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M. G. Vassanji's The Gunny Sack: A Reflection on History and the Novel

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 37, Number 3, Fall 1991
pp. 511-518 | 10.1353/mfs.0.0218

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Time hath, my lord,
A wallet at his back,
wherein he puts
Alms for oblivion. . .

—William Shakespeare Trolius and Cressida III:iii [828]

The Gunny Sack is both an old and a contemporary work. It is old in that it presents the causes, processes, and consequences of the historical dispossession and wanderings of a particular community, experiences undergone by groups of humankind, going back to our very beginning; contemporary, not only in that the last decades have witnessed an acceleration of such movements (especially from Africa, Asia, and the Far East, to Europe and to countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States of America: dispossession, exile, and alienation have become motifs, if not themes, in the so-called "new literatures") but also in that the novel implicitly questions the validity and value of what it records and, therefore, itself. The work focuses on four generations, beginning with Dhanji Govindji who left his native India and came to Zanzibar and Tanganika (Tanzania) toward the close of the nineteenth century, and ends with his great grandson Salim (also known as Kala, the narrator) in the basement room of a hotel in the North American continent, toward the close of the twentieth century. If history is a looking back, this structure (of movement from the nineteenth to the twentieth century) also points to the future: "The running must stop now. . . . The cycle of escape and rebirth, uprooting and regeneration. . . . Yes, perhaps here lies redemption, a faith in the future, even if it means for now to embrace the banal present, to pick up the pieces of our wounded selves, our wounded dreams. . . . We had our dreams . . ." (268-269). History must not be permitted to repeat itself: no more escapes, and no more nostalgic "returns" but a working at the present and its potentialities. Does this mean that the past (that is, history—personal, communal, national) is to be forgotten or denied or undervalued? The answer is in the gunny sack.

The history of Asians in East and Southern Africa has been a peculiar one.1 Although geographic proximity had led to an interchange between Africa and India that went back several centuries before Christ, British imperialism both gave it an impetus and, more importantly, changed its nature. British contact with India predated imperialism in Black Africa, and, when the need arose, Britain turned to the subcontinent, bringing over hundreds of people as plantation workers, railway builders, clerks, custom officials, policemen, and soldiers. In the latter categories Asians were thus placed in a position of authority, by a foreign power, over the indigenous majority. Caught between the ruling whites and the black Africans, the Asians stayed together, forming communities which, although the years passed, did not integrate and thus did not lose their distinctive identity. Whether the description of marriage as a double solitude is applicable in all instances, the description indicates that each individual carries a consciousness of him or herself as a solitary being. This awareness of separateness and consequent loneliness is sometimes heightened by a negative group identity. In such instances the individual suffers not only from the loneliness common to all human beings but also from the added consciousness that the group, with which she or he is identified, is looked at askance, perhaps with suspicion, even with contempt and hostility. Such a predicament arises when the group constitutes a small and visually distinct minority, and this has been the situation of Asians in East, Central, and Southern Africa.

The Europeans held political power, the best expanses of land, the raw materials—the major enterprises which imply the possession of or access to considerable finance. The Asians took to trade on a very small scale: itinerant or behind the counter of a little shop; buying and selling; granting or refusing credit. He or she was a foreigner exciting suspicion and, unlike the white man, open to contempt and not outside the reach of resentment. The growing movements for independence saw the Asian community confused and vaguely apprehensive. "By 1939 the Indians' place . . . had become fairly well stabilized, somewhere in the scale of privilege, power, and prestige between the position of the European community at the top...

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