The Assassin’s Song

A novel

Publisher: Anchor Canada
M.G. Vassanji’s magnificent new novel provides further proof of his unique, wide ranging and profound genius. The Assassin’s Song is a shining study of the conflict between ancient loyalties and modern desires, a conflict that creates turmoil the world over – and it is at once an intimate portrait of one man’s painful struggle to hold the earthly and the spiritual in balance.

In The Assassin’s Song, Karsan Dargawalla tells the story of the medieval Sufi shrine of Pirbaag, and his betrayal of its legacy. But Karsan’s conflicted attempt to settle accounts quickly blossoms into a layered tale that spans centuries: from the mysterious Nur Fazal’s spiritual journeys through thirteenth century India, to his shrine’s eventual destruction in the horrifying "riots" of 2002.

From the age of eleven, Karsan has been told that one day he will succeed his father as guardian of the Shrine of the Wanderer: as the highest spiritual authority in their region, he will be God’s representative to the multitudes who come to the shrine for penance and worship. But Karsan’s longings are simpler: to play cricket with his friends, to discover more of the exciting world he reads about in the newspapers his friend Raja Singh, a truck driver, brings him from all over India.

Half on a whim, Karsan applies to study at Harvard, but when he is unexpectedly offered a scholarship there he must try to meld his family’s wishes with his own yearnings. Two years immersed in the intellectual and sexual ferment of America splits him further, until finally Karsan abdicates his successorship to the eight hundred-year-old throne.

But even as Karsan succeeds in his "ordinary" life – marrying and having a son, becoming a professor in suburban British Columbia – his heritage haunts him in unexpected ways. And after tragedy strikes, both in Canada and Pirbaag, he is drawn back across thirty years of silence and separation to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.

Both sweeping and intimate, The Assassin’s Song is a great novel in the grandest sense: a book that captures the intricate complexities of the individual conscience even as it grippingly portrays entire civilizations in tumult.


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...
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“A deeply affecting story, full of contemplation and mystery… The chapters set in the 13th Century are rich in historical detail, and the prose is at once lush and precise… the novel succeeds as an exploration of the difficulties and consequences of religious identification. M.G. Vassanji has given us an exceedingly relevant novel that should be required reading in our divided times.” – Chicago Tribune

“Brilliant….Timeless. It’s a beautiful book, not to mention brave. At a time when fanatical fundamentalism in both East and West derides the idea of gentle, simple faith, Vassanji confirms the significance of the spirit–and, honestly, the soul is altered.” – The Globe and Mail

“Riveting…. Luminous…. Confident. [Vassanji] has created a layered novel that draws the reader along a deeply powerful journey.” – Winnipeg Free Press

“Richly detailed and filled with astute observations, the work of an expert storyteller.” – The Seattle Times

"[A] memorable, melancholy family saga. . . . Frequent shifts in time and perspective (including flashes of the shrine’s early history) heighten Vassanji’s evocative depiction of India’s ongoing postcolonial tumult, mournfully personalized by the fate of the fractured family at the novel’s heart."
Publishers Weekly

"Lyrical. . . . [Vassanji] dramatizes experiences of exile and cultural conflict in parallel narratives set centuries apart, whose similarities are subtly, patiently disclosed. . . . This richly imagined novel is rendered even more complex by the fragmentation of Karsan’s story into three parts. . . . Its slowly gathering power cannot be denied. And Vassanji achieves some spectacular ironic reversals. . . . Another fine . . . novel from an intelligent and inventive storyteller."

"[Vassanji] writes with bedazzling charm and shrewd insight as he loops back in time to tell the spellbinding tale of Nur Fazal in parallel with the circuitous and tragic journey of Karsan. As the many-faceted story unfolds, Vassanji subtly and cannily negotiates the gap between spirituality and religious fundamentalism, traces the arduous path to enlightenment, and illuminates the continuity of human experience. Richly detailed and socially astute, this is an exceptionally sensitive novel of violent conflicts and private suffering, emotional verity and metaphysical yearning."
Booklist, starred review