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4.6 out of 5 stars
The In-Between World Of Vikram Lall
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on 8 September 2006
This saga of an Indian family living in Kenya, told by `one of Africa's most corrupt men', sketches the (in)direct implication of its family members in Kenya's history.

The Mau Mau movement of Yomo Kenyatta is fighting against the brutal British occupants (`plucking out eyes with bayonets') in order to free Kenya of its colonial regime.

The Indians in that country constitute an in-between world: `we Asians were special: we were brown, we were few and frightened and we could be threatened with deportation as aliens even if we had been in the country before some African people.'

Some stay neutral, but other chose sides and are directly involved in the committed atrocities.

Vikram Lall's idyllic youth comes brutally to an end with the murder of a white family.

After the black victory, the freedom movement and the Mau Mau are betrayed. `That ours had become a country of ten millionaires and ten million paupers. Those who had collaborated with the colonial police were now in all the high posts and had taken the best land and opportunities. ...If you were connected, through family or communal allegiances, even penniless you were protected and favoured.'

Corruption, blackmail, extortion and intimidation become rampant in order to `buy' cheaply the businesses of `strangers.

Vikram Lall becomes a civil servant overseeing big business contracts ...

This book is also a hymn on green Africa with the all importance of rain and a reminder of India's caste (marriage) and religious problems: `Her soul has flown away, it's only the empty body. She'll come back in a new body. I rather preferred the old body. How would I recognize the new one?'

Vassanji's chronicle is an impressive achievement, but not a `feast' of a book; instead Vikram Lall's world is one of racism, fanaticism, brutal power struggle and blatant corruption.

Not to be missed.
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on 24 September 2015
Loved it. Being a British Asian from Kenya I've lived through this. Vassanji can clearly write better than I can.
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on 22 January 2013
This is a touching and absorbing book, providing insights into the history and culture of Indian folk living in colonial and post-colonial Africa. A good read.
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on 18 December 2009
A very good read marred by printing omissions.

Two chapters missing towards the end.

Very frustrating.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 9 August 2015
An extremely readable work (though I found it dragged a little towards the end, as illegal dealings and fictional meetings with the President occupy the storyline).,Narrated by the eponymous 'hero', who tells us at the outset of his being numbered "one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning."
Two strands run alongside - primarily his earlier life in Kenya, but also his experiences now in Canada.
Vikram Lall starts his account by recalling his childhood in Nairobi, where he and his sister occupy a middle position in society, not quite able to mix with the 'European' elite, yet far above that of the black Kenyans. His playmates include kids of both groups - the white Bruce siblings and Kenyan lad Njoroge, who dreams of Jomo Kenyatta's leading his people to freedom. For this is the terrifying era of the Mau-Mau...
(Incidentally, good though it was, I must take issue with the review by Janette Turner Hospital on inside cover, describing it as "in a category with Tolstoy's 'War and Peace'." That's something of an exaggeration!)
Later on, with Kenyan independence, Lall still finds himself in an in-between world; society has been turned on its head, with the Black population now in charge.
A family saga, an account of how corruption occurs, a story of terrible sadness, set in a country I knew little about.
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on 10 July 2014
This book landed on my 'must read' list the moment I read the excerpt on the back cover that gave a taste of the quality of writing to expect -- the mind-stimulating kind.

From child to adult, we follow second-generation Asian African, Vikram Lall, from Kenya's last days of colonialism through its early years of independence, self-rule and growing pains to today.

Unarguably there's an Indianness at the core of the story -- of being Indian in Africa at a time of great economic, social and political change. But swept up inextricably in the tale of one Indian family, are the hopes of Kenya's disaffected, and the bright-eyed idealism that a better life for everyone was just round the corner; the inevitable disillusionment of realising that such an attainment is impossible in a world driven by politics.

For me, the theme underlying that of Vic's yearning to belong, his grappling to understand the nature of 'belonging' from within the bounds of his transplanted culture, was indeed a political theme. This searching tale reflects what we see everyday in the world: that political power is inherently corrupt and it's merely a matter of which self-interested leaders any given nation prefers at any given time. Change is inevitable. But hope, alas, is not inevitable for everyone.

All in all, Vassanji pens a discerning story with wonderful, imaginative prose, (far too many moments of prime narrative to quote here) and an enlightening account of Kenya's history for anyone not in the know. Baffled as to why this jewel has so few written reviews here.

Click on COMMENT to read excerpt taken from back cover.
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on 14 March 2007
The In Between World of Vikram Lal tells the story of Vikram, an East African Asian growing up in Kenya on the brink of its freedom. The story starts at the end, with Vikram in Canada reflecting on how he became known as the most corrupt man in Africa. But this is not a story of corruption, this is one of belonging, the in between world is one that the Diaspora inhabit. As a child caught up in the dreams of a new country we see Vikram making attempts at feeling an attachment to the land, he wishes that he had Masai family connections so he can feel a tie with the land. In the end though his side is chosen for him, his initial career takes him into politics where the plight of Indians living in Kenya is made clear to him. Here we witness the ugly side of the nationalism of countries in recent recipient of their freedom. We hear of business owned by Indians for generations taken over at a stroke by various politicians, Vikram due to his political connections is spared much of this but in the end after sucking him into their world of corruption the new African elites discard him when it serves them to do so.

Whilst the corruption is never justified by the end of the book we do understand with it and to a certain extent sympathise with Vikram. Vassanji sums of the plight of the East African Indian well, stuck in a country which they helped build (three Indian lives were lost for every mile of railway built) but a country in which they are no longer wanted. The story starts slow but soon becomes impossible to put down as we get ever more involved in the lives of the various characters. Aside from Vikram, we are introduced to Deepa, his sister whose struggle to marry whom she chooses at times threatens to tear her family apart. Mahesh, Vikram's uncle supports the Mau Mau in their fight for freedom with both weapons and money, yet his risks and struggles in the end also amount to nothing as he too is discarded by New Kenya and their lack of regard for the Indians. This a great book to read, and it serves as an excellent counterweight to some of the more nationalistic fiction to have emerged from Kenya, notably that of Ngugi. Yet even as a work of literature in its own right, the In Between World of Vikram Lal stands as a gem of book telling the story of a world that doesn't exist anymore.
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HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 November 2004
Growing up in Nakuru, Kenya, in the 1950s, Vikram Lall and his sister Deepa, the children of Indian merchants, become friends with British children Bill Bruce and his sister Annie, and with Njoroge, a Kikuyu who lives with his grandfather, the family's gardener. While Vic is secretly in love with Annie, Njoroge is secretly in love with Deepa, both childhood relationships ignoring the cultural and color barriers of the times. The Mau Mau, a Kikuyu group dedicated to ridding the country of the British, are on the march, attacking and killing British men, women, and children. To Lall and his friends, who live in an area where violence has not yet struck, however, they are almost mythic creatures, until the violence strikes close to home, and Vic's life and perceptions are altered forever.
Alternating points of view between the present, when Vikram Lall is in his fifties and living outside Toronto, Canada, where he is "numbered one of Africa's most corrupt men," and the early 1950s, when he lived in a diverse Kenyan community, Vassanji shows how the Lalls are doubly alienated, first from their family in India, whose village, thanks to the British Partition of India, is now part of Pakistan, and from the majority population of Kenya. His depiction of the Lall family, the Indian merchant community, and the African community's hostility towards British rule sets the scene for the action during the next forty years.
When Vic, as a young man living in the ultimately independent Kenya, works in the Ministry of Transport and moves up the political ladder, he is powerless to resist orders from his superiors, even though his job is to launder cash coming in as bribes. The story of Jomo Kenyatta and his successors, and the growing corruption which taints their governments--and Vic--becomes increasingly compelling as the stories of Vic, Deepa, and Njoroge continue to intersect and overlap.
Vassanji tells a fully developed saga that stimulates the reader's emotions at the same time that it reflects historical realities, and the plot is filled with the excitement of change along with its problems. Through intense and vividly rendered descriptions, he juxtaposes the natural world against the unnatural violence of the times. Strong love stories, told realistically, run parallel to the action and keep the reader involved on a level beyond that of history and theme, as the characters evolve in response to the changing times. Fascinating and involving on all levels, this novel, winner of Canada's Giller Prize, should win a broad new audience for M. G. Vassanji. Mary Whipple
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on 23 June 2008
Vikram Lall, the narrator of this engrossing story, looks back over the last fifty years of his life. From the safety of his self-imposed exile in Canada, he takes the reader through a selection of pertinent years. The choices are years that were pivotal in his personal life and intimately linked in the historical development of his home country of Kenya. The passage of time allows him to describe the people and events in a dispassionate voice which affects the reader deeply. While not openly self-critical, he paints an honest and detailed portrait of himself. Addressing the reader directly at the outset, he asks us to form our opinion on whether or not his reputation as "one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning" is justified. The result is a multi-layered novel of extraordinary depth, rich with memorable characters, dramatic action and a high level of authenticity in its representation of the environment and the realities of the time. Intimately familiar with cultural context - being from the same ethnic Indian-Kenyan background as his principal characters - as well as the political circumstances, Vassanji has created a panorama that seamlessly merges historical realities with his characters' private dramas in broad, yet precisely placed strokes.

Kenya's struggle for independence from Britain, spearheaded by the Mau Mau movement, brought danger to all ethnic groups. Young Vikram and his sister Deepa, while protected by their caring family, are pulled into the drama when violence hits close to home. The family's store is the centre of their lives: well connected not only within the Asian community, but also with regular British customers. The African Kenyans living around the Asian estate are tolerated rather than respected. Loyalty to the monarchy overrides any concerns about the growing ethnic conflicts. Their grandfather, one of the many Indian labourers brought to East Africa to lay down the railway tracks, had settled in this beautiful and potentially prosperous country. Their father only returned once to the Punjab to find a bride; Vikram never visited the country of his forebears. The children's close circle of friends transcend the racial divisions with British siblings, Bill and Annie, as well as Njoroge, son of the estate's African gardener. Their idyllic life sees the five full of fun and games, emotional ties growing that will influence the rest of their lives. Innocence comes to a sudden end: accusations of murder hit the black neighbourhood. Tensions and suspicions are on the rise. Njoroge goes into hiding after his grandfather is arrested. Having drawn us into the intimacy of his characters' existence, Vassanji's depiction of the events that follow leaves a deep resonance with the reader. Mau Mau rebels, known for their violence against white Kenyans are pursued by British and Kenyan police with equal force. In the hunt for any potential rebels innocent Africans are caught in the net of police brutality. Vassanji brings out the conflict's different perspectives in a fairly neutral way, yet the emotional tensions are palpable under the calm surface of the narrative.

With Independence in 1963, violence and conflict shifted but did not disappear as Kenyans of all ethnic backgrounds had to grapple with old and new challenges. Corruption and nepotism were integral part of the ruling elite which did little to disguise their machinations. While Vassanji's power brokers are fictional characters, some resemblance to the actual political scene is without doubt intended. The Asian Kenyan community has split loyalties: a growing number of them flee Kenya in response to the restrictions imposed on their economic activities and with acts of violence against them increasing. Others, like the Lall family, having always regarded Kenya as their home, take Kenyan nationality and congregate in Nairobi to adjust their life to the new realities. Conflicting emotions and loyalties are tested more than ever. Can Vikram's love for his rebellious uncle Mahesh survive the revelations of earlier acts of betrayal? Restrictive traditional mind-sets clash with the younger generation's ambitions and their determination to overcome racial and cultural differences and stereotypes. In Deepa, Vassanji exemplifies these tensions empathetically. She revolts against her family's and the community's poorly hidden racism, which remains pervasive in all ethnic groups sharing the country. Vikram and Njoroge are each entangled in the web of politics in their own way. Njoroge follows his vision and dreams. Vikram, on the other hand decides to take an easier route, going with the flow of the political system and not taking a stand. In the end, though, he becomes the victim of his inclinations and his hiding in Canada may not be a permanent solution to his circumstances. The author vividly conveys the complexities of that period through Vikram's musing on his actions at the time and his reaffirmation of his own identity and roots.

Vikram's question in the prologue will not be easily answered, yet deserves consideration and reflection. Very few authors, if any, from Vassanji's background or any other, familiar with East African history over the last sixty years, have been able to tackle the fundamental issues of that time with such depth of comprehension and sensitivity for the human tragedies it entailed. Beyond its specific historical and cultural context, Vassanji's novel is one of the most gripping, beautifully rendered story of human strengths and failures, deep emotions, perseverance and resilience. [Friederike Knabe]
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on 26 February 2005
The In-Between World of Vikram Lall is fascinating story about Vikram, an ethnic Indian, as he grapples with the history and cultures in Kenya . Vassanji gives a good depiction of life during colonial Kenya , of how the hero came to lose his innocence as a young child and of how he came to terms with his new life. In the end, Vikram a rich but perplexing character. As someone who has lived in Africa and grappled with the different cultures and histories, I can relate to this story.
Also recommended: The Usurper and Other stories, Kill me quick, Disciples of Fortune, A Blade of Grass
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