M. G. Vassanji returns to York with The Assassin’s Song

On Oct. 7, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author M. G. Vassanji reading from his critically acclaimed novel The Assassin’s Song. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

The story begins with the arrival in Gujarat of the sufi Nur Fazal. He was our origin, the word and the song, our mother and father and our lover. Forgive me if I must sing to you….         

from The Assassin’s Song
by M. G. Vassanji

When two-time Giller Prize winner M. G. Vassanji (right) read from his work, his voice had a low chanting quality that suggested the presence of a mystic. Like all great teachers, he left more questions than answers, the kind one asks of the "dark speckled blanket" in the night sky. Returning to the Canadian Writers in Person series after an appearance in 2004 and his acceptance of a York honorary doctorate in 2005, the author treated students to an October night of storytelling and mystery. 

In The Assassin’s Song, Karsan Dargawalla is set to inherit his father’s legacy as caretaker of a shrine in India but chooses instead to start a new life in North America. Yet when trouble surfaces back home, he returns to reconnect with his personal history and that of Nur Fazal, the Sufi for whom the shrine is named.

Though the novel is not autobiographical, Dargawalla’s experiences parallel the author’s own journey from east to west and back again.

Vassanji was inspired to write the story as he travelled throughout India to research his own family background: "It was like touching history." He saw the many shrines that dotted the Indian landscape and wondered: "What would it be like to grow up in a place like this?" Like Dargawalla, he had only scraps of song and fragments of legend, but was intrigued by the notion of belief. Though formerly a nuclear physicist who did not believe in miracles, Vassanji did believe in poetry. "That’s my spirtuality: As an agnostic, reading poetry is the best I can do."

Nur Fazal, the fictional 13th-century sufi, represents this spiritual poetic. Unlike figures of religion that enforce the rules and doctrine of a book, he is a teacher and poet whose teachings gain a loyal following and are carried across centuries by oral tradition. It is his song to which the novel’s title refers. Fazal comes from a sect of "assassins" but he does not run around with a dagger and murderous intent. Instead, he is good with words, cutting down opponents with wit, a fitting metaphor for the writer. 

For Vassanji, something is nonetheless lost in between. "When you’re young, you look to the future and don’t think your grandmother will die. You think about your career and perhaps your next novel," he said. Yet in leaving home and its traditions, "you let go of the closeness to humanity that you once had." Between east and west, past and future, Vassanji and his characters try to place themselves as they struggle with their loss of home. For the author, this in-between place is where he has become accustomed: "I assume my life is one of conflict," said Vassanji. "It used to bother me but it doesn’t anymore. That’s what we are, what has become of us."

As Vassanji signed their books, many students asked him questions ranging from the technical to the metaphysical. These were questions they likely carried home with them into the night, echoing the seeking spirit of the author. "I write at night but I think about it all the time," he said.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Tonight, Oct. 21, author Douglas Glover will read from his novel, Elle.