M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song

My review of M.G. Vassanji’s new novel The Assassin’s Song appeared in last weekend’s Chicago Tribune. Here’s the opening paragraph:

In February 2002, a group of Hindu demonstrators converged on the town of Ayodhya, India, to demand that a temple be built on the site of the Babri Masjid, a 16th Century mosque that had been destroyed a decade earlier. On their way back from the rally, their train stopped in the city of Godhra, in Gujarat state, where a group of Muslims standing on the platform allegedly heckled them. Part of the train carrying the Hindu demonstrators caught fire, and nearly 60 people were killed.

The deaths — which new evidence suggests may have been caused by a cooking stove inside the train car — led to months-long attacks on the state’s entire Muslim minority. As many as 2,000 people were murdered. Muslim women were raped and burned alive, and their babies were torn from their wombs. Using voter lists, mobs targeted and looted Muslim businesses. By the time the killings stopped, 150,000 Muslims had been displaced.

The sheer viciousness and depressing regularity of communal riots in Gujarat make it an unlikely setting for a novel about a mystical saint who transcends religious identity, yet that is where M.G. Vassanji places the action in his new novel, “The Assassin’s Song.” Alternating chapters tell the stories of Karsan Dargawalla, an Indian college professor who returns home to Gujarat after having spent long years abroad, and Nur Fazal, a 13th Century Sufi Muslim who arrives in Gujarat seeking refuge with the Hindu king, Vishal Dev. Karsan is Nur’s descendant, his successor — and his avatar.

You can read the review in full here.