Poisoned and hallucinating, a Canadian doctor lies in a hospital in the remote town of Kilwa in Tanzania. A stranger happens to hear a few brief details of the man’s outrageous story, and decides to introduce himself to this doctor with an Indian name – Kamal Punja – but an African appearance. From that chance encounter unravels a fantastical tale that covers multiple generations and continents … and begs an answer to the question, “Do you believe in magic?”
Kamal is the only child of an African woman whose Indian husband disappeared from their lives. His favorite childhood playmate is a young girl named Saida whose ancestors include a poet and warrior, a traitor and patriot in whose lives reflect the violent, tumultuous history of a repeatedly colonized land. At 11, Kamal is suddenly, wrenchingly separated from his mother and everything familiar when he’s sent to live with a paternal uncle in the capital city of Dar es Salaam. There he learns to be Indian first, eliding his African origins. That he never forgives his mother for what he considers betrayal and abandonment remains a disturbing, haunting element throughout.
Kamal grows into an educated young man of relative privilege, sent to university in neighboring Uganda, and yet he never loses sight of Saida’s presence so far away, certain that they will one day be united. Caught in the latest political upheavals overtaking his country and continent, Kamal lands in Canada where he becomes a successful doctor. Now solidly in middle age with a highly successful practice, married with two grown (completely Westernized) children, Kamal’s longing for his past brings him ‘home’ to Kilwa, desperately in search of answers about his beloved Saida.
M.G. Vassanji, who has twice won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize (the inaugural 1994 award for The Book of Secrets, and again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall – my personal favorite), surely draws on personal experience: born in Africa of Indian descent and Canada-domiciled, “If pressed, Vassanji considers himself African Asian Canadian,” his biography states on his personal website. “[A]ttempts to pigeonhole him along communal (religious) or other lines, however, he considers narrow-minded, malicious, and oppressive,” his biography also warns!
As much as Saida is a sweeping epic, it also proves to be a clever allegory of returning to the past to catch a glimpse of alternate versions of the present: had Kamal stayed in Kilwa, he could have been Lateef; had he pursued a literary degree, he could have been Martin; had he been trapped in some sort of colonial service, he could have been Markham; had he chosen to become a local doctor, he could have been (the ironically named) Dr. Engineer. The many ‘what-if’s of his life beg the ultimate question, who might have Saida been had she lived the life Kamal once promised her …?
Tidbit: If you’ve read The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, you might be struck by some uncanny similarities – I certainly was! Saida is the better-written novel; Heartbeats arrived Stateside last year with a decade-plus of international bestseller status … choices, choices.