With his previous book, The Assassin’s Song, Vassanji chose an Indian setting for the first time, giving us the story of the keeper of a Sufi shrine in the wake of the Gujarat violence of 2002. Now A Place Within, Vassanji’s memoir of his travels within India over the last two decades, considerably extends and deepens his engagement with the country of his ancestors. One could say that Vassanji has taken the usual questions that inform his novelistic practice, and turned them upon himself to ask: Where do I come from? What meaning does the past of my community hold for me in an increasingly rootless world, and what are my own responsibilities towards that past? This question also has a political valency because historically Vassanji’s people, the Ismaili Khoja community of Gujarat, were practitioners of an “odd, syncretistic faith,” combining elements of Hinduism and Islam. Vassanji’s meditation on questions of identity and Indianness through the linked channels of history, travel, and self makes for a strikingly alert and controlled narrative.
The highlight of A Place Within is a long section on Delhi – really the many Delhis of history founded by a series of dynasties, each one replacing but not quite erasing the other. Some of Vassanji’s legwork will come as a surprise to even those who have lived in that city, like myself, and thought they know it quite well. Vassanji shows how, for the longest time, Delhi was a city moving ever northward, from the Qutb Minar of Qutbuddin Aibak to the Lal Qila and Jama Masjid of Aurangzeb, till after Independence and the inflow of Partition refugees the process was reversed and it has begun to expand southwards again, “towards the oldest Delhis and beyond.”
Whether quoting from the imperial historians Amir Khusrau, Alberuni, and Zia Barni, journeying to distant, unpromising Tughlakabad, or ferreting for Mirza Ghalib’s house in Old Delhi, Vassanji is consistently interesting. Some of his thinking about the role of place in human experience is aimed towards the foreignness of what we easily assume to be familiar. “It is always instructive,” he writes, “to remind oneself of the obvious fact: The boundaries and names of many places are only recent in origin and often hide richer, more complex truths than one might imagine; the past then becomes inconvenient and slippery, far less easy to generalise.” This idea of burrowing beneath the surface of the world’s present face, along with a related desire for the redrawing or rediscovery of the self, might be of thought of as the fundamental impulses of travel writing, and both are present in Vassanji’s work. “I have always felt a sense of wonderful elation while travelling in India,” he writes. “It has helped that I remain, and indeed feel, communally anonymous and ambiguous, identifiable only by that cipher of my very Gujarati last name.” Elsewhere he writes, “It’s only oneself one ever discovers.”
Especially noteworthy is Vassanji’s refusal to shirk the difficult questions of history: the fact that the Indian past is not just one of a fabled tolerance that might serve as a beacon for present-day discontents and that is codified in the idealism of our Constitution, but also of considerable hatred and violence. “No one who reads accounts of the early Muslim historians of India would fail to feel uneasy at the bigotry and the arrogance they reveal among the ruling classes and in the behaviour of the sultans,” he writes. “They remind us, let’s be honest, of Muslim fanatics of today. [...] Surely we must acknowledge this past, which casts a shadow upon our lives even today, when a politican can invoke it to create discord and mayhem in the nation. Surely we must ask if we can turn away from those aspects of it that disturb us while allowing others to move us. We must come to terms with it.” On the subject of the riots following the destruction of the Babri Masjid that broke out in India while he was visiting, he writes, “I could not accept India’s embrace and turn away from the violence. It must in some way be a part of me.”
While Delhi is a city that celebrates its great history, Vassanji finds no such consciousness in Ahmedabad, a city older than present-day Old Delhi, but one that seems “uneasy with time and history.” Vassanji’s search in Gujarat for the shrines and settlements of his ancestors, the Khojas, and for the icons and religious songs (or ginans) taught to him in the small Khoja redoubt of his African childhood, yields a section as moving and as beautiful as any of the great narratives of spiritual seeking in our literature. This even though the author acknowledges that he is “a rationalized being who is acquainted with spiritual longing but cannot yield to it”, cannot cajole and implore and supplicate before God as so many do. “At any dargah, a shrine of this kind,” writes, “and even at a temple before a priest, I cannot but help but allow in me a solemn feeling, some respect and humility, for I stand alongside others in a symbolic place that it some manner reflects human existence and frailty, or smallness and exaltedness, and our striving for understanding.”
Roving beyond the usual roll-call of tourist destinations, Vassanji discovers at many religious sites, even in communally sensitive Gujarat, “a certain laissez faire in matters of the spirit” that seems to be on the retreat. If he resists the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim”, he writes, it is not because they don’t have an element of truth, but rather because they are “too exacting, too excluding”, and they mask the extent to which the past is a foreign country. But how can one avoid these terms when they are such an essential part of our conceptual vocabulary? Vassanji chooses to remain a dissenter, and explains the various implications of his position:
I have already said that I find the labels “Hindu” and “Muslim” discomforting, because they are so exclusive. [...] I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction of “Hindu” and “Muslim” only in context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence.At the same time, Vassanji casts an astringent eye on both the excesses of Hindu chauvinism and the tendency of Indian Muslims – in Vassanji’s view one is that is disabling as much as enabling – to adopt “a primary identity defined by faith, in a unity (the ‘umma’) that transcends political, cultural, and ethnic boundaries.”
So deep is the suspicion when one talks of conflict, that one has to state over and over that to describe the murder of a Muslim here is not to deny, let alone justify, the murder of a Hindu elsewhere, that a fanatic group does not represent an entire people, and there is no entire people, Hindu or Muslim anyway. Attempts to create them, of course, have always been there.
Narrated in the distinctive cadences of a novelist in possession of a secure and cogent style, and animated by a love of both language and place and a powerful appetite for the mystery and fugacity of the past, this book about coming home to India cannot but make a richer person of every Indian reader.
Here are some other essays on books on India: Pankaj Mishra's Butter Chicken in Ludhiana; Harsh Mander's book on the Gujarat violence of 2002 and its aftermath, Fear and Forgiveness; and Ashis Nandy's Talking India. And here are two long interviews with Ramachandra Guha and Christopher Kremmer.