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  • The Assassin's Song
  • Written by M.G. Vassanji
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  • The Assassin's Song
  • Written by M.G. Vassanji
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Written by M.G. VassanjiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by M.G. Vassanji

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On Sale: March 25, 2009
Pages: 336 | ISBN: 978-0-307-51355-7
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In the aftermath of the brutal violence that gripped western India in 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag – the shrine of a mysterious, medieval sufi – begins to tell the story of his family. His tale opens in the 1960s: young Karsan is next in line after his father to assume lordship of the shrine, but he longs to be “just ordinary.” Despite his father's pleas, Karsan leaves home behind for Harvard, and, eventually, marriage and a career. Not until tragedy strikes, both in Karsan's adopted home in Canada and in Pirbaag, is he drawn back across thirty years of separation and silence to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Postmaster Flat, Shimla. April 14, 2002.

After the calamity, a beginning.

One night my father took me out for a stroll. This was a rare treat, for he was a reticent man, a great and divine presence in our village who hardly ever ventured out. But it was my birthday. And so my heart was full to bursting with his tall, looming presence beside me. We walked along the highway away from the village, and when we had gone sufficiently far, to where it was utterly quiet and dark, Bapu-ji stopped and stared momentarily at our broken, grey road blurring ahead into the night, then slowly turned around to go back. He looked up at the sky; I did likewise. “Look, Karsan,” said Bapu-ji. He pointed out the bright planets overhead, the speckle that was the North Star, at the constellations connected tenuously by their invisible threads. “When I was young,” he said, “I wished only to study the stars...But that was a long time ago, and a different world...

“But what lies above the stars?” he asked, after the pause, his voice rising a bare nuance above my head. “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?”

I was eleven years old that day. And my father had laid bare for me the essential condition of human existence.

I gaped with my child’s eyes at the blackness above my head, imagined it as a dark blanket dotted with little stars, imagined with a shiver what might lie beyond if you suddenly flung this drapery aside. Loneliness, big and terrifying enough to make you want to weep alone in the dark.

We slowly started on our way back home.

“There is no nothing,” Bapu-ji continued, as if to assuage my fears, his tremulous voice cutting like a saw the layers of darkness before us, “when you realize that everything is in the One...”

My father was the Saheb—the lord and keeper—of Pirbaag, the Shrine of the Wanderer, in our village of Haripir, as was his father before him, as were all our ancestors for many centuries. People came to him for guidance, they put their lives in his hands, they bowed to him with reverence.

As we walked back together towards the few modest lights of Haripir, father and first son, a certain fear, a heaviness of the heart came over me. It never left me, even when I was far away in a world of my own making. But at that time, although I had long suspected it, had received hints of it, I knew for certain that I was the gaadi-varas, the successor and avatar to come at Pirbaag after my father.

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 that of many another boy, to play cricket and break the world batting record for my country. But I had been chosen.

When we returned home, instead of taking the direct path from the roadside gate to our house, which lay straight ahead across an empty yard, my father took me by the separate doorway on our left into the walled compound that was the shrine. This was Pirbaag: calm and cold as infinity. The night air suffused with a faint glow, and an even fainter trace of rose, all around us the raised graves of the saints and sufis of the past, and our ancestors, and others deserving respect and prayers. They were large and small, these graves, ancient and recent, some well tended and heaped with flowers and coloured cloth, others lying forlorn at the fringes among the thorns, neglected and anonymous. This hallowed ground was our trust; we looked after it for people of any creed from any place to come to be blessed and comforted.

Overlooking everything here, towards the farther side of the compound was the grand mausoleum of a thirteenth-century mystic, a sufi called Nur Fazal, known to us belovedly as Pir Bawa and to the world around us as Mussafar Shah, the Wanderer. One day, centuries ago, he came wandering into our land, Gujarat, like a meteor from beyond, and settled here. He became our guide and guru, he showed us the path to liberation from the bonds of temporal existence. Little was known and few really cared about his historical identity: where exactly he came from, who he was, the name of his people. His mother tongue was Persian, perhaps, but he gave us his teachings in the form of songs he composed in our own language, Gujarati.

He was sometimes called the Gardener, because he loved gardens, and he tended his followers like seedlings. He had yet another, curious name, Kaatil, or Killer, which thrilled us children no end. But its provenance was less exciting: he had a piercing look, it was said, sharp as an arrow, and an intellect keen as the blade of a rapier, using which he won many debates in the great courts of the kings.

I would come to believe that my grandfather had an idea of his identity, and my Bapu-ji too, and that in due course when I took on the mantle I too would learn the secret of the sufi.

But now the shrine lies in ruins, a victim of the violence that so gripped our state recently, an orgy of murder and destruction of the kind we euphemistically call “riots.” Only the rats visit the sufi now, to root among the ruins. My father is dead and so is my mother. And my brother militantly calls himself a Muslim and is wanted for questioning regarding a horrific crime. Perhaps such an end was a foregone conclusion—Kali Yuga, the Dark Age, was upon us, as Bapu-ji always warned, quoting our saints and the scriptures: an age when gold became black iron, the ruler betrayed his trust, justice threw aside its blindfold, and the son defied his father. Though Bapu-ji did not expect this last of his favoured first son.

The thought will always remain with me: was my betrayal a part of the prophecy; or could I have averted the calamity that befell us? My logical mind—our first casualty, according to Bapu-ji—has long refused to put faith in such prophecies. I believe simply that my sin, my abandonment and defiance of my inheritance, was a sign of the times. Call the times Kali Yuga if you like—and we can quibble over the question of whether there ever was a Golden Age in which all was good and the sacrificed horse stood up whole after being ritually quartered and eaten. Whatever the case, I was expected to rise above the dark times and be the new saviour.

This role, which I once spurned, I must now assume. I, the last lord of the shrine of Pirbaag, must pick up the pieces of my trust and tell its story—and defy the destroyers, those who in their hatred would not only erase us from the ground of our forefathers but also attempt to write themselves upon it, make ink from our ashes.

The story begins with the arrival in Gujarat of the sufi Nur Fazal. He was our origin, the word and the song, our mother and father and our lover. Forgive me if I must sing to you. The past was told to me always accompanied by song; and now, when memory falters and the pictures in the mind fade and tear and all seems lost, it is the song that prevails.



Chapter 2

From western lands to glorious Patan
He came, of moon visage and arrow eyes.

To the lake of a thousand gods he came
Pranam! sang the gods, thirty-three crores of them.

Saraswati, Vishnu, Brahma bade him inside
Shiva Nataraja brought him water to drink.

The god himself washed this Wanderer’s feet
How could beloved Patan’s sorcerers compete?

You are the true man, said the king, your wisdom great
Be our guest, show us the truth.

c. a.d. 1260.
The arrival of the sufi; the contest of magics.

It used to be said of Patan Anularra in the Gujarat kingdom of medieval India that there was not a city within a thousand miles to match its splendour, not a ruler in that vast region not subject to its king. The wealth of its many bazaars came from all corners of the world through the great ports of Cambay and Broach, and from all across Hindustan over land. It boasted the foremost linguists, mathematicians, philosophers, and poets; thousands of students came to study at the feet of its teachers. When the great scholar and priest Hemachandra completed his grammar of Sanskrit that was also a history of the land, it was launched in a grand procession through the avenues of the city, its pages carried on the backs of elephants and trailed by all the learned men. Great intellectual debates took place in the palace, but with dire consequences for the losers, who often had to seek a new city and another patron. In recent times, though, an uneasy air had come to hang over this capital, riding on rumours of doom and catastrophe that travelled with increasing frequency from the north.

Into this once glorious but now a little nervous city there arrived one morning with the dawn a mysterious visitor. He was a man of such a striking visage that on the highways which he had recently travelled men would avert their faces when they crossed his path, then turned to stare long and hard at his back as he hastened on southward. He was medium in stature and extremely fair; he had an emaciated face with a small pointed goatee, his eyes were green; and he wore the robe and turban of a sufi. His name he gave as Nur Fazal, of no fixed abode. He entered the city’s northern gate with a merchant caravan and was duly noted by his attire and language as a wandering Muslim mendicant and scholar originally from Afghanistan or Persia, and possibly a spy of the powerful sultanate of Delhi. Once inside, he put himself up at a small inn near the coppersmiths’ market frequented by the lesser of the foreign merchants and travellers. Soon afterwards, one afternoon, in the company of a local follower, he proceeded to the citadel of the raja, Vishal Dev. The time for the raja’s daily audience with the public was in the morning, but somehow the sufi, unseen at the gate—such were his powers—gained entrance and made his appearance inside.


From the Hardcover edition.
M.G. Vassanji|Author Q&A

About M.G. Vassanji

M.G. Vassanji - The Assassin's Song

Photo © Derek Shapton

M. G. Vassanji is the author of six previous novels: The Gunny Sack, which won a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; No New Land; The Book of Secrets, which won the very first Giller Prize; Amriika; The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which also received the Giller Prize; and, most recently, The Assassin’s Song. He is also the author of two short-story collections, a travel memoir about India, and a biography of Mordecai Richler. He lives in Toronto.

Author Q&A

Q: Please talk a bit about the horrible violence that shook western India in 2002?
 
A:
The violence took place in the state of Gujarat in early 2002. It followed an incident in which a train compartment carrying Hindu Nationalist activist-pilgrims caught fire and some 60 people were literally burned alive. The activist pilgrims were returning from the site of the 16th-century Babru Mosque, which had been demolished in 1993 by activists claiming it to have been an ancient Hindu site.

Following the burning of the train compartment, attributed to Muslims but never actually proved, a pogrom took place in Gujarat in which Muslim households were targetted and attacked in various places, goaded on by the right-wing Gujarat government, and encouraged by the police. The worst kind of violence imaginable took place, against women especially.

Following this violence (euphemistically called "riots") and basing its decision on the Indian Human Rights Commission, the US State department refused a visitor's visa to the Gujarat Chief Minister, Mody.

Q: How did you decide to write about this period?
 
A:
I used this violence and its terrible destruction as a point from which to bring out the history of a shrine up to its destruction.

Q: Tell us about Karsan. Does someone like Karsan exist in your life?
 
A:
Not exactly like him. I've given him a historical background similar to where my community might have branched from. And so the Sufi (mystic) at whose graves people come to worship is based on similar holy men in my own background. Karsan's thrill at discovering new intellectual frontiers reflects what I felt like when I came to the US (at MIT, though I've put him at Harvard where he can study liberal arts). His acquired agnosticism reflects mine, and his father's denial to take Hindu or Muslim sides exclusively reflects my own attitude, and what I believe traditionally was my own people's attitude.

Q: Did you write portions of this book while in India?
 
A:
No, but I visited places–shrines, cities–which inspired it and which I used as background. I've just come back from Shimla, from where Karsan writes this book, and it was a thrill to see Postmaster Flat again!

Q: In The In-Between World of Vikram Lall you also explore displacement in a character. Is there a particular reason that this is a recurring theme in your work?
 
A:
There is an in-betweenness about Hindu and Muslim worlds, and belonging to both. Displacement is of course at the core of my existence and that of my family and people.

Q: Are you currently writing a novel?
 
A:
I am thinking about one but actually am about to complete a memoir of my travels in India over the last 14 years.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“A deeply affecting story, full of contemplation and mystery. . . . At once lush and precise.”
Chicago Tribune

“Thought-provoking and satisfying. . . . There are echoes of Rohinton Mistry, of V. S. Naipaul, of Salman Rushdie. But the lyricism of Karsan's contemplations, the careful evocation of place, the writer's obvious warmth for his characters, the sense of compassion layered into the story—these are all Vassanji's.”
The Washington Post Book World

“A resplendent novel. . . .Vassanji eloquently details the sufferings of Karsan's family as the price of his individual freedom.”
The New Yorker

“Moving. . . . A complex, multifaceted drama, one that interweaves history, religion and politics with a vibrant personal story.”
San Francisco Chronicle

  • The Assassin's Song by M.G. Vassanji
  • August 12, 2008
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Vintage
  • $14.95
  • 9781400076574

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