M.G. Vassanji appears at ease. Not a novel sentiment, he admits — it’s the same each time he returns to India. It was this feeling of belonging and familiarity that overwhelmed the younger Vassanji when he first journeyed to the country in 1993.
Sixteen years later the writer is visiting for the release of A Place Within: Rediscovering India, his first attempt at
non-fiction and a coming of full circle of sorts with his ancestral land. “I was treated as though I belonged here. India
seemed to be a part of me and it changed my life,” he recalls of his first impressions of the country.
The Babri Masjid had been razed at the time and yet Vassanji — who, “if pressed”, describes himself as an “IndoAfrican Canadian writer” on his website — dared to acquaint himself with a land he was until then only distantly connected to.
“Over a month I covered Delhi, Trivandrum, Bhubaneswar and Baroda by train. I suppose it is the best way to know this country,” he says. “I maintained a journal as is tradition and began on this book four years ago.”
Born in Kenya to children of Indian immigrants, Vassanji studied physics at MIT before moving to Canada where he embarked on a literary career, which has won him several awards including the Giller Prize, twice.
A Place Within, equal parts memoir and travelogue, is Vassanji’s second work located in the subcontinent. “Prior to my visit, India was a country peddled to us by the movies and stories. It was the land of Bollywood, one with a moral and spiritual outlook, a backward, poor country, to which it wasn’t necessary for us to return,” says the 59-year-old. “Some came looking for desi brides. It was only when I moved to the US did I have a heightened awareness of who I was and where from.”
Discovering India served Vassanji’s penchant for immersing himself in histories, both public and personal. “History is important here. Indians are dictated by their past. Each time I revisited I tried to research the place as it stood in the present and its history.”
Over 16 years, Vassanji witnessed India metamorphose into a more economically empowered, confident and self-aware nation.
“However, the distressing divide and violence of ’93 seems to have gotten worse, not just in the minds of extremists but also the liberals,” he says. “People identify themselves as this or that and expect definitions of me in terms of Hindu or Muslim. I am only very Indian. Rigidity has stepped in; it’s insidious even in the most well-meaning people.”
Is India home then? “Home means several things. Physical home is Canada where I live in reasonable comfort, Africa is my home of nostalgia, where I grew up and India is my home of the spirit where I feel at ease not knowing why."