Reclaiming the family heritage
In The Assassin's Song, M.G. Vassanji has created a stunning portrait of a man struggling with the burdens and the joys of filial and religious obligation. It is the mid-1960s in northern India, and Karsan Dargawalla is destined to succeed his father as the avatar of Pirbaag, the shrine of a 13th-century Sufi mystic. Hoping for a regular life unencumbered by spiritual demands, Karsan secretly applies to colleges in America. He is accepted by Harvard and moves to Cambridge, leaving his family bewildered and broken-hearted by his choice. He pursues an academic career, marries and settles in Canada, but as the years pass, he can never quite escape the pull of his religious duties and the shame of his father's disappointment. After personal misfortune, Karsan becomes disturbed by news of increasing religious violence near the shrine and returns to India to discover what, if anything, remains for him there. The complexities of Karsan's spiritual and emotional life play out against India's religious and political tensions of the last four decades. Though Sufism is a Muslim tradition, the shrine under the Dargawalla's care is a place of worship for both Hindus and Muslims. Karsan was raised in an atmosphere of religious tolerance, and this acceptance provided the Dargawallas temporary protection from the violent Nationalist outbreaks in their village. By the early 21st century, however, the shrine is no longer safe from religious rioting. Karsan returns to India to find the shrine destroyed and his younger brother, now a practicing Muslim, wanted for questioning by the police. As Karsan learns more about the family he left behind as a teenager, he begins to piece together a life for himself among the shards of the fractured sanctuary and come to terms with his own existence. Born in Tanzania to Indian parents and currently living in Toronto, Vassanji is the author of five previous books and has twice won Canada's prestigious Giller Prize. The Assassin's Song, which beautifully renders the struggle between the spiritual and the secular with nuance and skill, is bound to broaden his readership and bring him increased critical attention.