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Authors: M.G. Vassanji

No New Land

BOOK: No New Land

No New Land
, like Nino Ricci’s
Lives of the Saints
and Sky Lee’s
Disappearing Moon Café
, redefines and extends our sense of the possibilities, not of multicultural literature in Canada, but of Canadian writing
tout court

Books in Canada

“A poignant story of the immigrant experience.… Vassanji has provided an absorbing snapshot of our often vulnerable neighbors.”

– Montreal

“[Vassanji] writes in an inviting, straightforward style laced with humour.… ”

Vancouver Sun

No New Land
creates a rich portrait of a transplanted community.”

Calgary Herald

No New Land
, with quiet humor and wisdom, gives deep insight into the strains and promises of immigration.”

World Literature Today


The Gunny Sack

No New Land

Uhuru Street
(short stories, 1992)

The Book of Secrets


The In-Between World of Vikram Lall

When She Was Queen
(short stories, 2005)

The Assassin’s Song

A Place Wthin
(non-fiction, 2008)

Copyright © 1991 by M. G. Vassanji

First published in trade paperback with flaps 1991
Published in B-format paperback 1994
Trade paperback edition first published 1997

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Vassanji, M. G.
No new land / M. G. Vassanji.

eISBN: 978-1-55199-707-0
I. Title.
6 2003    
6 2003

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

This is a work of fiction. The community described, and the characters in it, are fictitious, as are the events of the story. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.


McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street
Toronto, Ontario


For Anil –
who doesn’t remember -
and in memory of Auntie


You tell yourself I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea,
To a city lovelier far than this.…

There’s no new land, my friend, no
New sea; for the city will follow you,
In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly.…

“The City” by C.P. Cavafy, translated by

Lawrence Durrell in

What are houses like in Amarapur?
Walls of gold, pillars of silver
and floors that smell of musk.

– Old Gujarati hymn


I owe no small debt of gratitude to the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa for its genii-like generosity. I thank Francis, Ahmed, Esmail, Christine, and Simon for inspiration, encouragement, sharing a world.

The Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council, and the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism have been generous throughout stages of this book.

To Nurjehan, constant companion and patient critic, my appreciation, which is so little a return. Finally, thanks to my editor, Ellen Seligman, for her thoroughness and understanding.

The (Kierkegaard) quotation on
this page
is from
Kierkegaard’s Thoughts
, by Gregor Malantschuk, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, 1971.


Rosecliffe Park Drive runs its entire short length in a curve, along the edge of a rather scenic portion of the Don Valley. It looks over dense woods which give the valley its many moods and colours; in the distance, from among the trees, rises a lone enigmatic smoke-stack, its activity sporadic and always surprising; a solitary road drops partway down the valley, turns sharply, abruptly ends. A golf course, which appears mostly deserted on the opposite side, lends its simple geometry to the landscape. And down at the bottom, the Don Valley Parkway winds its way hurriedly to the city, which from this vantage point is represented
by the single needle-jab into the sky of the CN Tower. On the side facing the valley the drive itself is lined by apartment buildings identified only by their numbers – the famed “Sixty-five,” “Sixty-seven,” “Sixty-nine,” and “Seventy-one” of Rosecliffe Park – whose renown, because of their inhabitants’ connections, reaches well beyond this suburban community, fuelling dreams of emigration in friends and relatives abroad. These buildings, when new and modern the pride of Rosecliffe Park – itself once a symbol of a burgeoning Toronto – now look faded and grey, turning away sullenly from the picturesque scenery behind them to the drab reality in front. Barely maintained, they exist in a state just this side of dissolution.

One result of this neglect is that the residents of Sixty-nine Rosecliffe Park Drive are in constant and futile battle against their three elevators. In the late afternoon the confrontation peaks, as residents returning from daily chores pack the lobby and eye with distrust the metal doors in a face-off between man and machine which the latter always wins.

To the people crowding the lobby, waiting anxiously for this reckless and unreliable transportation, it sometimes seems that, against the laws of nature, these elevators go up more times than they go down. Every arriving individual, despairing at the size of the growing crowd, feels compelled to have at least one go at the buttons, both the “up” and the “down.” And when one of these donkeys, as these machines are also called, arrives, the doors slide
open in a sudden motion that is almost a shouted jeer, and the passengers rush in without priority of age, gender, or time of wait, squeezing in regardless of the weight limit.

In the home of the Lalanis in Sixty-nine, two catastrophes struck on the same day, one more serious than the other. Fatima Lalani was standing squeezed into an elevator on her way up to receive the tidings which she did not as yet know were bad. Her mother Zera had phoned her at the drugstore, where she worked after school, to tell her “it” had arrived, meaning the long-awaited letter from the university, and Fatima took off. In the elevator, although she greeted two small boys and threw a brief but disdainful glare at some of the more ordinary-looking people returning from work bearing parcels of groceries, she was as nervous as she had ever been in her life. It seemed to her that when she opened the envelope which was waiting for her, her entire life would be decided. It did not occur to her that the decision she awaited had already been made a few days before, and she whispered a prayer in much the same way her mother sometimes did; although she had never believed in, in fact had begun to scoff at, the efficacy of this remedy, and her mother was the last role model she had in mind.

Fatima was a tall wiry girl of seventeen. Only the plump ruddy cheeks that stubbornly survived even a near-starvation diet gave evidence of the once chubbiest, and considered healthiest, baby in Dar, the town in East Africa where she was born. It is part
of the recent folklore at Sixty-nine that in Canada even the children of pygmies grow up to be six-footers. And good-looking, too. As if to bear this out, Fatima towered over her parents, and in the elevator only one man was as tall as she. She was dressed in designer blue jeans and a stylishly oversized khaki shirt, and her hair was tied in two little clumps by means of bright red clips, enhancing the babyish cheeks.

When the elevator stopped on her floor, two people had to get out to make way, and a pregnant woman with a baby carriage had to squeeze inside further before Fatima could push herself out. Then, with a swing of her shoulders and a shake of her head, as if to banish the odours of cheap perfume and sweat and groceries, she strode off to her apartment. When she let herself in, her mother was waiting like an attendant, envelope in hand. Fatima grabbed it, tore it open, quickly read the gist, and slumped down on the sofa with a loud groan.

“What’s it?” asked Zera, her mother, having guessed the answer.

“Arts and Science,” spoke Fatima in a mixture of grief and anger tinged with drama.

“So? This is the end of the world then? Arts and Science – what’s wrong with it?”

Fatima sulked, picking up the telephone and cradling it in her lap. During the last year, whenever any well-wisher asked her what she wanted to “become,” she had given one unequivocal reply: “Become rich.” To many of the girls and boys of Sixty-nine and
Sixty-seven and the other high-rise apartment buildings in this part of Don Mills, this is what growing up meant – making it. To the brighter ones, those with averages in the eighties and nineties, making it meant going to university: not to study pure science or humanities, but something more tangible, with “scope,” computer science or pharmacy for instance. For the girls, the latter of the two was preferable. It was more feminine, less threatening to the boys. Among the brighter girls of Don Mills the competition for a place to study pharmacy at the university is intense. Fatima Lalani, with an average of eighty-six, had struck out.

To Zera Lalani, of the old school, any education was a way out, a way up, and her daughter’s disappointment carried no significance beyond her having to put up with a bout of adolescent sulkiness. Zera was in her forties and rather plain, with a round face, long hair tied behind with a black ribbon, a short body with signs of recently put-on weight. As she watched her daughter, both feet up on the sofa, making cautious inquiries over the phone about the fates of her several friends and numerous acquaintances, Zera had another reason to be depressed. A little before Fatima arrived the phone had rung. Someone with a familiar voice she couldn’t place at the time told her that Nurdin would be late.

She had been feeling a little uneasy the past few days. A premonition. She sometimes got them, she believed in them. It was about Nurdin. Recently he had started arriving late from work, bringing with
him grocery items, proof of the shopping that had delayed him. But it was simply not like him to take such an initiative, go off shopping on his own. She felt he was changing. She did not like change. And this evening when she opened the apartment door, she had been hit with an oppressive feeling, a heaviness in the chest, breathlessness without exertion. The premonition. Then the phone call. Better if it had not come. If it was cheap vegetables at Kensington Market that had delayed her husband, the phone call would not have been necessary. Something had happened.

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