The Assassin's Song
M.G. Vassanji
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Buy *The Assassin's Song* by M.G. Vassanji online

The Assassin's Song
M.G. Vassanji
336 pages
August 2007
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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M. G. Vassanji’s The Assassin's Song introduces the reader to western India during the violence of 2002. Karsan Dargawalla has returned to his homeland after a long exile only to find his entire world has been destroyed. Karsan’s story begins in the 1960s and is interwoven with bits and pieces of the history of medieval India. In 1260 A.D., the mysterious Sufi Nur Fazal appeared in this part of India, and his disciple and interpreter Arjun Dev of Afghanistan created the shrine of Pirbagg.

Although seven hundred years have passed since this time, the shrine continues. Since Karsan’s family is descended from Arjun Dev, his father is the Saheb, and Karsan is the heir to the shrine. However, Karsan does not want to be the Saheb. His only desire is to be “ordinary” like everyone else. Karsan wants to be part of modern India that is changing around him:

“Our sanskriti – our traditional ways – were being corrupted, Pradhan Shastri declared, sitting with my father in the pavilion. He listed the evils that had befallen us, one by one. Films and their loose morality; rock ‘n’ roll, the twist, and Elvis-belvis; immoral books.” (p. 93)
By a strange twist of fate, he applies to Harvard and gets a full scholarship. Despite his father’s objections, he leaves India and travels to Boston to study English literature. Meanwhile, his father increasingly distances himself from Karsan and does not even tell him when his mother dies. In response to his father’s cruelty, Karsan renounces his status as the heir to the shrine. “By this I mean no disrespect to those who believe in it; I accept that to them and to you I have simply lost my way.” (p. 221) He hopes that his younger brother, Mansoor, will become the keeper of the shrine. Eventually, he gets a job at a Vancouver university and marries. When his only child, Julian, is killed in a freak accident, the marriage falls apart. He is left alone and depressed when a telegram from his brother announces his father’s death.

Returning to India, Karsan finds the shrine in ruins. His father has been brutally murdered, and little is left of his past. Mansoor is now a Muslim involved with a terrorist organization. Karsan is forced to face the tragedy of his life and decides to take up his destined role as the keeper of the shrine. He has returned to his roots.

The novel’s hero is faced with an impossible dilemma. How can he fulfill his own desires while fulfilling his destiny as the keeper of the shrine? He realizes this problem early in life:

“An institution does not last seven hundred years without conflict. What these conflicts where perhaps only the Sahebs knew, and so perhaps I would know in due time.” (p. 34)
In rejecting his destiny, Karsan sets in motion the terrible events which lead to the deaths of his mother, his father and his son. When he returns to India, he finally realizes what is important in his life.

M. G. Vassangi’s awards include the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for his first novel, The Gunny Sack, and two Giller Prizes – for The Book of Secrets and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. In The Assassin's Song, he skillfully weaves an intricate tale of the relationships between family members intertwined with historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Complex religious conflicts between Hindus and Muslims provide the background for the exploration of the fundamental question: What is a good life?

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Myra Junyk, 2008

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