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A Place Within

Cover of A Place Within

A Place Within

Rediscovering India
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A Globe and Mail Best Book

It would take many lifetimes, it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. The desperation must have shown on my face to absorb and digest all I possibly could. This was not something I had articulated or resolved; and yet I recall an anxiety as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.

I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the homeland of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness; such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who've forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out? What was India to me?

The inimitable M.G. Vassanji turns his eye to India, the homeland of his ancestors, in this powerfully moving tale of family and country. Part travelogue, part history, A Place Within is M.G. Vassanji's intelligent and beautifully written journey to explore where he belongs.

From the Hardcover edition.

A Globe and Mail Best Book

It would take many lifetimes, it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. The desperation must have shown on my face to absorb and digest all I possibly could. This was not something I had articulated or resolved; and yet I recall an anxiety as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.

I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the homeland of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness; such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who've forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out? What was India to me?

The inimitable M.G. Vassanji turns his eye to India, the homeland of his ancestors, in this powerfully moving tale of family and country. Part travelogue, part history, A Place Within is M.G. Vassanji's intelligent and beautifully written journey to explore where he belongs.

From the Hardcover edition.

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  • Introduction

    It would take many lifetimes, it was said to me during my first visit, to see all of India. It was January 1993. The desperation must have shown on my face to take in all I possibly could. This was not something I had articulated or resolved, and yet I recall an anxiety as I travelled the length and breadth of the country, senses raw to every new experience, that even in the distraction of a blink I might miss something profoundly significant.

    I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the birthplace of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness, such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who've forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out?

    What was India to me? I must put this in the past, because by now I have returned many times and my relationship to the country has evolved. Ever since that first visit, there has been the irrepressible urge to describe my experience of India; yet in spite of copious notes this was not easy, because that experience was deeply subjective, my India was essentially my own creation, what I put of myself in it. I grew up in Dar es Salaam, on the coast of East Africa; the memory and sight of that city, of that continent, evoke in me a deep nostalgia and love of place. India, on the other hand, seemed to do something to the soul; give it a certain ease, a sense of homecoming, quite another kind of nostalgia. During each visit I sought it more, as intensely as ever. There was no satisfaction.

    I recall my maternal grandmother relating how one day as a child back in Gujarat in India she was lost, having gone out with her sister to bring home water. I also recall not paying any particular attention to this story set in a foreign land as it was being told to my elder siblings, who sat on the floor around her. But I seem to have paid more attention than I thought I did, for I always carried a picture of two Indian girls sitting under a tree in an open land, waiting to be rescued. And that was all there was to the story: getting lost and rescued somewhere in India.

    The East African countries became independent from Britain in the early 1960s. But by then to my generation and in my community of people, our spiritual home, so we naively thought, was already England. We believed we could shed our ancestral connections for a thin veneer of colonialness, an ersatz sophistication. And so we chose to imagine India as poor, backward, and laughable -- the past. It seems evident now that all that laughing and jeering was at ourselves, our colonial, racial insecurity; we were both the clown and its audience. It did not take long to be disillusioned.

    There were always stories about India. One of them concerned my orphaned father, who apparently was something of a wanderer as a young man. All his travels were within the territory of East Africa, but once, according to my mother, he took it upon himself to board a ship bound from Mombasa to Bombay, without papers or much money. When he reached the great city, he was not allowed to disembark. He returned disappointed. I always imagine him watching Bombay wistfully through the portholes of that ship, until it finally turned around and crossed the Indian Ocean back to Africa. Another Bombay story, and repeated more often for its comic value, involved one of my uncles, my mother's older brother, so excessively pious as to be considered nicely crazy. Apparently he reached Bombay and disembarked, but upon seeing the extreme poverty in evidence, he returned home...

About the Author-
  • M.G. Vassanji is the author of the acclaimed novels The Assassin's Song, shortlisted for the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction, The Gunny Sack, which won a regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize, No New Land, and Amriika. He has twice been awarded the Giller Prize, for his novels The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. Vassanji lives in Toronto.

Reviews-
  • The Globe and Mail

    "Strikingly written ...beautifully observed, filled with myths, stories, legends, history, journal entries, and family narratives. It is an expertly stitched collage and, as much as it reveals about India, it is a great portrait of Vassanji himself.... Wonderful."

  • Vancouver Sun "Vassanji brings a gifted storyteller's eye to A Place Within, drawing entertainingly on extensive journals he kept on his Indian excursions.... He captures both the spiritual and the uglier sides of India, all the raw fundamentals of life there, but he always leads with what he sees as India's 'essential quality of tolerance and flexibility,' and the overwhelming pull of ancestry."
  • London Free Press "A striking and rich melange of impression and experience, of the enchantments and disappointments of such an arduous and long-awaited pilgrimage."
  • Edmonton Journal "A lovely, deeply personal book -- one entirely worthy of one of Canada's top-shelf talents."
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