The 'Assassin’s Song' is the story of Karsan Dargawalla, heir to the famous shrine of the medieval sufi mystic Nur Fazal at Haripir in Gujarat. Karsan’s family are custodians of the shrine in a single unbroken line and Karsan is the designated gaadi-varas after his father. Even though he has been primed to take on the mantle of responsibility from a young age, Karsan is no different from any adolescent boy. He loves cricket and is heartbroken when his father refuses to send him for cricket coaching, lusts after and his miserable at the dirty thoughts that assault him every time he sees the young widow Shilpa, and is curious to know everything about the world outside the gates of the shrine. His enthusiasm and curiosity about the larger world outside Haripir and impatience with the blind faith evinced by the villagers in his father – the saheb – are the cornerstone of his friendship with Raja Singh, the sikh truck driver who returns from his journeys with armloads of magazines and newspapers which the young boy devours. Even as early as a young boy who has never been exposed to the outside world, Karsan is aware of forces, impulses and circumstances before whom the neutral spirituality of Pir Baba’s shrine must bow. That eventually this is proved right is not important; it’s merely an ominous sign of the complications that involve life.
Despite his father’s authority in Haripir, young Karsan witnesses his father compromise and not really stand up and tackle the pro-hindutva bullshit doled out by local leaders like Pradhan Shastri - the Babu Bajrangi- like folks who we are all too familiar with thanks to the newspapers. He realizes that the world is not a neutral place and riots and killings in the name of the Almighty, and an eternal struggle to establish the supremacy of one’s god over the other’s, one’s people over the other’s, seems to be the only fate we are doomed to. When charges of homosexuality are levied against his favourite teacher Mr Arnold this divide between good and bad, black and white, traditional and new, the unusual and the depraved, is further blurred. He likes Mr Arnold: the latter is the only person who has ever treated the boys like confidantes, who has cracked jokes about masturbation and wet dreams and trained them in sports, but the idea of homosexuality is too alien for Karsan to comprehend and accept and he is only left with a deep sense of confusion. It is only as we grow that we gradually reconcile ourselves to the knowledge that it is ok to disagree with those we love, and that the world is made up of much more than stark polarities.
The novel can be clearly divided into 3 sections – one dealing with Karsan’s childhood in & eventual return to Haripir, the other with his stay in the U.S., and the third with the life of the original saint Nur Fazal. The Nur Fazal part is told in part magic realism, part mythological narrative and isn’t wholly relevant to Karsan’s story except to provide us with a reference point later in Karsan’s story. In the 13th century, a wandering sufi named Nur Fazal came to the court of the hindu king Vishal Dev and so charmed the king and his people that he was given a place in court amongst the other learned scholars. He married the king’s daughter Rupali and settled in Haripir where his mausoleum stands as the shrine that Karsan’s family looks after.
Vassanji takes pains to explain that Nur Fazal or Pir Baba as he was fondly known as, though originally a muslim from Persia, practiced a branch of religion where “There is but one Truth, one Universal Soul, of which we are all manifestations and whose mystery can be approached in diverse ways.” His modern day followers are both hindus and muslims for Pir Baba advocated a path that was neither of Allah nor of Ram, but included both. The religious and cultural harmony, or netherworld that the inhabitants of the shrine follow, is quite similar to the world Vassanji himself, the Kenya-born Indian who finally migrated to Canada, must have found familiar. It is neither here nor there and straddles multiples roles, desires and expectations. Is it any wonder then that there is eventual crash and devastating collision in the face of such dichotomy?
One of the intriguing things about the novel seems to be that we are never sure of the infallibility of one path versus the other, of one state over another. Is an indecisive and tormented Karsan a happier person than the one who later severs all ties with his family, turns his back on his duty and embraces the suburban life of American freedom and intellectual fulfillment? We don’t know as there aren’t any easy answers. Karsan does everything he can to break away from his father’s legacy and yet happiness as he finally learns, remains an elusive concept that is as much to be found in surrendering one’s independence as in its fierce pursuit.
Despite his father’s wishes he goes to study at Harvard, refuses to return when his father send him a summons regarding his mother’s illness, marries the half Indian Marge, changes his name to Krishna Fazal, becomes a teacher in British Columbia and fathers his son Julian. Even in America, his only wish is to be considered and accepted for what he really is and not as the ‘god-designate from some Indian village’. He beseeches Marge, “I am not a complicated person. I am ordinary. Give me a chance to be ordinary. Please be my friend.”
His ‘I was determined to be happy’ is as much the grin determination of a man doomed as an ominous foreshadow of the tragedy that eventually mars his life. Probably my only problem with the novel stems from this part where it seems Vassanji strives too obviously to link Karsan’s defection with an omnipresent feeling of guilt which somehow conveniently ties in with his son’s death and his separation from Marge and his eventual return to Haripir. It is all just a tad too convenient. It would have been interesting to see Karsan’s return as being motivated more out of a gradual acceptance of his heritage and legacy than as a direct result of his family’s destruction.
On his return he realizes that the random events that devastated his life in America haven’t left Haripir untouched - the shrine has been devastated by the Godhra rioters, his father the saheb killed and his brother Mansoor now a fugitive on the run from the police on suspicions of harbouring terrorist links.
Vassanji’s novel is beautiful in the ways it tackles the question of guilt and redemption – never as absolutes that can help make life more fulfilling in the aftermath of betrayal. In fact, we do not know that the Karsan we see at the novel’s close, who finally remembers the secret ‘bol’ which is handed down to every gaadi varas by his father, is any happier than he was as a boy or as a family man in British Columbia. Perhaps, there is really no hope for redemption in a world that embraces strict polarities and where the joy of embracing the new, must always be tarnished by the guilt of betraying the old.