The Assassin's Song.


352 pages
Contains Bibliography
ISBN 978-0-385-66352-6
DDC C813'.54





Reviewed by Peter Brigg


In a tiny town in Gujarat in northwestern India is the shrine of Pir Baag, the holy place and burial site of the wandering scholar Nur Fazal, who had come south into India circa 1260 C.E. and in whom had been blended the religious systems of Sufi Islam, Hindu, and Jain. This novel explores the life of Karsan, born the son of the Saheb of Pir Baag, both keeper of the shrine and an avatar of the sufi, a scholar and spiritual/emotional counsellor to his community. Karsan’s boyhood is vividly set against the India of Nehru and the Chinese invasion, but the thrust of the novel is its depiction of his reluctance to become the Saheb after his father, as he is fated to do.


His escape comes in the form of a surprise scholarship to Harvard, where he becomes a scholar of English poetry and marries a woman from Winnipeg. He teaches in British Columbia but his life is shattered by the accidental death of his eight-year-old son and the desertion of his wife. He returns to Gujarat, where the shrine has been destroyed and his father murdered in the Hindu-Muslim riots, and he tells much of the story during a stay at a study centre which was formerly the British Raj’s Shimla home in the mountains, a situation complicated by the fact that his younger brother has become a Muslim extremist and possible terrorist.


This novel is rich and intricate and, while it is full of the lore and colour of Indian history, politics, and spiritual experience, it is finally about the deep and moving experiences of one man struggling with his destiny. The narrative has wonderful almost mystical sections set in 1260 C.E. in addition to the time schemes of Karsan in the present of the 1990s and the whole of his past life. It brilliantly captures the way in which all human lives are lived in the vise of family, culture, geography, and history from which escape often seems desirable but may prove futile or painful.


Vassanji, M.G., “The Assassin's Song.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 23, 2024,