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Guide to The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by MG Vassanji

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In his fifth novel, Kenya-born Vassanji, who holds the distinction of being the only author to win the prestigious Giller Prize twice, writes eloquently about love, betrayal, politics, and racial tension in his father’s homeland.

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall opens memorably with the fiftyish narrator claiming from his home in Toronto, “I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning.” Vikram Lall is the son of East Indian parents and grows up in Kenya during the fifties and sixties. After his early admission of guilt, the novel goes backward in time to follow his life as he moves from innocent boyhood to a corrupt money-launderer, during a time of violence and political turmoil.

Vikram Lall and his sister Deepa befriend Bill Bruce and his sister Annie, as well as Njoroge, who lives with his grandfather, the Lall’s gardener. Although neither love is meant to be, Vic is secretly in love with Annie, and Njoroge harbours the same feelings for Deepa.

At this early stage in his life, readers see most clearly Vikram’s separation from both cultures. He can’t help thinking that both Bill and Njoroge¬† “were genuine, in their very different ways; only I, who stood in the middle, Vikram Lall, cherished son of an Indian grocer, sounded false to myself, rang hollow like a bad penny.”

Alienated from his family in India and also from the majority of Kenyans, Vikram does what he must to fit in and to ensure his family’s survival in the corrupt and morally ambiguous new Kenya. Often powerless in his supporting role to those more powerful than himself, he becomes a cold and calculating facilitator who lies and swindles to help others get what they want. Regardless of this dark side, he is a sympathetic character, and readers will learn much about the personal and political climate of the time.

Questions

  1. The novel has three powerful epigraphs. What is the significance of each quotation in relation to the story?
  2. Although Vikram Lall is a self-avowed monster with reptilian cunning, most readers find him a sympathetic character despite any unconscionable acts. What is it that makes him sympathetic?
  3. Is it true that Vic is only a pawn in a larger game? Is he victim or victimizer?
  4. If the novel is the narrator’s attempt to confess and right his wrongs, how well does he succeed?
  5. When Vic participates in a ritualistic pact with Njoroge, he drives a secret wedge between himself and his family. What, if any, long-term emotional consequences does this have, and how do they contribute to the formation of his character?
  6. What is Deepa’s role in the story? Would the story have been much different if Njoroge had been in love with someone other than Vikram’s sister?
  7. Should Njoroge have fought harder to stay with Deepa? Why didn’t he?
  8. Alienation and exclusion feature significantly in the novel. Why?
  9. Are there any racial, social, or political comparisons to be drawn in the narrative linking of Canada and Kenya, and if so, what are they?
  10. If Kenya held great promise in the sixties, so did Vikram. At what point in the story might he have made a different decision that would have changed his course and left him with less to regret?
  11. What weakness in himself allowed him to be drawn into the world of power-mongering and corruption?
  12. How satisfying did you find the ending of the novel?

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