MG Vassanji is best known for his novels The Gunny Sack and The Book of Secrets. His last work, The In-between World Of Vikram Lall, gave academia a catchphrase — ‘in-between’ — to underline shifting identities in an increasingly global world. Born and brought up in East Africa, Vassanji went to the US to study and then moved to Canada. He has won the Giller Prize twice. In India to promote his new novel, Vassanji talks about The Assassin’s Song, set in Gujarat and culminating in the 2002 riots in the state, his ‘Indian’ origins and the in-between state of the world.

The Assassin’s Song is your first book based in India. Did you intend to write about India, or did the subject bring you here? 

If you ask me why India, I have no answers. But, yes, the subject brought me here, as it does to any writer. I first wanted to set the book in Central Asia, the place where the fakir Nur Fazal comes from in Song. But then I decided that I would keep that as part as a sort of a prologue to the story and set the actual narrative in present-day Gujarat — the Indian region I know best.

What is the novel about? 

The story is about a family that has been the custodian of a Pir’s shrine in rural Gujarat for centuries till the next in the line, my narrator Karsan Dargawalla, disowns his privileges and goes away. Later when the violence in Gujarat destroys the shrine and his brother becomes entangled in radical Islam, he comes back to claim what he had once spurned. I was not sure how much I could relate the story to many readers in the West who are not too familiar with Indian rural settings. So I had to do some research and thinking to make the narrative as interesting as possible.

Like your previous novels, Song is about how one family is at the receiving end of historical and political turmoil… 

Yes, that has been my motif throughout. In this case, the Dargawalla family is at the crossroads of several interconnected strands of history, mythology and contemporary politics. Karsan comes back because the threat to the values he had once spurned is now bigger than the rebellion of an individual.

You were born and raised in East Africa; you went to the US and then settled in Canada. And yet you are known as a writer of Indian origin. Has this irony ever bothered you? 

Second or third generation Indians settled in East Africa had preserved a certain way of life that was neither African nor white. We had our language, songs, stories and collective memories that we kept close to us. Indians had thrived and even suffered that way, especially when countries like Kenya and Tanzania went through one turmoil after another. I took the assorted memories with me to the US, but there I had a rebirth as an individual. My understanding of the world changed. Then Canada gave me a sense of belonging. But the Indian in me stayed. I remember that when I came to India for the first time in 1993, I was near Jantar Mantar and I heard a man abusing another in the foulest of language. I understood each word, though I had never really spoken the tongue!

How would you compare your experiences in Africa and Canada? 

There is no comparison. In Africa, we lived as communities side by side and there was some exchange, but not all African people were dying to get their children married to Indians. Not that the Indians were keen to get their children married to Africans either! And the whites lived very different lives. But Canada belongs to everybody. Some might go early, some late, but nobody can call it their own. Canada has been practising something for a long time, which only lately is being done elsewhere, like Britain and even the US — having people of all ethnicities understand that they have a stake in the country.

Your life is almost a set-piece chronicle about displacement and diaspora. You are doubly exiled. How do you react to that? 

I am not bothered. I have stories to tell. And I try to tell them as imaginatively as possible. I sincerely believe that the more stories we tell, the more we will understand each other in a fractured world. And, frankly, I am of multiple exiles. I am a non-practising Muslim with origins in Gujarat, and the rest you just said. So it’s more than just a country or region.

But you are always slotted as a post-colonial writer?

This is academic packaging. Even literature has multiple identities. Each book can be placed under several heads, depending upon what you want to study in it. But trying to forcefully shove a writer or a book under one overarching idea is unacceptable.

Do you see the liberal, reformist tradition of Sufism vanishing from Islam? 

Yes, I do. And with that will go the joy and irreverence of this magnificent tradition. In my research for this book, I came across a Sufi saint who kissed the feet of a man hanged for robbery. When I asked him why he did that, the Sufi said that he did so because the robber had died for what he believed in. I completely admire this joie de vivre. This culture is at stake.

Are we going to see another book set in India soon? 

Yes, it will be a collection of my travels in India, due early next year.