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
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 Vassanji’s 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 Vassanji’s 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 isn’t 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. Isn’t 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,