Friday, September 24, 2010

The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji

Started the book in 2009. Started again in September 2010 and read it in a week.

I opened the book, read the first chapter and put it away for a year. The last time I read a book to know more about an Indian community, it turned out to be more banal than most, so maybe I was rightfully wary. This Gujarati father-son saga seemed intensely familiar in an uninteresting way.

My father was in the Indian Armed Forces, so we roamed the country as a family, returning every summer to our ancestral village for Vedic discourses in Tamil, comparative Greek and Indian mythology crammers, and visits to a temple where we believed, a stone was growing into an idol of Ganesha. By the age of twelve I had been in twelve schools scattered in different parts of India. I high schooled in Delhi, studied Engineering from Madras, Management in Calcutta, and had worked in Bombay before they became Dilli and Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. My husband’s family suffered in the 1947 partition of India, and that opened a window to another ethos. What more did I need to know, of my land and her contradictions, I must have felt, as I put ‘The Assassin’s Song’ back on my groaning shelf of unread tomes.

How wrong I was!

This book concerns Nur Karsan, first-born son of the Saheb of Pirbaag in Gujarat. Karsan has absorbed much of his father and Pirbaag’s philosophy, which is neither Hindu nor Moslem but a seamless blend of Sufi, Shia and Vedic tenets. He understands and accepts the cult of the Pir Bawa, the central figure of Pirbaag and a thirteenth century mystic refugee from the war-torn lands of the north. But Karsan has no desire to be the guardian of this medieval saint’s spiritual legacy, leave alone become his corporeal stand-in, an avatar like his father. The reluctant heir apparent flees west to America.

Karsan’s story is told in the aftermath of the horrific communal violence that shook Gujarat in 2002. Pirbaag has been destroyed and the Saheb murdered, when at last the prodigal son returns. Despite his earlier repudiation and revolt and his current misgivings, he attempts a rebuilding. He begins a research paper on Pir Bawa and in doing so, delves into his own experience. As the story unfolds, every historical context is examined - from Khilji’s sack of Patan to the callous conduct of the Modi administration, from Hindutva to orthodox Islam, to Sufi mysticism, to amalgams that indeed exist across North India defying attempts at classification, from Mahatma Gandhi to Mohammed Ali Jinnah, from Partition to War. We are thus provided an enormous backdrop not only for Karsan’s journey, but that of the entire people of Gujarat.

Vassanji does not flinch from looking at both sides of any question; at the same time he charges his treatment of personal tragedy with a tender humanity. Through presenting events as experience, he shows to us clearly, how the past shapes the present, and how this affects the individual. It is remarkable too, that the author has made the story of a small-town boy growing up in newly Independent India, his own. In an era where autobiography masquerades as serious fiction, this is great fiction.

The introduction of characters adhering to diverse faiths is rather contrived but it does not jar (curiously there is no Jain character; Jainism is a major religion of Gujarat whose fundamental doctrine of Anekantavada moreover, contains the notion that no single viewpoint is the complete truth). Quibble-wise, I wished elsewhere that the author had been more imaginative in building up to the present vacuum in Karsan’s Canadian way of life, instead of resorting to an obvious plot device that makes for an uneven narrative.

Written in calm prose, abounding in many descriptions of incense-filled musical mornings or balmy moonlit nights, the story nevertheless has a breathless “what next?” quality to it. And the answers are always satisfactory. Vassanji delivers a terrific end, although it’s done too quickly, almost like a dramatic denouement which sits ill with the otherwise wistful, contemplative tone of the novel. But the abiding impression is of a great work, a compassionate and thoughtful response to devastating events.