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Wanted to make a strong statement on present day happenings in India: M.G. Vassanji

The book is a sensitively written account of an illicit love affair between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man

Saturday November 30, 2019 7:58 PM, Vishnu Makhijani, IANS

A Delhi Obsession

New Delhi: Award winning Canadian author M.G. Vassanji says he has ended his new novel, "A Delhi Obsession", abruptly because he wanted to make a "strong statement" on the present day happenings in India.

"I wanted to make a dramatic statement, no subtleties, no epiphanies. In my usual mode, I would have had a quiet ending with just some thoughtfulness, some mystery maybe, but I was aware that I had to make a strong statement. At my age (69), I didn't want to hedge this way or that way. I wanted to write about something that could happen and, in fact, is happening in places. So I wanted to make that statement and that's how I ended it dramatically," Vassanji, who is on a visit here, told IANS in an interview.

Set in contemporary Delhi, the book is a sensitively written account of an illicit love affair between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man.

Munir Khan, a recent widower from Toronto, meets the charming and witty Mohini Singh, a married liberal newspaper columnist, in the bar of the high-brow Delhi Recreational Club. An enigma surrounds the Kenya-born, westernised and agnostic Munir, and an inexplicable attraction takes root. Delhi's streets, monuments and ruins become the settings of their passionate affair.

Parallel to this is the story of Jetha Lal and his acolytes, self-proclaimed protectors of cows and Hindu women, who raises the decibel levels at the Club - even threatening Munir and sneering at Mohini.

The lovers meet for the last time on the day before Munir is to fly back to Toronto on the conclusion of his second visit to Delhi. Two days later, Munir's body bearing multiple stab wounds is found in the sprawling gardens behind the club. Two weeks later, Mohini meets a tragic end as her car catches fire.

"I had built up to it. Towards the end, they are very blatant in their behaviour. She's the one who takes the big risk, morally and in terms of what the society around demands and what the politics demand -- that certain things are not done. There are undercurrents of 'love jihad' as well as 'gau raksha'.

"She is torn between her background, like many women I have met who are liberal but attached to their roots. They still go to the mandir and then go and have a whiskey or something," said Vassanji, the author of eight previous novels, two short story collections and three non-fiction collections.

Born in Kenya and raised in Tanzania, Vassanji is two-time winner of Canada's Giller Prize for fiction, the Governor General's Prize for best work of non-fiction, the Commonwealth First Book Prize and the Bressani Prize.

"A Delhi Obsession" (Penguin/pp 237/Rs 499) is Vissanji's second India-centric novel after "The Assassin's Song".

Is another India-centric novel on the cards?

"Not centred (on India) but it will look at a Pakistani character. Someone born before Partition, that's what I want to look at in the next novel. Someone whose roots are in undivided India but by default becomes a Pakistani and leaves the country and then looking at his career," the author said.

He attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, where he specialised in nuclear physics before moving to Canada as a postdoctoral fellow in 1978. He did research in nuclear physics and theory for 10 years from 1979 to 1989 before realising that his calling lay elsewhere.

MIT had an optional course in writing. The professor who ran it told him to start a journal, a practice he continues to this day.

"Writing always came to me, but what you write when you are young is different from what you are writing now, because you have to learn and improve and become an expert. There's a skill (to be acquired)... Sometimes you feel you are like an artisan.

"When I reached Toronto in 1981 and started working at the University of Toronto, I suddenly realised that I might not be able to go home because of the political situation in Tanzania and Kenya. That gave me a greater impulse to keep writing and just recreating what was lost," Vassanji explained.

The rest, as they say, is history. His first novel, "The Gunny Sack", appeared in 1989.

"When you are doing conventional science, you are building on what others have done, unless you are a genius. Then you start a trend. So it became tedious after a while. Whereas when I wrote a story and it was complete, there was a certain feeling of accomplishment. I felt I had done something, created something that no one else can do. It almost seemed readymade for me," he concluded.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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