The Telegraph
Friday , December 7 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
CIMA Gallary


By M.G. Vassanji, Penguin, Rs 499

Martin Kigoma, a Tanzania-based publisher, comes across a delirious patient at a hospital in Dar es Salaam in East Africa. Among other ghastly things, he has been raving about a girl with a bizarre name, Kinjikitilé. Kigoma feels drawn to this man, and goes to meet him. And this is where the saga takes off.

The man who is apparently in his sixties is called Kamal Punja. But, Kigoma observes, his Indian name is belied by his African appearance. He had a long and prosperous career as a physician in Edmonton, Canada. After 35 years this man comes back to his native African village, Kilwa, which is an ancient settlement off the East African coast. And the purpose of his visit — his ‘mission’ to be precise — is to find out the girl he loved in his childhood. Her name is Kinjikitilé — the name of an evil spirit that is believed to be haunting the village — alias Saida.

Kamal, the son of an Indian father and an African mother, of slave descent, was abandoned by his father in his childhood. He and Saida grew up together and their mothers were “like sisters”. Saida was a fatherless child, and Kamal was appointed as her tutor. The former was Kamal’s alter ego and everybody knew they loved each other. But then, suddenly, Kamal’s mother, Hamida, decided to send him to Dar es Salaam to get acquainted with his Indian lineage, and further his prospects of becoming a doctor. Kamal left Saida and his village, Kilwa. When he came back after seven years, Saida was already married to a Mganga. The Mgangas were an awe-inspiring community of sorcerers and soothsayers among the Swahilis. Kamal met Saida, and their passionate love broke all bounds. However, that had fatal consequences for Saida.

Kamal left Kilwa for the second time. This time he headed for Kampala in Uganda where he got engaged to Shamim. For the next 35 years of his flourishing career, he did not remember Saida even once. But one day, suddenly, the memories came surging back, as if with a vengeance. With an excruciating sense of guilt he came back to a vastly changed Kilwa, and began a hunt for his lost love. Does he get to meet Saida? He does, but not in the manner in which he would have desired, or even imagined. He does not know if the meeting is a reality or an illusion, nor is he sure if there exists any distinction between the two.

This is M.G. Vassanji’s seventh novel — like his own life, career and earlier novels, this one too is intercontinental. This novel deals with the subject of migration and questions it. But migration here is as much transcontinental as trans-subjective, for, at a deeper level, the novel is about love and loss. One cannot be certain whether it is the loss of a love, or the love of a loss that haunts and plagues Kamal. For Saida is so much a part of his childhood memory that she is a part of his own self whom he, to use Julia Kristeva’s words, ‘abjects’ in order to be. An abjected object is such an object of desire which the subject abjures, and then yearns for. It represents a projective, trans-subjective self, and accounts for an inveterate sense of loss entwined with the subjecthood itself, which Kristeva calls the crisis of narcissism. Rainer Maria Rilke wonders in the third set of his Duino Elegies, “And you yourself, how could you know — that you/ stirred up primordial time in your lover”.

The “primordial time” which Saida stirs up in Kamal is caught up with his own past, with the past of his family and community, and with the colonial past of Kilwa which saw the brutalities of German colonialists, who publicly hanged rebels, including Kamal’s grandfather, from a mango tree. Akilimali, a Mganga of Kilwa while looking into poet-historian Mzee Omari’s death, warns “The past is a dangerous business”. True, but then, this danger has a seductive charm, and besides, man simply cannot exist in Bergsonian ‘pure’ time unscarred by memory.

Vassanji’s novel is framed in the form of an interview which discreetly mingles narrative voices. The temporalities have been cleverly deconstructed with various patterns and degrees of analepses. These come mainly through Kamal’s reminiscences of his childhood, his reading of his grandfather’s diary, and of course, his dazed recollection of him being drugged. The past, or pasts, thus reconstructed has or have some missing fragments, and some not quite falling into places. But then, that is the magic of Saida, or of the past. Friedrich von Schlegel once said, “A historian is a prophet in the reverse”. Vassanji, telling Kamal’s story, ‘prophesies’ a past which is almost like magic or a tragic vision.