Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

An Engrossing Tale


By M.G. Vassanji,

The colourfully designed jacket of The Gunny Sack describes the book somewhat unfairly as Africa’s answer to Midnight’s Children. Thereby it does the book a gross disservice. For the reader braces himself to go through pages of no doubt brilliant but nevertheless quite unreadable exercise in magic realism, alliterative punctuationless adjectives and all.

But fortunately, except for an occasional “prim proper perfect” or a typically Rushdian name like Roshan Mattress (for a beautiful-fat woman), The Gunny Sack steers clear of the pitfalls that may get rave literary reviews but generally make the ordinary reader wonder why he should go beyond page twenty-five.

Vassanji weaves an engrossing tale using the convenient ploy of the gunny sack which houses the collective memory of the Shamsi community in East Africa. The gunny sack is bequeathed to the narrator (one eighth African, the remainder Indian) by Ji Bai, one of his old ancestors. It’s difficult to give a description to the relationship between her and the narrator though there is a well spread out family tree in the beginning of the book. But the gunnysack serves the purpose for: “Ji Bai opened a small window into that dark for me. She took me past the overgrowth into the other jungle. And a whole world flew in, a world of my great-grandfather who left India and my great-grandmother who was ‘African, the world of Matamu where India and Africa met and the mixture exploded into the person of my half-caste grandfather Hussein who disappeared into the forest one day and never returned, the world of a changing Africa where Europe and Africa also met and the result was even more explosive, not only in the lives of men but also in the life of the continent.”

Thus we have the adventure and the pathos, the conflicts and the loves of the whole Afro-Asian experience. From Dhanji Govindji, who left Junapur on a bullock cart to Porbander and thence on a dhow to the magic isle of Zanzibar to the narrator’s younger brother who goes away to an American University to research the history of his community.

The backdrop of this tale is the socio-political face of the East African coast, of Zanzibar and Tanganyika over a century. Through a mesh of charming childhood vignettes, we can see the effects on the Asian community of Tanganyika’s independence, riots, rebellion, nationalism and socialism.

The book reaches its most readable part in the predictable but poignant handling of the love affairs between the narrator (Salim) and the African girl Amina.” To have met in the jungle and fallen in love there, among people we did not know, on the banks of a stream, under a tree, how easy it was. No sooner were we back in the city than we started carrying the burdens of our races………. For me, it was simply doing the unthinkable; to be the subject of discussion for anyone in the community, from the precocious ten-year olds to the senile: the children, religion, the differences, it’s not easy, nothing to do with racism, of course……… And what words did Dar (as Salaam) say to her. To have fallen in love with one of the exploiter class, a dukawallah, mere agents of the British, these oily slimy cowardly Asians, what future did they have… the world had so much to offer a bright young African girl.”

The novel is richly peopled with credible characters and there is a story on every page. Told with humour and understanding, the events chase each other and at times they tend to make the plot sag under their weight but then that is an accepted characteristic of the modern novel. The resulting mosaic leaves an unforgettable picture of the life of the Asian community, its practices and prejudices, its inroads into insular character.

Not surprising then that the book is the recipient of the best First Novel for the African region of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize, 1990.