May 27, 2024

Cultural Crossroads: Navigating Faith and Identity in “Nowhere, Exactly.”




M. G Vassanji – Penguin Random House – Mar 26, 2024 | ISBN 9780385696562

Hasnain Walji

M.G. Vassanji’s Nowhere, Exactly masterfully navigates the intricate themes of identity, belonging, and the immigrant experience. Drawing from his personal journey as a Khoja Ismaili Muslim who migrated from Tanzania to study in Canada, Vassanji weaves a compelling narrative that delves into the emotional complexities of leaving one’s birthplace and settling in unfamiliar lands. 

For over three decades, Vassanji has meticulously explored the immigrant experience, diving deeply into his transnational upbringing. He probes questions of belonging with poignant insight: Can we ever truly belong in a new land? Did we ever fully belong in the home we left? The title, Nowhere, Exactly, captures this ambivalence, suggesting that for many, the answer lies in an all elusive middle ground.

Vassanji illuminates his community’s restless, nomadic spirit, tracing the historical journey of the Khoja from Afghanistan to Kutch and Gujarat, just as I did in my 2015 Documentary – The Khojas – A Journey of Faith. Led by Sadr Din, this spiritual migration foreshadowed future physical migrations. Cultural and religious diversity of the Khoja is richly depicted through Vassanji’s memories of his mother narrating tales from the Mahabharata, showcasing the deep intertwining of Hindu and Islamic traditions.

The Khoja Ismaili, with their unique customs and syncretic tradition, stood apart from orthodox practices. Yet, this rich syncretism has gradually eroded in favor of a more ‘pure’ Islamic identity. Vassanji laments this loss, emphasizing the importance of preserving the beauty of Khoja poetry (ginans) and folklore rather than conforming to orthodoxy.

Against a diasporic  backdrop, Vassanji explores the desire of minority communities to find acceptance in modern societies. He cautions against abandoning one’s authentic cultural heritage for borrowed identities that lack deep fulfillment. The gradual replacement of Khoja syncretism with Islamic rhetoric and the loss of Indian roots results in a manufactured identity that overlooks a centuries-old history. 

Vassanji and I share a profound connection to Tanzania, a land that shaped our formative years. As fellow Khojas with ties to India and its centuries-old heritage, our journeys are remarkably aligned. While he found home in Canada and I settled in the U.S., our experiences resonate with one another. We both ended up as authors—Vassanji primarily writes fiction and I write on integrative medicine. Our nuanced religious upbringings—Vassanji’s Khoja Ismaili identity and my Khoja Ithna Asheri identity share a common Satpanthi  heritage that has shaped us both. 

For Vassanji, the trajectory of his Khoja Ismaili identity has been shaped by a sense of loss and longing, a desire to root himself in a rapidly changing world. My approach to the Khoja Ithna Asheri identity is perhaps more evolutionary. I appreciate my syncretic Satpanthi Khoja ancestry, at the same time, I am largely at ease with my current faith identity. However, I do experience some dissonance with the influence of Arab and Persian cultures that seems to pervade my Community,.  Unlike Vassanji, I feel perfectly at home with my identity as an “Asian-African American” in my adopted land, the U.S.

Vassanji’s narrative illustrates a complex struggle between inherited traditions and the demands of new environments. In contrast, I see my journey as one of continuity, honoring both my Khoja heritage and the Ithna Asheri faith. My Khoja heritage serves as a crucible for my faith, providing a vessel to contain it.

Nowhere, Exactly provides a nuanced exploration of belonging that resonates deeply with my experiences. Though our approaches differ, Vassanji’s reflections on faith, identity, and cultural heritage capture the emotions that arise when searching for a sense of home in a changing world. His rich, candid prose invites readers into the poignant world of those searching for a place to call home.

Brilliantly revealing the nuanced tension between belonging and alienation, Vassanji examines the immigrant experience of loss and gain with sensitivity. His superb prose, thoughtful observations, and lifetime of exploration offer a powerful meditation on how the places we live shape us and the weight of nostalgia. As always, anything by Vassanji is a captivating , thought-provoking read.