in mystery, with a delirious Kamal hospitalised for malaria. We are introduced to him as an established well-known doctor, co-running three successful clinics in Edmonton, Canada. His success nevertheless leaves him unfulfilled; answers to his search for identity elude him in Canada and now in Kilwa, where his life started and where he returns. The whole point of his story was what a difficult and incomplete and unsuccessful a conversion he went through from African to Asian, more precisely, Indian. And in his adulthood, he undergoes yet another unfinished conversion, into a Canadian. But isnt this a pertinent question in this world of ours where borders and frontiers are blurred And it becomes difficult to say precisely what one is anymore. Isnt that a common condition nowadays

Throughout the novel we are given various glimpses of Kamal: Kamal the chotara (a mixed blood), the golo (servant or slave); Kamal the obedient son to a mother, the teacher to Saida; Kamal the student, the husband and father to two children, the doctor; and Kamal, the chronicler of history and one who traces the contours of the modern East African identity. A dichotomised voice, thrice removed from the rungs of society, Vassanji limns the character of Kamal with sensitivity without inflicting upon our senses the all knowing voice of an author. He allows the character to unfold himself.

This Canadian novelist, born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, belongs to the Indian community that immigrated to Africa in the latter part of the 19thcentury. Vassanji has been exploring the stories of the Asian community in East Africa, its changing destiny, its pursuit for acceptance and the dispersal of the diaspora. In The Magic of Saida, though these are precedent themes, there is a strong presence of memories. Kamal expresses an insatiable obsession with his memories, with the past. Even though the past is a dangerous business and it is best to keep it buried, he is compelled to explore and explain an overwhelming sense of yearning, longing, thirst for Saida. He had his memories, his private world to turn to at night. No one could interfere with his memories, they were his solace, his hope for some future resolution in his life. They chained him to the past. But Kamal walks into a past that almost devours him. Perhaps, memory houses a great paradox: the ability to create a false sense of completeness, the ability to provoke the most profound sense of loss. By the conclusion of the novel, memories dissipate and dissolve. They do not linger. Kamal had to wrestle with these memories to move ahead, to find himself at peace.

Vassanji has woven a rich tapestry of history of the Kilwa people: retelling it and recreating it through the eyes of Kamal and the eyes of nationalist poet Mzee Omari, the grandfather of Saida. He was the famous literary figure in Kilwa, whose poems drew people, in hordes, to him; he was the author of the historical magnum opus The Composition of the Coming of the Modern Age, but he died an ignominious death. They say he was killed by a djinn, Idris, who helped him compose poems. And the people preferred to believe the magic than the hard truth that he killed himself. For, Omari was a man whose past memory was eating him from inside. He stole the poems of his brother Abdulkarim and it was this guilt that shapes the rest of his life. The love the people of Kilwa had for Omari stems from their love of history, the glorious past of their brave ancestors who rose up against the imperialist rule of the Germans: the famous Maji Maji uprising or the War of the Waters, which began in 1905.

Through these passages, Vassanji delicately makes an attempt to present a history of the subaltern voice, he repudiates the official history of those in power. For these people whose fates have been passed on from the Arabs to the Germans and the British, the events of the hazy past, lend them coherence and bring them to life.

The Magic of Saida is a mystery novel at its heart, with a gripping narrative that allows for a fluid story telling where the past and the present collude in a beautiful immediacy. We are eager to know what happened to Saida in the past and where is she in the present. When the lingering, uneasy questions are answered and when the pieces come together, although they may seem disparate and incongruent, they have a resounding significance in the tale. But the problem in the story is Saida. The eponymous name the novel draws its title from, the woman who brought Kamal back to Kilwa gets lost in this narrative. Saida is a flat character in this tale, a tale which has been written because she exists. Vassanji has failed to create a character, which could arouse any strong feelings or empathy from the reader, she remains just a lingering memory. Or, for that matter, Vassanji has failed to conjure the magic of Saida.