In 'The Assassin's Song,' a young Indian seeks to flee his past

Karsan Dagwalla is born a 'Saheb' but longs to be free. M.G. Vassanji's sixth novel explores what happens when this wish comes true.

At the heart of M.G. Vassanji's sixth novel, The Assassin's Song, is an exercise in perspective. Definitions of right and wrong, truth and deception, the chosen and outcast – especially in matters having to do with religion – all depend on who's asking and who's answering.

Intertwining a 700-year-old family epic with a mystical mystery, Vassanji (two-time winner of Canada's prestigious Giller Prize for "The Book of Secrets" and "The In-Between World of Vikram Lall") crafts an intense and haunting work of fiction.

In 1960s India, young Karsan Dargawalla wants nothing more than "to be simply one among many, an ordinary mortal" – to go to school, play cricket, talk to girls, and make his own choices.

But his family legacy dictates otherwise for he's destined to inherit the title of Saheb ("Lord") from his father, who inherited the position from his father and so on for generations. By his very birth, Karsan is anything but ordinary: he is the designated protector and lord of Pirbaag, a small village in India in the troubled state of Gujarat and a historic hot spot of Hindu/Muslim violence.

The revered Pirbaag is a neutral zone. No labels are used or allowed. All are welcome regardless of "[c]aste, class, faith, language." Karsan, like the Sahebs before him, is taught – and firmly believes – that "differences are superficial; in fact, nonexistent."

Unlike his predecessors, however, Karsan strains against the boundaries of his birthplace, as the outside world literally arrives on his doorstep in newspaper and magazine bundles that a friendly delivery truck driver gathers for Karsan on his routes. A favorite teacher at the Christian school Karsan attends introduces him to the Bible – not overtly as religion, but rather as "a lot of stories" – and Karsan identifies with Isaac, who while he was the chosen son, did not have any choice when God asked Abraham to sacrifice him.

Even as his mother sneaks off in full burqa to watch films in the anonymity of darkened theaters as a temporary escape from her cloistered life, Karsan makes clandestine jaunts to the library and bookstore. In town, he meets a boy who encourages him to apply to an American university and who even steals from his grandfather in order to give Karsan the postage necessary to send his wrinkled, hand-written application to Harvard.

"The impossible" happens, and Karsan is accepted with a full scholarship. Begrudgingly, his father allows him to leave, thereby bestowing on him the freedom of choice.

A self-described "innocent abroad" during the tumultuous 1970s, Karsan's time at Harvard proves Edenic: surrounded by virtually unlimited knowledge, he greedily eats of the forbidden fruit and seemingly gains the power to "renounce [his] status."

He severs his link to his father, his god, his home by declaring, "I no longer believe in our path ... the true-path of the ancient sufi; to me it is nothing but a faith and blind like all other faiths."

For three decades, Karsan lives freely, even adopting a new name to match his new identity. He becomes a professor, marries, moves to Canada, fathers a child and, for awhile, is filled with such utter joy that he will deny anything that reminds him of his past, his betrayals. In this state of denial, what is truth and what is illusion quickly blurs.

Double tragedy strikes in both the world he created and the world he inherited. Through a series of "random-seeming events" he calls a "miracle? Perhaps only miraculous," Karsan embarks on a renewing path toward self-discovery as he returns to his embattled homeland.

The search for his family's fate leads Karsan to unearth – literally, as he digs up his father's letters in the shrine's now desecrated grounds – a family mystery.

At this intersection of knowledge and faith, Karsan ultimately learns acceptance. In that realization, as well, lies the meaning of Vassanji's enigmatic title – and that's a journey of discovery no appreciative reader should miss.

Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.

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