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Book Review: The Assassin's Song M G Vassanji

Nikos Kazantakis wrote one of most beautiful books on the life of Jesus Christ that I have ever read called The Last Temptation Of Christ. I first read the book after finding out it was on the Vatican's list of proscribed books, striking me as a great recommendation if I'd ever heard one. When I finished the book what puzzled me the most was why the Vatican had considered it so horrible.

Not once in the book does Kazantakis ever question the divinity of Christ or any of the miracles. The last temptation of the title is while he is on the cross the devil shows him what it could be like to marry and have a normal life. On the cross he lives out his days as a mortal man but in the end he accepts his destiny and dies on the cross not in his sleep.

Maybe the Vatican didn't like the fact that Jesus openly questioned his fate throughout the book, or the whole debate about predestination and fate that Kazantakis raises irked them. Personally, although beautifully written, I found the book far too dogmatically Christian for my taste and came away knowing that Kazantakis was as devout a believer in Christ as anyone I'd ever read.

It may seem odd to begin a review about a Sufi Muslim in India with references to a book on Christ, but in M G Vassanji's latest release The Assassin's Song published by Random House Canada through the Doubleday imprint, the central character faces an almost identical struggle to Christ's. Karsan Dargawalla's family have been the keepers of a shrine to a Sufi mystic since medieval times, and the eldest male in the family has always been groomed to be the Avatar of the God on earth.
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The family lives in the compound where Nur Fazal, The Wanderer, finally settled and where his remains and those of his descendants are buried. They are the direct descendants, supposedly, of the God's first follower, Arjun Dev. It was said that Dev had a vision that called him forth from sleep to welcome Fazal at the gates of Patan Anularra when he arrived there in 1260 AD.

It was to Dev's family that Fazal would turn to when he needed someone to act as his representative while he lived, so after his death the tradition continued. But it’s now the 1960s and the world is a far different place than it was even during the time of Karsan's father's ascension to Saheb of the shrine. Men are travelling through space to the moon, and knowledge in the world that far outstrips the accumulated writings and texts of the shrine's library. How can he be expected to spend his days pondering the deeds and wisdom of The Wanderer while all that awaits him beyond it's gates?

While part of him loves the shrine and wants to fulfil his destiny as the anointed heir and future Saheb of the Shrine, he also desires the learning and enticements offered by the material world. When he applies for admission to Harvard University in the United States it's not with any real hope of being accepted, or even if that miracle were to happen, of being able to attend. But when the unthinkable occurs and they offer him a full scholarship, including airfare how can he turn it down?

He knows that if his father forbids him he would stay and not even be too resentful, but he is allowed to choose for himself, in spite of his father's worst misgivings. He assures one and all that he will return to take up his duties when his schooling is done, and he is certain it will only allow him to serve the people with even greater wisdom after being in the world beyond their village.

India is also different from what it was during Karson's father's youth; for one it is now India and Pakistan, Muslim and Hindu, and that gap is too wide for the way of the Sufi to straddle in safety anymore. During the first Pakistan – India war it starts to become apparent to even Karson that things aren't going to remain the same as they once were.

They do not worship Allah at their shrine, but their names are Muslim, and across the road from their shrine is another, a Muslim shrine, where the body of the Suffi's grandson is entombed and worshiped. For some the associations are only too clear, and if you are not one of us you are one of them is the obvious conclusion that is drawn. But for a time peace is kept in the village, and the sancity of the shrine is respected.
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But Karson is determined to leave everything behind, including thoughts of the ugliness that lies beneath the glamour of India. He too is offered the temptation of worldliness over Godhood, and he steps across the line in reality and accepts the offer completely turning his back on that he was supposed to have been.

The Assassins Song is not based on any real mystic, according to the author's note at the end of the book. It's rather an amalgamation of stories told about Muslim seers who came to India in the 11th and 12th centuries AD preaching a benevolent practice of worship based on neither the Muslim or Hindu faiths, although freely recognizing both. Through this invention M G Vassanji has brought to life a world that very few of us in this age will recognize. We might call it blind faith in our ignorance and wonder about people today that still believe a person can be the avatar of a god.

This is a beautiful book about duty, faith, and the search for self awareness and how they are all inter-related whether we know it or not. Like Jesus who is given the life of a husband and father as a temptation, so too did Karsan yearn for the ordinary, but unlike Jesus, Karsen's final choice is made for him by fate, chance, or maybe even his destiny.

Sometimes it is only when we are stripped down to nothing, or hit bottom, that we truly begin to understand ourselves and where we belong in the world. Vassanji doesn't tell us what to believe; he merely shows us the various stages of a person's exploration of self. At the end, what should have been the prodigal son's return and taking up of his destiny, we are left without the certainty that the situation requires to make it a final ending.

Endings only come with death, not while we still live, and that is the lesson that Karson has learnt, more than any other, from his travels. From what he's seen of the world and the ruinous consequences of when people are certain their way is the only right way, perhaps a little uncertainty, a little doubt, is what the world needs more than anything else right now.

Canadian readers can buy the The Assassin's Song either directly from Random House Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca

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