The Persistence of Place and Personality

Reviewed by Dorothy F. Lane

These distinct books—scholarly study and memoir—remarkably share a fascination with place and personality, along with a focus on British imperialism in South Asia and West Africa, and its impact on the construction of boundaries and arbitrary borders within and between communities. Moreover, strikingly, while Eddy Kent’s study of imperial policy and practice in British India is theoretically and critically complex, both it and M.G. Vassanji’s memoir of his travels through his homeland in East Africa weave historical, personal, literary, and political reflections and texts in constructing a multivalent illustration of their subjects. In fact, the identity of these subjects—ostensibly the corporate character of British India and a personal return to East Africa—shifts from chapter to chapter in ways that are sometimes fascinating, and sometimes disjointed or even disappointing.

Eddy Kent’s Corporate Character begins in a promising vein, proposing that Britain’s self-image as benevolent colonizer needs to be examined in the context of the business of colonialism. The increasing emphasis in British imperialism on “honourable and selfless service” resulted in obedient agents; the particular focus in his study on British India results from the East India Company’s unique link to the national interest of Britain; the transition from Company to Crown in the mid-nineteenth century is less significant, to Kent, than the agreement much earlier that “if the national honour was to be salvaged then serious structural reform was necessary” for the Company. The focus on “corporate culture” in an admittedly-anachronistic context—“cultural work and social interaction between individual humans to create the corporate body”—is intriguing, but somehow loses its potency as he draws on “constructivist symbolism” in relating history and fiction. Individual analyses of the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the role of Burke, the educational policies of Macaulay, and the depiction of the British presence through the fiction of writers such as Orwell, Kipling, and Duncan, are less compelling than the seed of corporate culture suggested in the introduction. This book’s most significant contribution is its blurring of often-strict lines drawn between approaches of Company and Crown: the relatively smooth shift from the ideal of corporation as a body sharing fellowship, custom, and interest to the institutions, formal laws, and contracts of the mid to late nineteenth century.

In And Home Was Kariakoo, M.G. Vassanji demonstrates again his skill at drawing connections between seemingly disparate events and people—all while probing the question suggested by the title: “What is home? Is it a concrete, geographical location, or a fictional recreation of the past that can only be glimpsed in the place today?” The book, then, follows his equally complex memoir A Place Within: Rediscovering India, and finds its temporal and geographical setting in a variety of locations. It explores what Vassanji has identified in himself as “fractured being” and “in-between-ness”—a feature he probes in many of his writings.

Vassanji interweaves histories of places and peoples in South Asia, East Africa, and Canada as he does in several of his works, most notably in the novel, The Magic of Saida, in which the primary character—like Vassanji—returns to East Africa. It is a power of place that comes through most effectively, as he traces his journeys through areas colonized by Britain and Germany, and the impact of colonization. Some chapters tell of journeys—helpfully outlined on a map of the region—and their historical background, while others use historical and personal encounters to unravel the connections between past and present, and between distinct communities. The personal accounts of travel through the area are compelling and evocative, describing bus trips with their circuitous routes and mishaps, searches for accommodation and historical monuments, and delightful meals with old and new friends.

The reader will learn much about the colonization and recurring disputes over boundaries and politics, painful divisions between Asian and African communities, often-tragic repercussions of post-independence conflict and involvement in European and American conflicts such as the Cold War. As Vassanji suggests, “the turning-away from Africa by many Asians was not from bitterness, entirely, but also from pain and grief.” Near the end of the book, Vassanji’s chapter subtitled “The Culture of Begging” courageously critiques the persistence of foreign aid and its effects on the morale of Africa and its peoples—the condition of perennial petitioning and receiving from benevolent white saviours, and an erosion of self-sufficiency and mutual respect. His discussion of this sensitive subject is both bold and compassionate. As he states, “African countries need aid, yes, just as many parts of the world do . . . But equally . . . Africa needs to be included in the world community as an equal.”

Finally, then, the reader of both these texts will come away with a new—or renewed—appreciation of the complexity of the British imperialist enterprise, and the people and places that are altered irrevocably and often forgotten in the grand narrative. Buildings, families, villages are affected in ways that we often cannot imagine amidst the construction of roads and railways, establishment of boundaries, transferring of power from one entity to another, and the capital that ultimately drives imperialist initiatives.

This review “The Persistence of Place and Personality” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 164-66.

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