In the opening chapters of M.G. Vassanji's 2003 novel The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, the titular character, Vikram, recounts his childhood growing up in Kenya in the 1950s. Told from the shores of Lake Ontario, an older, exiled Vikram claims to be one of the most corrupt and despised men of Africa, though several decades of Kenya's turbulent history pass before the reasons for this are revealed to the reader. The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, like Vassanji's earlier novels The Gunny Sack, The Book of Secrets and Amriika, shows the difficult position of East African Indians who seek to establish a place for themselves between the native African and colonial British societies. While the novel addresses typically post-colonial themes like alienation, migration and racism, Vassanji always relates these larger themes to personal and universal experiences of love, regret and memory. In doing so, the novel highlights the inextricable connection between the personal and the political.
Structured in four parts over four decades, the novel begins with Queen Elizabeth II's coronation and the uprising of Mau Mau guerilla fighters who challenge British rule. Between these two conflicting powers falls eight-year-old Vikram, whose Punjabi grandfather emigrated from India to build the country's railroad. Kenya's complicated ethnic tensions are represented by the friendships of Vikram and his younger sister Deepa, who spend Saturdays playing with two British children, Bill and Annie, and their African friend, Njoroge. The children's friendships represent a sort of racial harmony and a hope for a new Kenya, before they are brought to a sudden and violent end. By the time the country gains independence in 1963, increasing ethnic violence and attacks have forced the Lall family to leave the town of Nakuru for Nairobi.
The story follows Vikram through his university years and the promising times following Kenyan independence. Vikram and Deepa reconnect with Njoroge after a long separation. Caught up in the hope and optimism for a new Africa, Njoroge and Deepa begin a romantic relationship, despite her parents' disapproval. As the dreams of the 1960s give way to the corruption and repression of later decades, the reasons for Vikram's exile in Canada become increasingly clear. While Vikram is initially coerced into laundering money by his Ministerial boss, his own business dealings become progressively more corrupt due to his own ambiguous morality. Eventually Vikram is used as a political scapegoat and leaves the civil service in disgrace, leading to his exile. Having taken time in Canada to revisit his memories and shame, Vikram returns to Kenya in an attempt to confess his dishonesty, though he is impeded by ongoing corruption.
Born in Kenya, Vassanji himself lived through the Mau Mau uprising as a child. In writing the novel, the author noted his desire to pay tribute to East Africa's Indian population, particularly their contributions to the railroad and the politics of Kenya.
Published by Doubleday, The In-between World of Vikram Lall won the 2003 Scotiabank Giller Prize. With this novel, Vassanji earned the distinction of becoming the first Canadian to win the Prize more than once, having previously won for The Book of Secrets in 1994.