Pointless to approach Amriika expecting astonishing feats of linguistic jugglery, then, or quasi-Rushdiesque musings on exile and the old homestead. Vassanji is understated, almost bald in his insistence that he tell a tale and nothing but the tale. So you, the reader, almost miss the stunning audacity with which he's selected the backdrop to Amriika-the US of A in its most colourful decade, the '60s, seen as the title genially indicates, from an outsider's perspective.
The US university campus where I spent six years of my life was home to several relics of the '60s, people who were lucky enough to have taken that magical mystery tour, unlucky enough to have lasted through the relatively bland decades that followed it. Some, who had spent much of those 10 years imbibing Timothy Leary's philosophy along with other proscribed substances, subscribed to the popular dictum: "If you can remember the '60s, you weren't there." Others remembered it in technicolour, the images of student unrest and revolution in the air etched with a cocaine clarity.
Vassanji's protagonist, Ramji, arrives in America/Amriika at the cusp of the '60s and the '70s. But the '60s are already part of his mythology in the same way as the old folk hymns of India, transplanted by his family to Dar es Salaam. "America. Elvis. Yes, that was the first revelation from an alien world, before there was even a picture of America in the head. Jailhouse Rock, and parents complaining of uncontrollable kids jumping on beds and chairs when it was played on the weekly request programme in Dar es Salaam; and they had it banned!.... But much more than that, more than Elvis-Kennedy. Ich bin ein Berliner, we all knew that much German; and America was saving the world from godlessness." There was, even before Ramji touches down, the dark side: "Blackboard jungle, cement jungle, neon jungle..." and the jungles, actual and moral, of Vietnam.
Other things Ramji will discover later: that he's in a "marketplace of ideas", a "home for heresies", a sense of the weight of history, the sticky benediction of sex, campus protests, betrayal, false gurus, the shooting at Kent State University. Vassanji allows Ramji to speak sometimes in first person, moving back to the third so that we retain a detached view of a protagonist who seems to be almost an extension of the author. Amriika is not perhaps autobiographical, but it carries the unmistakable stamp of personal involvement.
It would be unfair to give away the storyline, which takes Ramji all the way from America in the '60s to 1994-1995. The introductory chapter is preceded by a Whitman quote: "Now I face home again, very pleas'd and joyous/(But where is what I started for so long ago?/And why is it yet unfound?)." Whitman underlines the paradox of searching for beginnings-once you've found them, you're back where you started, a truth even more important for Ramji, whose migration and mixed allegiances mirror the sojournings of his family from one continent to another. The first section, stretching almost halfway across the book and embracing in its ample span just two years, 1968-70, is buttressed by Joseph Conrad on youth and all its deceptive promise. These are the years when Ramji will meet several of the people who are important to him-Sona, his politically astute friend, the enigmatic friend and mentor Mr Darcy, the fierce activist Lucy-Anne Miller.
The second section has an equally apposite quote: "What revels are in hand?" from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream. Impelled by Vassanji's sense for the importance of timing in revelation, we are now in 1993. Ramji's marriage is creaking at the seams, from indifference rather than hostility. A reunion with old friends will revive old irritations and passions, with inevitably disagreeable consequences.
It remains only for other buried ghosts to heave themselves up and walk again in the fourth section, as the impassioned student protests of the '60s yield to the more convoluted fundamentalisms of rightwing groups and isolated, disaffected individuals. "The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses," says the Dostoevsky quote that precedes this section.
Ultimately, Ramji-and by extension, Vassanji-retains both reader interest and sympathy. He still reaches for a peace that's out of his grasp: "In that phrase 'Please forgive me' lies my salvation." Through the journeys he's made, he's transmuted the exotic, overfamiliar world of the America of the '60s into the far more personal, far less simple, Amriika of the title. And we realise, as Vassanji does, that while America might be the promised land, it's Amriika that is worth the visit.