The first migrations out of India were instigated by the British to satisfy the endless needs of empire. Indentured labourers were scattered carelessly, some to build railways, others to work on plantations, to be followed by intrepid entrepreneurs. MG Vassanji is currently the only noteworthy novelist from that diaspora (before him was VS Naipaul). Vassanji is precious, a faithful teller of stories that would have vanished.
He was raised in East Africa and then moved to the West. He embodies these multiplicities bestowed by history and understands the inherited unease of folk who have strayed too far from their original homelands.
Old ways were carried over, but time and distance warped and withered those traditions, weakened the cultural genes, made the migrants feel anxious and polluted. How they craved authenticity. In A House for Mr Biswas, based in Trinidad, Naipaul brilliantly described this nervous condition and then went on to "purify" his own identity by savagely cutting away his Caribbean heritage, to emerge a reincarnated Brahmin Indian.
Vassanji, thus far, had remained distant from his ancestral, subcontinental origins. His unique imagination roamed in Africa and North America, a nomadic soul. His characters engaged with perpetual dislocation and motion, nifty but afraid of the undertow of desolation. Connections with India are vague, ragged memories. This book, unexpectedly, appears to surrender to that lure of the East.
Based mostly in Gujarat, the first pages fly at you, a crazy mix of magic realism and the exotic, guru-fixated "spiritual" India popularised by hippies and bored pop stars.
Here are tricksy mystics, snake swallowers and a statue of Shiva that comes alive. Not for me, I thought. But the spell was cast. I couldn't leave the pages. In this layered novel there are, as the author says, "meanings within meanings... the truth lies shrouded behind a thousand veils."
It is the story of a shrine, Pirbaag, its revered custodian and his family, their meditative and open Islam that absorbed Hindu cosmology, and "ginans", devotional songs passed down the generations. Vassanji locates them in a fictionalised enclave, but their myths and practice are real. He and I were born into a Shia sect that believes, prays, contemplates Allah and sings like the faithful of Pirbaag. Such composite, tolerant faiths are now despised by fundamentalists. In the novel, that self-righteous hate prevails to devastating effect during the Gujarat massacres of 2002, when thousands of Muslims were slaughtered by their Hindu neighbours. Vassanji takes a stand against religious militancy through a ballad, a poetic lament which grips your heart. It is exquisitely done.
The main character is Karsan Dargawalla, Pirbaag's keeper-in-waiting. He hates the role he must inherit. When a boy in the Sixties, he just wants to play and be. His father understands and can't, and eventually Karsan escapes to Harvard, then Canada, to a life of guiltless pleasures. This part of the story lacks the intensity of the rest, but that may be intentional. The air is less heavily scented. The liked ingénue abroad is amusing to North Americans – a living avatar. He falls in love with a white woman, marries, gets to be one of them, a convincing narrative except for the dialogue, which at times is embarrassing. Marge, the object of Karsan's love, speaks like this: "You are a very complicated guy. You frighten me..." "Why? ... Why? It's like... wow!.."
Karsan returns to Pirbaag after personal and political tragedies force him to find himself, to fulfil his duties after too long. The guilt of severance, betrayal of his devout father and sweet, illiterate mother bursts through the dams of denial and eventually brings steadiness and purpose. But the world around him is irrevocably changed. Peace is a terrifying interlude before the next conflagration. The book ends and you can't sleep. The characters and tales toss around in dreams. An unforgettable novel.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's latest book, 'The Settler's Cookbook', will be published by Portobello books in October