In 2009, I reviewed Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India, for PopMatters, which recounts how her family emigrated from the Indian state of Gujarat at the turn of the 20th century to five continents. The book is part-autobiography, but more so a treatise on the feelings of confusion felt by immigrant youth who are caught in a mesh of wanting to assimilate, but also not wanting to lose their ethnic identity.
One immigrant community that continues to struggle with questions of acceptance and tolerance are Africans of Indian descent. Starting as early as the 18th century, thousands left India, then a British colony, as indentured servants, laborers, business people or just wanting to start a new life, for the wide expanse of colonial Africa, and settled across the continent – some in British territories, some in German territories.
And while their vision at one time may have been to return to India, very few of them did – most stayed for several generations before emigrating again – what Salman Rushdie recently referred to as being a “double immigrant”, to the United States or Canada. Some were forced out by post-colonial rulers like Idi Amin in Uganda who wanted the Asiatic presence to be significantly reduced, but others remained.
The story of one of those Africans of Indian descent forms the basis for M.G. Vassanji’s latest novel, The Magic of Saida. This book is not a fast-paced page turner or even an exhaustive epic. Vassanji’s style is neither stream of conscious nor a collection of terse and pithy statements; rather this book is more like a well-woven collection of narratives that are all connected through one person, Kamal Punja, a half-Indian, half-African Muslim, who grows up in Tanzania, leaves for Canada and then returns to the country of his birth to track down his childhood friend, Saida.
But this novel is far more than just a 300-page treatise on the unrequited longing of a man looking forward to reconnecting with a childhood love; this is historical fiction and a detailed examination of the intersection of race, ethnicity, religion and history. Not since Mira Nair’s 1991 film, Mississippi Masala, have we seen such an artistic depiction of how one’s identity is not just cemented at conception, but becomes a thing within that if left unanswered, can claw at your soul ’til you are forced to seek answers that you may not want to find.
Who is Saida? She is a childhood friend of Kamal’s and is a Kinjikitilé, a woman possessed by spirits. What the reader comes to understand is that Saida’s magic is not necessarily the Islamic divinations or healing powers against juju or black magic that came to be associated with her at an early age, but the kind that casts a spell on Kamal as he travels across the globe seeking a new life. Always he feels a pull that he cannot escape, something eventually brings him all the way back to Kilwa.
For as Kamal, now a doctor in Canada struggles with his identity as not being fully Indian, acknowledging and even relishing his black heritage, his family does not share his enthusiasm. His children want nothing to do with an African identity, and his wife, Shamim, grows in her Indian identity, as Kamal declines in his.
“She went to khano Friday evenings, dressed up in a shalwar-kameez or something exotic, taking the kids with her. He would wait for them, in the company of a drink, dipping into his collection of Africana in his glazed isolation. They would return from khano radiant, having met people they knew, participated in familiar rituals, and he would be envious, feeling incomplete, unfulfilled. An outcast in his own home, though it was nobody’s fault. His attempts to write family history for the children, and in the process revive a secret ambition, had met with stiff resistance from all. No point harping about Africa, the children are Canadians, she said, and so are you, don’t forget that. But Canadians come from somewhere? And your khano and shalwar-kameez? And your Bollywood and Shahrukh Khan? Glamorous India.”
Vassanji’s gift is describing in detail Muslim life in the 19th and 20th centuries in this part of the world. Islam permeates everything in Tanzania, but with subtlety; most people are Muslim, but their worship borrows not just from the Qur’an and Sunnah (traditions of Prophet Muhammad), but also cultural and animist practices. This is the brand of Islam that is oftentimes mocked by fundamentalists as being haram or forbidden, but is the standard global issue. So while Muslims elsewhere may have frowned upon practices such as invoking the name of the local sultan during Friday prayers or celebrating the Maulidi or birthday of the Prophet, these practices were alive and well in East Africa.
The Magic of Saida filled with Islamic and Arabic phrases. An appendix of terminology would have been really helpful. While I felt very comfortable with Arabic words such as SubhanAllah (“how perfect is Allah”), shetani (devil), dhikri (repetition of oral prayers), majnoon (“crazy”) and Astagfirullah (“may Allah forgive me”), the vast majority of readers will not get the significance and will literally be, lost in translation.
It would be easy to say that The Magic of Saida is the novel that M.G. Vassanji has always had in him and that it will come to define him, but that would be short-sighted. Since 1989, this physicist turned writer, has steadily turned out fiction that forces audiences to confront their own stereotypes and desires to pigeonhole people. That Vassanji refers to himself as an “African Asian Canadian” should give us confidence that his latest novel is just one more step in the long, literary trek that he and his readers share.