The Assassin’s Song: M.G. Vassanji

“I often wished my distinction would simply go away, that I would wake up one morning and it wouldn’t be there. I did not want to be God, or His trustee, or His avatar—the distinctions often blurred in the realm of the mystical that was my inheritance. Growing up in the village all I wanted to be was ordinary, my ambition, like many of another boy, was to play cricket and break the world batting record for my country. But I had been chosen.”

Karsan Dargawallah’s family have been keepers of Pirbaag—a shrine to a Sufi saint in Haripir, a village in the Indian state of Gujarat—for generations, a tradition passed down from father to oldest son. They identify themselves as neither Hindu nor Muslim, and the shrine is open to people of all faiths.

Karsan’s father, the Saheb, is well-respected in his community as someone who can heal, both literally and also through his wisdom. It is understood that Karsan will eventually take his father’s place. But he just wants to be like the other boys: he wants to play cricket, flirt with girls and look forward to a future that isn’t already mapped out for him.

Karsan is good both at his studies and at cricket. He gets a chance to play professional cricket, but his father forbids it. Feeling trapped, Karsan applies to Harvard without telling his parents, and much to his surprise, he is accepted on a full scholarship. His father is not happy but there is not a lot he can do except make Karsan promise to return once his studies are over.  

That is not really part of Karsan’s plan. The father tries everything to bring him back: when he writes to tell Karsan that his beloved mother was dying, he encloses a one-way ticket. Karsan’s requests for a return ticket are ignored. Furious at being manipulated, he does not go. He eventually writes his father a letter, renouncing his status as keeper of Pirbaag. But this has a price: “I realized only gradually that I had in effect banished myself from home.”

But things eventually come full circle, and it takes tragedies—in Canada, where he had made his home, and in Pirbaag—to bring Karsan home. Will he be able to pick up the pieces, to restore the shrine that was destroyed in communal riots?

An Assassin’s Song tells the story not only of a young man trying to understand who is he is, but also of a country going through its own soul-searching. In 1962, Indians’ belief in themselves and in their country was shaken when the Chinese attacked on the northern border. Forty years later, the communal riots in Gujarat struck at the heart of India’s foundational principle of secularism.

In this book, M.G. Vassanji combines history—including through the life of the 13th century Sufi saint—and discussions of faith and identity. The book ends on a note of hope, however hard-won, for religious tolerance, something that cannot be reiterated often enough.

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