How often does a reader have the chance to glimpse a writer’s mind at work? M.G. Vassanji allows just that and more in A Place Within, an intensely personal meditation on history and identity that acts as a companion to his 2007 novel, The Assassin’s Song.
Vassanji has always carried a deep-seated nostalgia for his childhood in Dar Es Salaam, but not for India – the home of his grandparents and great-grandparents. That changed when he made his first trip to his ancestral homeland in January 1993, at a time when Hindu-Muslim riots were plaguing parts of the country. A chance airline strike forced him to crisscross India by train, a journey marked by both euphoria and outright fear, which awakened in him an attachment to a place that was strikingly familiar and strange, one that would draw him back again and again.
Organized geographically rather than chronologically, A Place Within meanders through byways and villages, verandas and shrines. Vassanji tours sites – literary, historical, and spiritual – that are holy to him, his obsession with history reflecting “the deep dissatisfaction of unfinished, incomplete migrations.” He is simultaneously an insider and an outsider; his Gujarati, Kutchi, and makeshift Hindi had all been learned in East Africa. The friends he makes at writers’ conferences become his guides, in one case arranging a meeting with a hate-filled riot instigator involved in the horrific violence in Gujarat in 2002.
These assignations are what prevent A Place Within from getting lost in nostalgia (although India often reminds Vassanji of Dar Es Salaam and Toronto). Vassanji is not just a wayward tourist, but is bent on deciphering how his own community – the Khojas from Gujarat, with their centuries-old belief system that blends Sufi Islam and Vaishnavite Hinduism – can continue to exist in a world of increasingly rigid separate ethnic identities. Vissanji himself avoids self-idenification.
A Place Within is a charming love letter written with empathy and not with finger-wagging.