Monday, October 22, 2012

The Magic of Saida

It's no wonder author M.G. Vassanji has won two Giller prizes.  This is the first book I've read in a long time that really made me think about it (as I continue to do).  The book centres around Kamal Punja, a doctor in Edmonton who was born in the Eastern African coastal town of Kliwa (which is in present-day Tanzania).  He was the product of a Swahili mother and an Indian doctor who abandoned them when he was very young.  All he has of his father is one posed family portrait.  He lives his early childhood with his mother and neighbours as an "African".  In particular he develops a special relationship with Saida.  Two years his junior, she is the daughter of his mother's good friend and the granddaughter of a local poet who records his people's history through his poems.  But when Kamal is a young teenager his mother abruptly decides he must "become Indian" and sends him off to live with his father's cousin and his family in Dar es Salaam.  Though difficult at first, he adjusts to his new life and eventually attends medical school in Uganda, marries another Tanzanian medical student and immigrates to Canada to begin his life as a doctor.  When the book begins his children are grown, he is separated from his wife and has returned to Tanzania to find Saida.  Remarkably he is less inclined to find out what happened to his mother, who he never heard from after his departure to Dar.

But this book is more than the story of Kamal and Saida.  It covers a piece of Tanzania's history, from the arrival of Kamal's Indian great grandfather in the late 1800s, through colonization by Germans then British, to ultimate independence (and Communism).  We see this history both through the eyes of Kamal and his predecessors and through the eyes of Saida's poet grandfather who is eventually destroyed by the secrets he carries from his past (and, in particular, his apparent collaboration with the Germans).  We also see the rise of Idi Amin in Uganda and his expulsion of all Indians from that country.

It's not easy for Kamal to find Saida, her remaining family is clearly withholding vital information from him, and other local players interfere with drugs that wreak havoc on his mind, though he is assisted by a local book publisher who remembers him from school in Dar.  Eventually Saida's story unfolds and Kamal is left to live with the implications of his having left her and broken his promise to return until it was far too late.

Sometimes I found this book a little confusing (I occasionally lost track of minor characters) and it was heavy so I had to put it down now and then, but overall it was a fantastic read.

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