Friday, April 19, 2013

The Assassin's Song by M. G. Vassanji

Where should the bird fly after the last sky – Mahmoud Darwish

M. G. Vassanji is a known name in the genre of postcolonial writings who has dealt with demanding affiliations that manifest themselves at emotional, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, or political levels. In The Assassin’s Song, he places his protagonist in the context of harrowing identity investigation and a constant flux of experiences and values. As a Canadian writer with roots in what the West chooses to call the Third World, one notices in Vassanji’s works a striking preoccupation with shifting boundaries, his protagonist caught in the in-between world, and confused at the very premise of what to assert his belongingness to. In this quest, his narratives plunge into an investigation of the past, because it is from those nether lands of time that one snatches elements to complete the mosaic of his identity.

One way to look at The Assassin’s Song is as a bildungsroman narrative. It is essentially the story of Karsan Dargawalla, so is the son to the guardian of a Sufi shrine in Gujarat, called Pirbag, and is also its heir apparent. He is poised to take over his father’s role as ‘Saheb’ or ‘Lord’ of the shrine. The story traces Karsan’s struggle to come to terms with this pre-ordained fate of his. Like any other child, he has his interest zones – cricket being mentioned as one. However, the words of Providence come sealed in iron for him, and he is forced into reconciliation with his future as the Saheb, also in the face of a difficult relationship with his distant father. Karsan breaks free from his restricted, stifled existence at Pirbag when he receives an offer to study at Harvard.

Karsan finds himself enjoying the new life in a new land, where he is given a greater chance to discover himself, his interests. It is also in this new life that he develops a different and closer relationship with his father through numerous epistolary exchanges. He discusses Keats with his father, who sends caveats enclosed in envelopes for him. In a sense, it makes one feel, as if the son is trying to expose to his father the vast expanse of unexplored land around, and the father is trying to rein the child within the secular, secure and sacred confines of the domestic space.

Karsan emerges in the novel as the figure of a wanderer – much like Nur Fazal, his divine ancestor was. Also in the wandering spirit, one can see the autobiographical imprints of Vassanji, who has also located and relocated, from Kenya, finally living in Toronto. In the image of Karsan, thus, one can see the personal conflicts faced by most native as well as diasporic members of postcolonial societies. Thus, woven into the fabric of Karsan’s personal struggles for identity are universal echoes emerging from postcolonial sites.

Among other things, The Assassin’s Song is about the danger of taking a neutral position in a world that demands certainties. The faith followed by Karsan’s family, the keepers of the Pir’s flame, is neither Hindu nor Muslim, but this doesn’t count for much in the heat of communal riots, when convenient labels have to be put on everything. The Assassin’s Song, in more ways than one, comes out as a novel which is fiercely secular, but not secular in isolation. What the novel does beautifully is to problematize the neutrality of someone who does not align himself to any one religion. The narrative puts to test the idealism ensconced in the notion of secularism by holding it as a source of conflict in the mind of Karsan when it comes to surviving in a world so vehemently bent upon demarcating itself into cocoons of narrow sectarian identities. Vassanji, an Ismaili Muslim, here draws on his own experience of belonging to a small religious community.

This bildungsroman story culminates in Karsan’s return. He comes back to that very place, and perhaps that very fate which he had desired so much to evade. In a sense, the novel reveals that all freedom is illusory. Even while travelling beyond his native realms, he was, somewhere deep down, the heir of Pirbag, the one entrusted to carry forward the secular legacy of Nur Fazal. After the devastation wrecked by clash of faiths, Karsan returns to his domain – the place which was his – and it is with ease peppered with slight anxiety that he takes on the role of the next Sahab of the shrine.

In this end, Vassanji doesn't tell us what to believe; he merely shows us the various stages of a person's exploration of self. At the conclusion, though the prodigal son returns, there is no sense of finality that a reader may get after journeying through various geographical and psychological terrains with Karsan. It can perhaps be said that exploration of self is a continuous process. Identity evolves with experiences. It is not to be found at the place of one’s beginnings, but can often be located in a faraway land, where distances come to signify affiliations in a stronger manner. Often, identity demands acceptance. Karsan’s moment of greatest disillusionment came, perhaps, when he discovered that the eternal lamp illuminating Nur Fazal’s dargah was not a manifestation of miracles, but a fraud of sorts in which his mother was complicit. But later, Karsan understands the necessity of miracles to sustain faith. To conclude, a quote from the first chapter would be apt, where words and sentences combine to give a sense of what form would Karsan’s quest for identity acquire as the novel proceeds.
“That is the important question I had to learn. What lies beyond the sky? What do you see when you remove this dark speckled blanket covering our heads? Nothing? But what is nothing?”
The author

Verdict? Very strongly recommended. Never did this before, but this novel takes 5 on 5 stars. 

(The above article is an exerpt from a paper I wrote in college, as a part of my course on Postcolonial Literature)

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