Chasing History

An Afro-Indian Canadian searches for the girl he left in Tanzania

The Magic of Saida takes us back to the East Africa of M.G. Vassanji’s earlier work (and Giller wins), after a departure to India with A Place Within: Rediscovering India and his last novel, The Assassin’s Song.

For Vassanji, though, India is never a departure, or rather, being of Indian descent is not, because it is this experience of dual and sometimes dueling heritage that consistently defines his fictional worlds. He marries the two quite explicitly in the creation of Saida’s protagonist, Kamal Punja—a mixed-race man born in the Tanzanian town of Kilwa who has returned from that third realm of influence familiar to Vassanji’s readers, the Canada of his adulthood.

All has presumably not gone well on this visit home, for we first encounter Kamal through the eyes of a publisher who, while visiting a hospital in Dar es Salaam, chances upon a curious patient lying delirious in a hospital bed. Martin Kigoma is positioned as a man in search of stories, but he has presumably been introduced in order to make sense of the ramblings of a man who alleges he has been given hallucinogenic drugs that are making him talk and see things.

And so the story begins. Why has Dr. Punja returned to these parts? What has he seen? He readily admits to Martin that he has come in search of a woman he lost trace of long ago, a childhood love, an African girl who was the granddaughter of the famous Swahili poet Mzee Omari Tamim, a girl named Saida. And has he seen her? Martin asks. About that, Kamal cannot be sure.

In conversation with Martin, Kamal reflects on his childhood in Kilwa. He grew up the son of an African woman descended from slaves, his father, an Indian merchant, having left them to return to India before Kamal can retain any memory of him. This is the first of the many mysteries of Kamal’s origins to unravel in these pages—the history of his father’s family in Tanzania, his father’s return to India, the nature of the union between his parents, the painful discovery of his mother’s descent from slaves.

Kamal’s early life has been marked by the disrupture of his father’s abandonment, leaving him poor and more identified as an African than an Indian. When he is eleven, Kamal’s mother willingly sends him off to live with his father’s relatives in Dar so that he might become Indianized. Kamal is not just separated from his mother and his childhood home, but also from his sweetheart, described rather portentously in press materials and jacket copy as “the mysterious Saida.” In fact, Saida is not particularly mysterious; it is rather that the question of what has happened to her is the mystery that ostensibly propels the story.

We meet Saida as a child, not notably bright or beautiful, a poor student Kamal has been assigned to help study. They share the fairly innocent transgressions of boys and girls in childhood, forming a bond of secrecy and trust. One would think it would be the separation from his mother that ruptures his nascent sense of self, but no, that is handily dealt with; it is Kamal’s early and unfulfilled love for Saida that haunts him, leaving him with such an emptiness that he must return to Kilwa all these years later in search of her. That he was just eleven when they were separated makes the mystery feel like something of a conceit; only much later do we learn that Kamal returns once to Kilwa to see her, just before he is about to depart for medical school in Uganda. She is now married and yet they consummate their love and Kamal promises his return.

Kamal does not return. He meets an Asian medical student who is also from Kilwa and, when she is threatened with deportation from Uganda during Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from the country, marries her and accompanies her to Canada. They live a good middle class life in Edmonton, raising two privileged immigrant children with little interest in their family history. No particular event forces Kamal’s return, just the malaise of later mid-life, the what-ifs.

Saida never comes alive as a girl of special charms or promise, which causes the whole premise of the protagonist’s return to feel more like a contrivance used in order to explore complex and interesting cultural and regional histories. History seems to have increasingly become Vassanji’s preoccupation—always with reference to identity and belonging—particularly the history of the Indian East African who leaves in order to pursue further education and lives out his adult life in Canada or the United States. Vassanji’s own history serves as trajectory.

Vassanji’s interest in historical origins is most explicitly demonstrated by his return to Gujarat in A Place Within, his travelogue about India. Non-fiction gave Vassanji licence to shift frames in a way fiction cannot tolerate without risk of seeming didactic. At moments, Vassanji almost completely abandons fiction in The Magic of Saida in order to catch the reader up with necessary historical context.

And as he commonly does, Vassanji brings in a third realm of influence, the years Kamal has spent in Canada as a doctor, a husband and father, the place from which he departs on an investigative journey home. His Canadian life is only characterized in the broadest strokes, calling into question the need, beyond comment about the complexities of identity, and the guilt about the relative privilege enjoyed by the successful immigrant abroad, for this framework. It is a structure that served Vassanji better in The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, where Vikram’s Canadian life had its own narrative.

There are a number of complexities to this book’s structure that give it “epic” quality. The publisher Martin is less a character in his own right than a rather old-fashioned structural device, a screen onto which Kamal projects his narrative. Much of the story of Kamal’s childhood is taken up with listening in awe to Mzee Omari Tamim’s recitation of his last great poem, an attempt to recount the story of Tanzania in colonial times. We are told repeatedly of the significance of this poem; in fact, we are often told what matters here, which burdens the novel with a weight that feels imposed rather than intrinsic and earned.

There are likewise messages Vassanji repeats throughout the book—about the African complicit in colonial atrocities, about the consumer culture of the West, about the need to tell African stories—that lack subtlety and nuance, which lead the reader to feel Vassanji is saying: if this is the last novel I write, these are the things you must understand. And yes, they are important things to understand, but what Vassanji does not seem to trust is that his reader does understand them.