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The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

When I lived in Seattle, I went to a lecture about the Indian diaspora. I actually don’t remember much about the woman who was hosting the lecture, but I’m pretty sure I had met her at an event and she had invited me to come. During her talk, among the many other things she shared, she mentioned a number of novels that captured my attention. After her talk, I went up to her to say hi to her and it was fairly clear she had no memory of meeting me... But despite the awkward interaction, I walked away with a list of books I wanted to read, one of which was the In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vassanji.

Although the book is fictional, the author wrote based on his own personal experience of growing up in Kenya. One of the primary themes is pretty obvious from the title: in-betweenness (something I deeply connect with). Like most third-culture kids, I am stuck floating between two worlds. Having spent my formative years and most of my life in Kenya, I’m not fully American. But I’m not Kenyan either. My identity is somewhere between the two. Vassanji describes his experience of growing up in Kenya during the Mau Mau independence movement. He lived through the history, but he was also somewhat of an outsider.

His grandfather had come to Kenya to build the railway, as many South Asians did during British colonial rule. My favorite moment in the book was his description of riding on what later became known colloquially as the Lunatic Express. As a kid, I grew up riding that same train with my family to the coast on multiple occasions (although many years after this book's time period). When it didn’t break down on the way (which became more and more rare as I grew up), it was the most magical experience.

We’d get on the train in the early evening. Just as we started to get used to the steady movement of the gentle rocking, we would be notified that it was time for dinner and walk down the narrow hall to the dining car. It was a really formal meal and, although I don’t remember details, I always thought of it as very fancy. Back in our rooms after the meal, we would find the top beds folded down and each of them made up with sheets, blankets, and pillows. My family of seven would take up two rooms, with four beds in each. I can still feel the leather of the dark green seats-turned-beds, the crisp white sheets tucked tight into the sides, and the rocking of the train that made it easy to fall asleep. In the morning, the first thing I would do is look out the window to see the changed landscape. The crisp air of Nairobi was now muggy and baobabs and palm trees made up the view. Vassanji’s description of the train made me feel like I was there again! I could tell he had been on that train himself because he captured it so perfectly.

The story overall is really captivating and gives life to history the way a novel should. If you have any interest in history, Kenya, or the idea of being stuck between two worlds, this is a really interesting story!

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