(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In an introductory note, M. G. Vassanji establishes that the individual named in the title, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, will serve as the first-person narrator; Lall's disclosures about his past cast doubts on his reliability from the outset. Lall openly admits that he has been called one of the most corrupt men in Africa. Now secluded in a remote Canadian village, he feels compelled to tell his story.

Lall begins by describing his childhood as a third-generation East Indian in Kenya. He then relates how, as a young man, he rose in the bureaucracy once Kenya gained its independence from Great Britain in 1963. In this role, Lall points out in an offhand manner, he gained a dubious distinction: “To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country's treasury in recent years. I head my country's List of Shame.” In spite of his reputation, he insists that he is “quite an ordinary man.” That this self-portrayal turns out to be true saves the autobiographical account from turning into a self-serving justification of the protagonist's actions. Instead, Vassanji employs Lall's even-tempered voice to develop the persistent themes of postcolonial writing in original, inventive ways and to weave them into a spirited and well-textured narrative that lends reality to the past in a faraway land.

Part 1, “The Year of Our Loves and Friendships,” contains a tenderly drawn chronicle of an African childhood. Numerous novels have addressed the Indian diaspora, which has scattered millions from India around the world, but the earlier books are set in England, the West Indies, the United States, or Canada. As Lall recalls growing up in a small Kenyan town, he captures the innocence of children, the security of the extended Indian family, and the undisturbed routine of daily life in the Lall household and grocery store.

Looking back from the perspective of adulthood, Lall realizes that turmoil lay beneath the surface of the contentment that he enjoyed in those days and longs for in his exile. Then he did not grasp the racism that controlled colonial society, and he failed to comprehend the immorality of the colonial project as carried out by the British Empire. Nor did he hear the rumblings of the independence movement that often turned violent, both in the hands of those fighting the Empire and those guarding it.

Lall recounts the friendship that he and his sister, Deepa, developed with the African boy Njoroge and the two Europeans, William and Annie. As the four played together in the area in front of the Indian-owned shopping center, they remained unaware of the divisions that race would make in their lives once they reached maturity. The racial paradigm was simple: The Indians felt superior to the native Africans but were considered inferior to the Europeans, who accepted their top rank without question. These subtle forces play out dramatically as Lall's story unfolds.

In the naïveté of childhood, Lall does not challenge Britain's economic domination of the far-flung colony but thinks of himself as a Kenyan who is privileged to be a citizen of the Empire. His mother, who grew up in India, longs in her imagination for the land to which she will never return. In contrast, Lall's father was born in Kenya, the son of an emigrant who had come to Africa to work on the railroads. A devoted Anglophile and a faithful colonial, he admires all things British, even permitting this fondness to dictate what he stocks in his store and the way he fawns over his European customers. He rebukes his wife's brother, Maheesh, for criticizing British exploitation of the colony's resources and for supporting the native Kenyans in their rebellion against foreign rule.

The guerrilla movement known as the Mau Mau figures into the narrative at this point. In the 1950's, when insurrection was on the rise in Africa, the Mau Mau gained international attention—justified or not—as a barbarous band of killers who had returned to the savagery of Africans before the British brought them enlightenment. According to...

(The entire section is 1659 words.)