Having been a big fan of M G Vassanji’s writing ever since I read The In-Between World of Vikram Lall a few years ago (review here), I’m surprised that his name rarely features in discussions of the top contemporary Indian writers. This could partly be because Vassanji has never lived in India and his genealogy is a complicated one (described by Wikipedia as "an African-Indian-Canadian novelist", he was born in Kenya, grew up in Tanzania and has been a resident of Canada since 1978) – though really, when you remember the rush to claim V S Naipaul ("Trinidadian-born British writer of Indo-Trinidadian ethnicity") as an Indian after he won the Nobel, you have to wonder about this.
Vassanji is highly respected in literary circles in Canada, with many accolades, including (twice) the Giller Prize, but unlike another Canadian resident, Rohinton Mistry, he doesn't have the sort of following in India that would place him even in Tier II of High-Profile Authors. His books aren't widely available here: offhand, I don't recall seeing any of his early novels (The Gunny Sack, No New Land, The Book of Secrets) in a Delhi bookstore. This is strange, for his work – marked by elegant, lucid writing and movingly restrained characterisations – can be a very satisfying alternative for readers who complain about common irritants in Indian writing in English (IWE): exoticisation, recycled plots that deal in the most hackneyed ways with problems faced by immigrants, the Rushdie influence taken to tiresome extremes, resulting in a stream of overwrought prose (by writers who don't have the control over the language, or the understanding of its basic rules, that Rushdie does). To be fair, these allegations are not as relevant now as they were a few years ago, for IWE in general has become more dynamic, wide-ranging and less self-conscious, but they still hold some water.
Nor is it the case that Vassanji deals with themes you won't usually find in Indian writing in English. In fact, the phrase "the burden of exile", so often used in the context of the work of diaspora writers, applies to the predicament of some of his characters. But his handling of these themes is careful and nuanced, and he never oversimplifies people or situations. Ambivalence is key to his work – running through his stories is the delicate (and inconvenient) question: What can we ever really know about ourselves, our motivations, our choices, the accumulation of incidents and influences that define us over a lifetime? And if we can't know ourselves, what hope then of understanding anyone else, even the people we are closest to? This also means that elements of his writing can be frustrating, especially when some threads are deliberately left untied (as they would be in real life) – an important character disappearing, for instance, and the reader never learning anything about him again, outside of conjecture.
I've just finished his latest novel The Assassin's Song, which is the first of his books to be set principally in India (though its protagonist spends more than 30 years in the US in an attempt to cut himself off from his roots). Unlike The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, which had a chronological narrative, this one moves around in time. The novel’s present is 2002, which is when the narrator, Karsan Dargawalla, returns to the village of his childhood following the terrible communal riots in Gujarat, but we are also taken as far back as the early 1960s when Karsan, still a child but heir to the Pirbaag shrine in Gujarat, begins to grasp his responsibilities as Lord and Keeper of the shrine after his father (therefore, an avatar of God).
Growing up, he struggles with this burden of divinity. After losing the opportunity to be coached by a former first-class cricketer because his position as the “gaadi-varas” must come first, it’s understandable that he is deeply affected by the Biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac to the Almighty: glumly, he refuses to participate in a wishing ritual because “Isaac didn’t matter. He couldn't wish for anything.” Karsan’s parents are constant reminders of the path he is expected to follow, but other adult figures play equally important, and perhaps longer-lasting, roles: the companionable truck driver who brings him stacks of newspapers and magazines, a constant flow of news about the outside world; a Christian teacher with African antecedents, whom Karsan briefly hero-worships; an agent of the National Patriotic Youth Party, obsessed with restoring the glories, real and imagined, of the Vedic Civilization. Here as in his other novels, Vassanji is a wonderfully perceptive chronicler of how childhood events and impressions can continue to influence character long after they have been forgotten at a conscious level.
More than halfway through the book comes Karsan’s big decision to go to the US to study at Harvard on a scholarship, effectively turning his back on his parents and the Pirbaag shrine. Tellingly, his life in America – including college, a decade spent as a family man living in an idyllic suburb, followed by tragedy and a subsequent hermitlike existence – takes less than 100 pages to get through: the effect here is akin to the story about Vishnu instructing Narada in the ways of Maya/illusion through a firsthand experience of the impermanence of the material world. Eventually Karsan does return to fulfil his spiritual calling, but there is no easy resolution, or even a sense of a story coming full circle.
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. And the friction between Karsan and his younger brother Mansoor (who has become an orthodox Muslim and is wanted by police for questioning) recalls a similar clash of ideologies between two brothers in Kiran Nagarkar’s God’s Little Soldier, but the lines are not as clearly drawn in this case. (The Assassin’s Song is sparer and more compact in every way than Nagarkar’s opus, which it resembles in places.)
Intermittently, the book also visits the late 13th century, when a mysterious Sufi named Nur Fazal arrived at the gates of Patan and came to be worshipped as a holy man – becoming the Pir Bawa whose legacy would, centuries later, fall on Karsan's shoulders. We never learn enough about this figure, which is part of the point: history repeats itself in strange ways and the contours of a life may be determined by nebulous, barely understood events that took place hundreds of years ago. What we are finally left with is a portrait of a life wasted by the struggle between duty and individuality, between faith and pragmatism. Karsan is as much a hollow man, swept along by forces outside his control, as the protagonist of Vassanji’s last book.
(Some interesting notes here and here about a documentary titled The In-Between World of M G Vassanji.)