M. G. Vassanji’s last novel was titled The In-between World of Vikram Lall; his new work The Assassin’s Song could just as well be titled The In-between World of Karsan Dargawalla. Vassanji’s domain is the third space — the territory that refuses to accept Manichean classifications of here or there — and the protagonist of his new novel is a man who fits no convenient, conventional box. Neither Muslim nor Hindu yet of both religions, Karsan Dargawalla is the heir to Pirbaag, a Shrine to a Sufi mystic worshipped by the followers of both religions. Karsan, as the elder son, is to be custodian at Pirbaag after his father; no other future can be imagined for the “Gaadi-varas” — successor and avatar of the keeper of the shrine.
But Karsan’s in-betweenness, while originating in his religious inheritance, underlies his entire life. On the one hand is the pull of tradition and faith, and his filial devotion, on the other the push of his own intellectual curiosity and adventurous spirit. An unexpected opportunity for escape from his destiny however arrives in an acceptance letter from Harvard, where Karsan gets a full scholarship.
At the start of the novel, Karsan has just returned from North America to visit his former home. It is the year 2002, and the Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat that killed over a thousand people have also destroyed Pirbaag. Karsan’s father is dead, the Dargawallas’ neutrality in religion having provided no escape when rioters stormed the shrine, and Karsan’s younger brother has consequently embraced a militant form of Islam and gone into hiding. As Karsan considers the implications of his repudiation of his birthright, he recalls his childhood in 1960s India, and the sequence of events that ultimately led him to value intellect over faith.
Vassanji has the uncanny ability to isolate the one or two telling details in a scene which capture the entire drama and weight of the story. He pares away the superfluous — not one word is unnecessary in this novel — to reveal the emotional core of his characters; his restrained style is thus intensely intimate and moving. I lay awake at night pondering Karsan’s struggle to choose between duty and knowledge, between worldliness and divinity, and the way things might have been different but for chance. This book achieves a melancholic, haunting loveliness all its own. I’ve read several novels in the recent past that are beautifully crafted, but The Assassin’s Song is a much rarer find — a thing of beauty, birthed from the union of compassion and wondrous artistry. This novel appeals as much to the mystic as the aesthete in us: Vassanji’s words are equally prayer and poetry.
This review was written for the Asian Review of Books. I’m also counting it as my third book of the Canadian Book Challenge.