M.G. Vassanji’s new novel The Assassin’s Song is a homecoming of sorts for the Canada-based author as he etches a finely poised dialectic between faith and tradition on the one hand and the pressures of modernity and contemporary history on the other. Set against the backdrop of the horrific riots in India’s western state of Gujarat in 2002, Vassanji’s new novel delves deep into the past as he weaves his story around a 13th century sufi saint to illuminate some home truths about the conflicted modern existence.
Vassanji, who was born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, has penned five acclaimed novels – The Gunny Sack, No New Land, the Book of Secrets, Amrika and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall.
In a conversation with Manish Chand, Vassanji speaks probingly about his inspiration for crafting this novel around a scarring event in recent Indian history that pitted the Hindus against the Muslims in an orgy of bloodshed and destruction that still touches a raw nerve in the country.
He also speaks about the need for Muslims to modernise and adapt themselves to the temper of the times, the discovery of his vocation as a writer and what it means to live as an Indian abroad when the West is looking at India afresh as a rising power and rediscovering the country’s innate creativity and vitality.
“The novel is not about politics. In my book, part of my effort is to show how small communities become victims of large events,” says Vassanji.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q) This is your first novel set in India. What inspired your new novel The Assassin’s Song?
A) I have written about a mystic who lived eight centuries ago. I know intimately Gujarat where I come from.
The worship and the faith that evolves in the dargahs of sufi saints is syncretistic. The worship takes place in the form of avatars. Rebirth is part of the Indian belief system. In modern times, there has been an attempt to box these people. Modern world requires grand schemes. In my book, I am trying to explore what happens when such a group becomes a victim of communal violence.
Q) Your novel is set against the backdrop of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Why did you zero in on Khojas, who are a minority within a minority with different value systems?
A) The novel is not about politics. In my book, part of my effort is to show how small communities become victims of large events. Khojas have to define themselves more strictly. They are considered heretical by most Muslims. The word Ismaili does not even exist in the Khoja literature. Nor does the word Muslim exists. Modern world does not give legitimacy to Khojas and other small groups. They do not offer namaaz like Muslims. They sit on the floor and sing bhajans. There is a pressure on them to become something bigger and part of something larger. In the process, redefinition and reinvention takes place. I consider myself a Khoja.
Q) You also explore the theme of mysticism in your novel. What’s your attitude towards religion?
A) I consider myself an agnostic. I do have a sensibility, which is receptive to ginans (devotional songs), poetry, music and philosophy of existentialism. I like the poetic part of songs that connects one to a higher level of reality.
Q) You now live in Canada. In the US, the Muslims were targeted after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York. How do you look at the persecution and stigmatisation Muslims have had to face after 9/11?
A) When something like that happens, stereotyping happens. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But in all fairness, one has to admit that many Muslims create these stereotypes. You don’t have to hark back to Prophet Muhammad or Quran for everything. You have to define your morality, philosophy and worldview in a contemporary context. I don’t believe in this kind of violence which is often preached in the name of Islam. Islam does not endorse violence. One need not always hark back to one figure in history who lived 13 centuries ago. I find this tendency intellectually dissatisfying and even irritating at times.
Even the most liberal and moderate Muslims hark back to scriptural texts. Conscience should be at the centre of religion.
Q) When did the idea of becoming a writer came to you?
A) In 1980 I thought I would recreate where I came from. It (past) was slipping away so fast. I wanted to preserve memories, stories and history of who I am and where I came from. There was an inner need to get a sense of the past and a sense of who I am. I wanted to remake myself through fiction.
Q) Has the image of India changed in the West? Do you think all this talk about rising India is a lot of hype?
A) India is seen as a rising power. It’s not just hype. There is substance to rhetoric. India has built on its past; it has science and technology and the arts. It’s a good feeling to hear all these things about India. When I was growing up, India was seen as poorer than Africa. It’s nice for us to see that we can be proud of our heritage. India has now stature and presence in the world. It must live up to its expectations. By doing so, we may solve our problems. There is also an element of envy and resentment in the West that another power is rising. What the world is seeing today is the vitality and creativity of India. It’s no longer the poverty and ugliness that used to dominate the image of India earlier.
Q) Your next book is again about India. What are you trying to explore in your new book?
A) I have visited India many a time over the last few years. Everytime I come here, I discover something new about this country. This book is about my rediscovery of India. India is endless, diverse and deep. One can go on digging into it forever. It’s very much a part of me.
Q) Do you think the Indian writing in English has matured over the years? How do you compare it with the Latin American writing which has grabbed the attention of the West in such a big way?
A) Politically, Latin American writing was more courageous. The intellectual impact was bigger. Indian English writing still banks on the exotic, to some degree. It’s basically the ‘elephant-sadhu-spices’ syndrome. It likes pandering to stereotypes.
Q) Do you write every day? What is the writing regimen you follow?
A) I rewrite a lot and do a lot of research and reading in the course of writing my books. I write regularly and spend nearly four hours every day on writing.
Q) How does the process of writing transforms you?
A) It creates a humility in you. Writing becomes an obsession, a form of drug addiction. You feel liberated. It’s as though your blood has been purified.
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