Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Assassin's Song

The Assassin's Song is a novel by M. G. Vassanji, published in 2007 by Doubleday Canada. It is the story of a young Indian boy (Karsan Dargawalla) whose dream is to escape his family's religious legacy. He wants to be ordinary: to go to school, play cricket, talk to girls, and make his own choices. He tries to escape by traveling to the United States for college (at Harvard) and eventually settling in Canada (in B.C.). The novel also contains the in-depth narrative of his ancient forebear.

It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Award, and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.

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MG Vassanji is one of the unsung greats of African literature. An Ismaili Muslim of Gujarati heritage, born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, he attended the University of Nairobi before winning a scholarship to MIT to study nuclear physics. In 1978 he moved to Canada to work at the Ontario nuclear research facility. He began his literary career two years later. So far, his writing has focused on the experience of south Asians in east Africa. This mainly merchant community has been around since the 1850s, but trade has existed between the two continents since at least the 13th century. It was a Gujarati sea pilot who led Vasco da Gama from Kenya to India in 1498.

This long history gives Vassanji's fiction a fascinating depth of field. In The Gunny Sack, published in 1989, a Tanzanian Asian is bequeathed a sack full of ancient mementos, which provokes a gallery of stories. The book won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize. A stream of novels has since followed, most recently The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (2004), which tells the story of a young Indian who grows up in Mau Mau Kenya and then moves to Toronto, where he is numbered "one of Africa's most corrupt men". Typically, Vassanji's books dramatise the doubly alienated plight of the east African Asian (alienated from both Africa and India). To this has gradually been added description of Asian experience in Canada and the United States.

His work shares some aspects with north America-based Indian writers such as Rohinton Mistry and Bharati Mukherjee. It also bears comparison with the "British wing" of the Indian/Pakistani diaspora, from Salman Rushdie to rising stars such as Tahmima Anam and Nikita Lalwani. But Vassanji's writing is closest to the knotted postcolonial experience described, albeit in very different ways, by Caribbean Asian writers such as VS Naipaul and David Dabydeen. In much postcolonial writing, cultural identity is presented as fluid but also recursive to heritage, as if one could only tell one's own story by knowing the skin of one's neighbour. With his new novel, The Assassin's Song, Vassanji has met this issue of difference-based self-labelling head on.

The main cultural background of the novel involves the history of Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat. The story takes the reader from a 13th-century village there to the United States in the 1960s and Canada in the 1980s. We move back to Gujarat in 2002, when brutal Hindu-Muslim riots took place. After Kashmir, Gujarat remains the most communally sensitive region in India, as witnessed by a resurgence of violence there last month.

The narrator Karsan's father is the saheb of Pirbaag, lord and keeper of an ancient Sufi shrine in Gujarat. His village home is overlooked by the mausoleum of the mystic Pir Bawa, around whose magical activities the shrine came into being in 1260. Although the teenage Karsan wishes the distinction would simply go away - he just wants to play cricket - he must succeed his father.

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M G Vassanji has spent his career in fiction writing about characters caught between worlds. Born in 1950 in Kenya to Indian parents, he grew up in Tanzania and later moved to Canada, where he worked as a theoretical physicist.

His first novel, The Gunny Sack (1989), explored the history of an East African Asian family; his later work follows the lives of similar families who have migrated on to North America.
The Assassin's Song deals with related themes in a different way. It is set mainly in India, from where the narrator, Karsan Dargawalla, moves to North America.

This experience is complicated by a powerful inheritance. Karsan was born in the remote village of Haripir in Gujarat. His father is the "saheb - the lord and keeper" of the Shrine of the Wanderer, a title that has been passed down dozens of generations.

The early chapters relate the history of the shrine. Sometime in the mid-13th century, a Sufi named Nur Fazal arrived at the court of the Hindu king of Delhi, and explained his creed: "There is but one Truth, one Universal Soul, of which we are all manifestations and whose mystery can be approached in diverse ways." The king was impressed and offered him a place at court. But soon enough Nur Fazal succumbed to temptation and slept with a courtesan.

He left the court in deep shame; but, in a pattern that is repeated later in the novel, his original sin led to repentance and greater spiritual worth. Eventually he found "a peaceful, welcoming place where he chose to settle"; after his death, his grave, tended by Karsan's ancestors, became a site of veneration for both Muslims and Hindus.

Karsan's early-1960s childhood is similar to that of other boys in the village: he is obsessed with cricket and excited by the space race. But he and his family also live in the "unthreatening world of the spirit", protecting the shrine of the Sufi and the miraculously burning lamp that symbolises his divine energy.

The needy seek out Karsan's father, whom they regard as an almost godly figure; Karsan himself comes to realise that he is expected to inherit this status, as his father inherited it before him.

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At the heart of M.G. Vassanji's sixth novel, The Assassin's Song, is an exercise in perspective. Definitions of right and wrong, truth and deception, the chosen and outcast – especially in matters having to do with religion – all depend on who's asking and who's answering.

Intertwining a 700-year-old family epic with a mystical mystery, Vassanji (two-time winner of Canada's prestigious Giller Prize for "The Book of Secrets" and "The In-Between World of Vikram Lall") crafts an intense and haunting work of fiction.

In 1960s India, young Karsan Dargawalla wants nothing more than "to be simply one among many, an ordinary mortal" – to go to school, play cricket, talk to girls, and make his own choices.

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I've just finished his latest novel The Assassin's Song, which is the first of his books to be set principally in India (though its protagonist spends more than 30 years in the US in an attempt to cut himself off from his roots). Unlike The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which had a chronological narrative, this one moves around in time. The novel’s present is 2002, which is when the narrator, Karsan Dargawalla, returns to the village of his childhood following the terrible communal riots in Gujarat, but we are also taken as far back as the early 1960s when Karsan, still a child but heir to the Pirbaag shrine in Gujarat, begins to grasp his responsibilities as Lord and Keeper of the shrine after his father (therefore, an avatar of God).

Growing up, he struggles with this burden of divinity. After losing the opportunity to be coached by a former first-class cricketer because his position as the “gaadi-varas” must come first, it’s understandable that he is deeply affected by the Biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Almighty: glumly, he refuses to participate in a wishing ritual because “Isaac didn’t matter. He couldn't wish for anything.” Karsan’s parents are constant reminders of the path he is expected to follow, but other adult figures play equally important, and perhaps longer-lasting, roles: the companionable truck driver who brings him stacks of newspapers and magazines, a constant flow of news about the outside world; a Christian teacher with African antecedents, whom Karsan briefly hero-worships; an agent of the National Patriotic Youth Party, obsessed with restoring the glories, real and imagined, of the Vedic Civilization. Here as in his other novels, Vassanji is a wonderfully perceptive chronicler of how childhood events and impressions can continue to influence character long after they have been forgotten at a conscious level.

More than halfway through the book comes Karsan’s big decision to go to the US to study at Harvard on a scholarship, effectively turning his back on his parents and the Pirbaag shrine. Tellingly, his life in America – including college, a decade spent as a family man living in an idyllic suburb, followed by tragedy and a subsequent hermitlike existence – takes less than 100 pages to get through: the effect here is akin to the story about Vishnu instructing Narada in the ways of Maya/illusion through a firsthand experience of the impermanence of the material world. Eventually Karsan does return to fulfil his spiritual calling, but there is no easy resolution, or even a sense of a story coming full circle.

Among other things, The Assassin’s Song is about the danger of taking a neutral position in a world that demands certainties. The faith followed by Karsan’s family, the keepers of the Pir’s flame, is neither Hindu nor Muslim, but this doesn’t count for much in the heat of communal riots, when convenient labels have to be put on everything. And the friction between Karsan and his younger brother Mansoor (who has become an orthodox Muslim and is wanted by police for questioning) recalls a similar clash of ideologies between two brothers in Kiran Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier, but the lines are not as clearly drawn in this case. (The Assassin’s Song is sparer and more compact in every way than Nagarkar’s opus, which it resembles in places.)

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