By Suvanshkriti Singh
The India International Centre, where I am meeting Moyez Vassanji for a tete-a-tete on his latest authorial outing, A Delhi Obsession, is beautiful in a distant, stoic kind of way. Or, perhaps, having spent the last two days feasting on the novel, I am reading too much of its aesthetic into its author's life. Parallels between what the internet has taught me of Vassanji and the idea I have of Munir Aslam Khan, A Delhi Obsession's protagonist, play around incessantly in my mind. Vassanji's quiet, affable warmth, shining through eyes that manage, somehow, to simultaneously appear acutely perceptive and lost in faraway thought, is exactly how I imagined Munir. The two also share their multi-hyphenated identities - Kenya-born, Canadian citizens of Indian origin. And, Munir speaks with Vassanji's "accent of many places". How long, after all, does a writer avoid writing themselves into their characters?
My interlocutor, however, is more reluctant to call the novel autobiographically influenced in the traditional sense. Despite the similar ethnicity, for instance, he comes from a Gujarati background as opposed to Munir's Punjabi one-a difference that makes the character's thoughts on the Canadian experience markedly different from his creator's. Yet, while Vassanji does not record his own events, he does believe that in a novel, the attitude of the narrator is usually what the author has. And, the core of this one - its preoccupation with the religious faultlines that have shaped much of India's contemporary history and continue to dominate its social politics - is deeply personal, he relents.
More so, since it foregrounds fundamental questions about identity, roots, and belonging, of the impossibility of singularity in either, with which Vassanji has long lived - he recalls, for instance, attempts to understand his position with respect to African freedom movements, and his curiosity to locate the origins of the folk myths and bhajans on which he was raised. The character, then, simply evolved within the matrix of these questions.
Munir, his wife having died a year ago, feeling "rootless and lost," and drained of his creative spirit, finally visits India, on a whim. There, he finds himself drawn to the siren call of history-his history-and taken, completely, by the charmingly sharp and painfully married Mohini Singh. Love blossoms over trips to Dariba Kalan and Safdarjung Tomb, meals at Karim's and drinks at the elite Delhi Recreational Club, over stolen texts and hushed phone calls. Complications, of course, abound. That he is agnostic, finds his gods in art, literature, and music doesn't seem to satisfactorily compensate for that inherited sin of an Islamic name. That she is a modern, liberal woman fails to calm her anxieties as a Hindu one. The vagaries of passion are intensified by the moral and ethical dilemma over its extramarital nature. Through it all, the searing, incisive gaze of a deeply communal society remains inescapable, and by turning its focus on the duo's private thoughts, Vassanji compels his readers to confront the absurdity of fundamentalist religiosity.
The origin of the Hindu-Muslim divide, as it exists today, is often traced to the experience of Partition. But to those, like Vassanji, brought up outside of that experience, the hatred is incomprehensible and painful. In his words, he can't "suddenly evolve a hatred for someone of Muslim origin, or someone who is in Pakistan" - he wouldn't know how to! The new dispensation and mood in the country, he feels, has exacerbated this divide - Muslims are always other, subject of news, they are census figures, education figures, and economy figures, but they are robbed of their personhood.
I wonder if it is ever possible to do away with the us-and-them structure of society, but Vassanji is optimistic; for him, the blame for the wall that divides Hindus and Muslims in India (and Pakistan) growing higher and deeper lies squarely with politics.
He cites the implicit syncretism of the huge popularity of a Mughal-E-Azam or of a Muslim director helming a Mother India, the explicit harmony of an Amar Akbar Anthony, and the simple foregrounding of an individual qua individual in any number of Raj Kapoor movies. In comparison, popular media now seems to have taken to reducing faith to rigid caricatures of behavioural or linguistic quirks.
Perhaps one could, like Vassanji does, call the preoccupation with finding a space outside religious identity, the freedom to "just be", the naïvety of a returnee to Delhi - certainly, the author himself is aware of the privilege that allows him to be "happily, willingly deracinated". But, it is precisely the strife for this seemingly-utopian ideal that Vassanji makes Munir face that gives A Delhi Obsession undeniable political significance.
It is to the novel's credit that its plot seamlessly accommodates an alternate model for religious integration in the arc of Munir's daughter. For anyone who still managed to delude themselves that India is a secular nation, the novel comes as a rude awakening, the revelation made more desolate and more riveting by its delightfully incisive, evocative prose.
Nor does the privilege make Vassanji averse to the notion of faith; it is the trap that belief systems lay with which he takes issue - fundamentalism's worst sin is not that its obsession with purity flies in the face of history and rationality, but that it co-opts ordinary people as enablers of violence.
The novel's emphasis on the impact of events that appear so distant in history textbooks on the lives of women and men who could be one's neighbours or colleagues is refreshing. This microscopic focus comes, Vassanji confesses, as much from his own hatred for the impersonal way history was - and in many cases, continues to be - taught in school as it does from his many interactions with Indians over 25 years.
For instance, a large part of Mohini's character is drawn from his observations about the Indian wife's quotidian experience of cooking rotis and supervising her child's homework. So, too, is the novel's meditation on marriage and love. Not that it was planned. For Vassanji, the decision to design A Delhi Obsession as a love story was in service of highlighting the socio-political tension of religious difference - but his engagement with the moral dilemma that an impossible love and an unhappy marriage presents is simultaneously tender and amoralistic. More importantly, there is no attempt to offer a definitive resolution.
Yet, it is precisely Vassanji's restrained ambition - the complete absence of conceit despite the deeply personal investment - that allows his novel to reach far beyond its stated authorial objective of exposing the faultlines of communalism. A Delhi Obsession is as much an exposition of the migrant's constant struggle for rootedness, the desire to belong to a land and its stories, as it is an argument against religious essentialism.
The novel's matrix achieves the remarkable feat of staying rivetingly cogent while offering the reader the opportunity to probe a deliciously nebulous tangent every few pages or so Equally, it is a masterclass in creative writing- from narrative technique and tone to rhythm and style, Vassanji's sublime sensitivity to language(s) makes the experience of reading this novel decadently pleasurable. And, its afterglow viscerally beautiful, and haunting.