Cover image for The gunny sack
The gunny sack
Vassanji, M. G. (Moyez G.)
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford ; Portsmouth, N.H., USA : Heinemann, [1989]

Physical Description:
vii, 276 pages ; 20 cm.
General Note:
Format :


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FICTION Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Salim Juma, a Tanzanian Asian and great grandson of an African slave, is bequeathed a gunny sack by his mystical grand-aunt. It is an ancient sack full of mementos which unravel a gallery of characters. This book was a Commonwealth Writer's Prize winner.

Author Notes

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania. Before coming to Canada in 1978, he attended M.I.T., and later was writer in residence at the University of Iowa. Vassanji is the author of four acclaimed novels: The Gunny Sack (1989), which won a regional Commonwealth Prize; No New Land (1991); The Book of Secrets (1994), which won the very first Giller Prize; and Amriika (1999). He was awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize in 1994 in recognition of his achievement in and contribution to the world of letters, and was in the same year chosen as one of twelve Canadians on Maclean’s Honour Roll.

Reviews 1

Library Journal Review

This first novel by a Nairobi-born writer raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania celebrates the spirit of Asian pioneers, Muslims from India who moved to East Africa in the early 1900s. Living under German colonial rule, the family of Dhanji Govindji become permanent residents of Africa while witnessing historical events that result in the birth of African nationalism. Vassanji has created a family memoir, a coming-of-age story that looks at the past with affection and understanding. He shows that the hopes and dreams of Indian immigrants were essentially the same as those of Europeans who passed through Ellis Island: education for their children and a more prosperous future for the next generation.-- Dean Willms, Fort Collins P.L., Col. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



SHEHRBANOO Memory, Ji Bai would say, is this old sack here, this poor dear that nobody has any use for any more. Stroking the sagging brown shape with affection she would drag it closer, to sit at her feet like a favourite child. In would plunge her hand through the gaping hole of a mouth, and she would rummage inside. Now you feel this thing here, you fondle that one, you bring out this naughty little nut and everything else in it rearranges itself. Out would come from the dusty depths some knickknack of yesteryear: a bead necklace shorn of its polish; a rolled-up torn photograph; a cowrie shell; a brass incense holder; a Swahili cap so softened by age that it folded neatly into a small square; a broken rosary tied up crudely to save the remaining beads; a bloodstained muslin shirt; a little book. There were three books in that old gunny that never left her bedside, four-by-six-inch, green, tablet-like, the front cover folding over into a flap fastened with a tiny padlock! On the cover of each, neatly carved, two faded inscriptions in gold, wriggling in opposite directions: one in an Arabic-looking hand, the other indecipherable, supposedly in a secret script. "He who opens it will suffer the consequences," she, who did not read, would gravely pronounce to her awed listener. We buried Ji Bai a few weeks ago on a cold November afternoon . . . From near and far, young and old, they came to see her go, in this small overseas community. Not that many here knew her or had even heard of her; she was only passing through, a traveller. But they would go away the wiser, about her and themselves and the common links between them. Such are the merits of a funeral. The converted supermarket was half full. The old, the exiled old, sitting on chairs on one side, visible but unobtrusive, outwardly implacable and unperturbed, watching the funeral ceremony proceeding with clockwork precision in the hands of the Westernised funeral committee. What thoughts behind those stony masks? The rest of the congregation, the younger members, sat on the floor, facing the ceremony. With practised precision, with appropriate gravity of speech and bearing, the head of the committee led formations of select relatives and friends to partake in the more intimate rituals. She lay inside a raised open coffin, a younger, doll-like Ji Bai, face flushed pink but hideous and grim. What have they done to you, Ji Bai? Someone had taken the pains to iron out every wrinkle on her face, to clean out the grey, to stretch the skin taut like a cellophane wrapper. Once, when time was plenty and the hourglass slow, every man, woman and child present would come and kneel before the dead and beg forgiveness and pay their last respects. Now, in collective homage the congregation filed past the pink face in the coffin; the women took their seats, the men formed two closely spaced rows. A sob stifled, a wail choked (practised wailers, some of these), the coffin was closed. "Stand back," said the leader, gruffly. "Stand back!" "Praise the Prophet!" The coffin was slowly if shakily lifted on to the shoulders of the male relatives and the committee members. Then it took purchase and at shoulder height bobbed away easily like a boat in a slight current, between the two rows of males, as anyone who could gave it a shoulder or even a slight shove on its way to be rolled into the black funeral car outside. An older, experienced voice, rich with feeling, took away the chant: There is none but Him There is none but Him There is none but Him --and Muhammad is His Prophet . . . (Once, a rickety yellow and green truck with men sitting on both sides of the coffin at the back chanting the shahada, at the sight of which pedestrians would stop and fold their hands in respect.) Afterwards, I watched from a distance the last clod of earth thrown perfunctorily on the grave, the last of the congregation -- how can I call them mourners? -- leave. Someone made a gesture in my direction but then thought the better of it. I was left alone. Trees rustled in the wind, dead leaves scraped the ground. In the distance another burial was in progress, this one more opulent, its mourners in black, with bigger and better wreaths, bigger and better cars. Traffic zipped along the highway. What cold comfort, Ji Bai, I thought. Even worms couldn't survive in such a grave. I had a vision of her small frail body under six feet of cold earth that would soon freeze. I could see the body shrink, under icy pressure, the skin dry and peel off and fly away like a kite, the skeleton rattle and fold and rearrange itself to form a neat square heap like the firewood that was once sold outside her store in Dar. A week later Aziz her grand nephew stumbled in to see me with a large blue vinyl suitcase. "With the compliments of Ji Bai!" he announced cheerfully. "What? A suitcase?" A vinyl legacy from a vinyl-faced Ji Bai? No . . . The twinkle in his eyes recalled the mischief in Ji Bai's, as with a flourish he proceeded to lay it on its side, and like a salesman swung it open as if to display its capacity and interior. A ball of kapok glided out and sailed away. "The gunny sack," he spoke, the same instant I saw it, brown and dusty, looking threatened and helpless in the brand-new interior. It was drawn loosely shut with a sisal string. "You used to sit before it so long, she thought it should be yours." "Isn't it rightfully yours?" I asked. "No. It's yours. She wanted you to have it." "Come, come . . . what if she had died there? Would you have posted it?" "But she died here." Young Aziz, he knew more than he let on. He was Ji Bai's companion during the last few years of her life. She had said she would travel, and Aziz accompanied her, first to India then here. Wherever she went, her gunny went with her. Did she know she would die in this foreign place, then? With Ji Bai there was no telling. He said, "If my family had had their way they would have burnt it long ago. It's brought nothing but bad luck, they say. They want you to burn it, once and for all to bury the past." "And you -- do you want me to burn it?" "Look at it first -- it's what she wanted, after all. Then, maybe burn it. To tell you the truth, I almost burnt it instead of bringing it here." From the Trade Paperback edition. Excerpted from The Gunny Sack by M. G. Vassanji, M.G. Vassanji All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.