M.G. Vassanji

(Jump down to read a review of The In-Between World of Vikram Lall)

"The Assassin's Song"

(Reviewed by Poornima Apte SEP 20, 2007)

There is a certain lingering sense of melancholy to much of M. G. Vassanji’s writing. In his earlier The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, he painted a nuanced portrait of a young boy growing up in Kenya with violence simmering around him.

Vassanji’s latest novel, The Assassin’s Song, is a coming-of-age story of Karsan Dargawalla in Gujarat state in India, a boy who wants nothing more than to play cricket and be normal. He is however, the “gaadi varas,” the chosen successor to Pirbaag shrine where he will soon dispense blessings and advice to all who come calling. Pirbaag traces its roots to an ancient Sufi saint, Nur Fazal, who came to India centuries ago and made the land his home.

Nur Fazal’s teachings about the Atmaan, the Holy Spirit, is not founded in any one religion but instead freely borrows from both the mystical Sufi branch of Islam and Hinduism.

Vassanji beautifully outlines Karsan’s daily life as it unfolds against the gorgeous Gujarat countryside--a life where he is given a hint of the outside world by a colorful Sikh truck driver who often gives him a ride to school. As Karsan watches his “Bapuji,” his father, follow the daily rituals at the shrine, he worries that he himself is not up to such an important task. He knows he is not special or blessed and doesn’t see how he can cure any one of the hundreds of devotees who line up at the gates everyday.  When a Christian teacher shares with him stories from the Bible, Karsan identifies himself as Isaac, son of Abraham, who had to be sacrificed when the time came.

As a teen, Karsan occasionally sneaks some visits to the nearby city of Ahmedabad and eventually, lands a scholarship to Harvard University after applying to the school on a whim. Despite his parents’ hesitations, Karsan leaves and is able to put some distance between himself and his worldly responsibilities. Here in Cambridge, he discovers and encounters life on his own terms with very little previous baggage. Of course, as it happens such distance and analysis leads to Karsan gradually walking away from Pirbaag and to his eventual renunciation of his spiritual duties. “This was exactly my father’s fear--that I would see myself from an ‘outside’ perspective: a distorted, irrelevant image from the other end of the telescope,” Karsan writes.

Karsan marries, moves to Canada and becomes a professor there, but he finds the pull back to Pirbaag irresistible. When he returns eventually, Pirbaag is no longer standing and he finds that his sibling Mansoor has taken to a more rigid and extreme form of Islam.

Vassanji who has won Canada’s prestigious Giller Prize twice before, sets The Assassin’s Song against the horrific real-life communal killings that shook the state of Gujarat in 2002. Pirbaag falls an unfortunate victim to these same riots. The holy saint Nur Fazal, however, Vassanji points out, is not real but is instead modeled after similar characters in Indian history.

Vassanji’s writing is mixed--it is beautifully evocative when describing the legend of Nur Fazal or daily events at Pirbaag. Towards the end however, his writing wavers, even getting preachy when he talks about “riots” (communal disturbances) for a couple of pages.

Vassanji is particularly adept at walking the grey areas in life: places where there isn’t one resounding truth that stands tall; where life’s infinite small complexities worry and nag at all his characters. The Assassin’s Song is no different in that regard. “There are meanings behind meanings; the truth lies shrouded behind a thousand veils,” Karsan often points out. This shaky, gray boundary also defines the idea of Pirbaag where clearly defined notions of Hindu and Muslim don’t quite work. “Our path was spiritual; outward forms of prayers and rituals didn’t matter,” Karsan says.

As The Assassin’s Song hauntingly illustrates, this is exactly what leads to Pirbaag’s eventual undoing. Hazy blurred lines don’t always work well especially at times when the rest of the world requires more “clean spiritual boundaries.”

  • Amazon readers rating: 4.5 starsfrom 3 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Assassin's Song at Knopf

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"The In-Between World of Vikram Lall"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 12, 2004)

"Why was my own life so simple? Why did it seem so irrelevant? In that fateful year of our friendship, when we played together I couldn't help feeling that both Bill and Njoroge were genuine, in their very different ways; only I, who stood in the middle, Vikram Lall, cherished son of an Indian grocer, sounded false to myself, rang hollow like a bad penny."

Growing up in Nakuru, Kenya, in the 1950s, Vikram Lall and his sister Deepa, the children of Indian merchants, become friends with two British children, Bill Bruce and his sister Annie, and with Njoroge, a Kikuyu who lives with his grandfather, the gardener for the Lalls and other local families. While Vic is secretly in love with Annie, Njoroge is secretly in love with Deepa, both childhood relationships ignoring the cultural and color barriers of that era. This is a time in which the Mau Mau, a Kikuyu group dedicated to the violence they believe will rid the country of the British, are on the march, striking fear into the hearts of all, attacking at night and killing British men, women, and children. To Vic and his friends, who live in an area where the violence has not yet struck, however, the Mau Mau are almost mythic creatures.

Alternating points of view between the present, when Vikram Lall is in his fifties and living outside Toronto, Canada, where he now has the distinction of being numbered "one of Africa's most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning," and the early 1950s, in which, as a child, he lived in a diverse Kenyan community, Vassanji gradually establishes the conditions which make life in Kenya for a non-African a difficult and sometimes dangerous activity. Vividly describing Vic's ties with the Indian community, both in Kenya and with the family "back home," he shows how the Lalls are doubly alienated, first from their family in India, whose village, thanks to the British Partition of India, is now part of Pakistan, and from the majority population of Kenya. His depiction of the Lall family, the Indian merchant community, and their local African acquaintances, sets into high relief the tensions that have arisen in the African population over British rule and establishes the basis for the action which follows over the next forty years.

The setting is intensely described, both in terms of the natural world and in terms of the world of people. "The sun shone gloriously but without a thought for how much the land could bear, and only reluctantly, it seemed, did it go down to retire each night, during which interim no cloud dared come close to bring relief to the earth. And so the drought continued." Kenya is easy to picture with descriptions as finely drawn as these, but Vassanji also sets these pictures of nature into the perspective of the unnatural violence of the times. One evening Vic awakens to turmoil in the house: an African man is being restrained by two Indians. "We saw him walking in the middle of the road, Papa was saying excitedly, he was coming straight toward us, and we thought, My God, we are done for. We braked but he kept coming and crashed right into the bonnet. And nothing else happened—luckily no Mau Mau from the bushes. We came out to have a look at this chap and—he had no eyes…Some drunken Brits, it seems, out celebrating the coronation, plucked out his eyes with a bayonet or something."

Soon, however, the violence strikes closer to home, altering Vic's life and perceptions forever. When the Kenyans eventually gain their independence, the Indian community finds itself caught in the middle, as Africans try to take over, not just the property and functions of the British, but also the property of other non-Africans, even those people who have lived, as Vic has, all his life in Kenya. Having lost their land, family, and traditions in India, when their village became part of Pakistan, they fear similar losses in Kenya, as the new government is reluctant to acknowledge the rights of the Indian merchants who helped the country grow, and equally reluctant to mix with them socially. Njoroge, who still loves Deepa, finds her family as obstinately against their relationship as Vikram finds his girlfriend's family to be against him—her family is Muslim from Gujarat, while his is Hindu from Punjab.

After moving to Nairobi, where Vikram's father begins work as an estate agent, Vic gets a job in the Ministry of Transport, assessing tenders and proposals to the Ministry. The family's personal lives begin to deteriorate as they must adapt to the changed circumstances of life in the city, rather than their previous lives in the less urban area of Nakuru, where everyone knew and respected each other. "That family contentment, that certainty of my early years, we had lost forever. Suddenly my parents seemed older and tired and disengaged from each other." Vic soon moves up the political ladder, working for ministries and powerful individuals, but he finds himself powerless to resist the orders of his superiors, even though he knows that his primary responsibility is to launder the cash which comes into his office as bribes. He comes to know the Old Man, Jomo Kenyatta, former leader of the Mau Mau and now President, and is ultimately responsible for swindling $300 million on behalf of his government.

The stories of Vic, Deepa, and Njoroge continue to intersect and overlap as Lall tells the story of the rule of Kenyatta and his successors, and the increasing corruption which taints the country. Vic is depicted less as a man who is out to get whatever he can than as a man who has found himself in a position in which he cannot refuse to do what he has been told to do, even though he knows it is wrong. His life, like that of Njoroge, is dependent less on his own will than it is on the political whims of the day. Ultimately, he is in Canada, trying to decide whether to return to Kenya to clear his name.

Vassanji tells a fully developed saga that stimulates the reader's emotions at the same time that it reflects historical realities. The plot is filled with the excitement of the times and reflects both the pluses and minuses of change. Strong love stories, told realistically, run parallel to the action and keep the reader involved on a level beyond that of history and theme, as the characters evolve in response to the changing times. Fascinating and involving on all levels, this novel, winner of Canada's Giller Prize, should win a broad new audience for M. G. Vassanji.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

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About the Author:

M.G. VassanjiMoyez G. Vassanji was born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1950. His family was part of a community of Indians who had emigrated to Africa.  When he was five, his father died and his family moved to Dar es Salam, Tanzania. His mother ran a clothing store in to support her five children.

Vassanji won a scholarship to M.I.T. to study physics, and earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. He came to Canada in 1978 to work at the Chalk River nuclear lab. In 1980, he began lecturing in physics at the University of Toronto.

He also began to write fiction having loved storytelling since his childhood in Dar es Salaam. Writing was a way of exploring his own past. His first novel, The Gunny Sack won a regional Commonwealth Prize in 1990. At that time he quit teaching to become a full-time writer. In 1994 he won his first Giller Prize and was listed in Maclean's annual Canadian honour roll.

He and his wife, Nurjehan Aziz, started the Toronto South Asian Review, in 1981, which continues today as Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad.He won the Giller Prize again in 1993 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.

Vassanji lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.

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