Monday, October 22, 2007

Song Sung Blue

This appeared in the September-October issue of Biblio.


In his much-debated 1961 essay 'Writing American Fiction', Philip Roth argued that “the American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality…The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist”.

Consider now the spate of so-called 9/11 novels, from Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to DeLillo’s Falling Man. None of these can be said to particularly successful as novels: it’s as if the effort to be topical has enervated the imagination.

When it comes to writing from the subcontinent, the dark cloud of communal violence is fast becoming our version of 9/11. In recent times, there was Raj Kamal Jha’s Fireproof, David Davidar’s The Solitude of Emperors and now, M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin's Song. Though Vassanji was born in Kenya, grew up in Tanzania and has been a resident of Canada since 1978, this, his sixth novel, is set primarily set in India. How successful is he in delineating the impact of communal tensions on everyday life?

The Assassin’s Song features another one of those introverted, out-of-place narrators whose alienation from his surroundings spurs on the narrative. It is the story of Karsan, first son of the guardian of Pirbaag in Gujarat, the interdenominational shrine of Sufi Nur Fazal, known as the Wanderer. Now ensconced in a room at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla, Karsan narrates the tale of how his life has come full circle. He recalls his childhood days, his early friends and relationship with his brother and parents; having to bear the load of knowing that he is to be the next keeper of the shrine; and his escape to Harvard and attempt to establish a family life overseas, away from the weight of history.

Though all else falls away, the sufi’s songs stay with him. What also remains is the question he is compelled to ask himself: “Do we always end up where we really belong?”

Interwoven into this narrative is the tale of Nur Fazl himself, of how he came to Gujarat from Central Asia in medieval times, his reception in the royal court, his wanderings and dalliances, leading to the establishment of his shrine. The contrast between the Sufi’s all-inclusive message and contemporary, polarized times is clear.

Vassanji’s is a quiet, unshowy voice with the ability to rise, on occasion, to a muted lyricism: “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”. This is embellished by the infrequent, judicious use of metaphor: the sufi’s songs are “as precious as pearls”; Karsan stands “silent as a shadow”; and a library’s oversized volumes lie flat on their sides “like basking reptiles”. Moreover, the sections that deal with the sufi’s ascendance are texturally dissimilar to those that involve Karsan’s experiences. Which is apt, as the former partakes of myth and legend, while the latter is essentially a personal exploration.

Of course, in the background to all of this, like a refrain waiting to announce itself, is the spectre of communal violence, something that’s touched upon in the Sufi’s interactions with the Indian people, in the character of Pradhan Shastri, in historical conflicts with Pakistan and in the other religious shrines that Karsan and his family visit in his boyhood. All of this comes to a head with the 2002 riots in Gujarat, which will have a pulverizing effect on Karsan’s ancestral home, causing him to reflect even more cogently on his inheritance of loss.

The futility of such hatred apart, another theme in The Assassin’s Song is that of the burden of being the first-born and the weight of expectations this throws up. This is seen in Karsan’s relationship with his intransigent father, as well as in his dealings with his brother, who adopts the name Mansoor and is suspected of dallying with militants from across the border. A passage late in the book perhaps could be said to sum up its aim: “…I have resolved to remember, construct a shrine of my own…a bookish shrine of songs and stories. This is my prayer, if you will, this is my fist in the air, my anger so unlike [my brother’s]; it is my responsibility, my duty to my father and all the people who relied on us as the sufi’s representatives and whose stories are intertwined with ours”.

It must be said, however, that the quality of writing grows noticeably flabby as the book progresses. It is as though the author is using up his richest material to begin with, and then improvising as he realizes that he’s running out of steam. Thus, for example, when it comes to Karsan’s boyhood, there are etched portraits of his schooldays and interactions with his associates: the truckdriver Raja Singh, the schoolteacher Mr David, Pradhan Shastri, head of the local mock-RSS league, Shilpa, a shrine volunteer and Karsan’s “voluptuous torment”. These evocations fade away once Karsan reaches America: in contrast, we find here fewer scenes and more summaries, fewer portraits and more over-simplified character sketches.

In particular, a short essay on communal violence late in the book comes across as all too polemical: “That the most ghastly violence imaginable, perpetrated on women and children, could occur in the state of Gandhi makes one wonder too how aberrant was the Mahatma; was he real after all?” Here, and elsewhere in the book, the humanism is conventional, a form of sentimental realism.

In fact, the contrast between this and the sections dealing Karsan’s boyhood and relationship with his father lead one to wonder if the novel would have been more successful had Vassanji steered clear of the topic of contemporary communal violence. As Roth would have said, the extravagance – and horror -- of reality still trumps novelistic invention.

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