Friday, July 27, 2012

The Assassin's Song by MG Vassangi

The Assassin's Song (Doubleday 2007) is enjoyable, educational and thought-provoking. This novel starts off slow and builds. Early on, I was bogged down by the foreign words the author chose not to italicize. These required effort, but they also added atmosphere; once I got used to them, the story flowed.

Karsan, the protagonist, grows up in the small town of Haripir in Gujarat, India. He is expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, the Saheb, hereditary keeper of the shrine of a (fictitious) Sufi mystic who came from Iran in the middle ages.

With his parents and little brother Mansour, Karsan lives at the shrine and mausoleum of Nur Fazal, the refugee mystic who died in Haripir after a long life of spiritual service. Just as Nur Fazal did, Karsan's father encourages the local people to practice their different religions freely and without friction. More than once, the Saheb defuses conflicts and prevents them from escalating.

But Karsan has other ideas than becoming a Saheb, a god-like figure. On the other hand, his Dad, more concerned with spiritual matters than worldly ones, refuses to let Karsan go to the next town to play cricket. He complies in spite of his disappointment.

But when he earns a chance to study at Harvard on a scholarship, he defies his father and leaves for the US.  He does not believe in his status as a hereditary spiritual keeper of the shrine, and though he respects his father, he rejects his religious destiny. He creates a new life in North America, far from his place of origin.

But life has a way of circling back upon itself. A chance visit to a church basement on Kingsway in Vancouver brings a surprise and evokes memories. Riots tear apart his home state in India, and his father the Saheb is unable to defuse the violence in Haripir.

Returning after long absence, Karsan seeks to discover the fate of his mother and father, and is disturbed when he meets the man his brother Mansour has become. His visit evokes shock, fear, grief and guilt, as well as the need to make decisions. Destiny also brings an ally who helps him come to terms with his past.

MG Vassanji deftly moves his readers from India to New York to Winnipeg to Vancouver. The reader glimpses the history of India, including the painful religious conflicts that led to partition, the spiritual ideals of Sufi mysticism, and much more.

Most of all, through the sympathetic and well-drawn character of Karsan, this story portrays the powerful tensions between tradition and modernity, individuality and family duty, self-determinism and fate.

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