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book review

Handout

  • Title: A Delhi Obsession
  • Author: M.G. Vassanji
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada
  • Pages: 288

Earnest post-colonial narratives about Indian immigrants like himself were M.G. Vassanji’s novelistic bread and butter for decades, so when he took a playful swerve into speculative fiction with his last book, Nostalgia, it was as though he’d dropped his tweed jacket off at the dry cleaners and picked up a silver space suit. Even more astonishing was how good it looked on him.

The space suit has been returned, at least for the time being; nostalgia plays a more literal role in Vassanji’s contemporary-set latest, A Delhi Obsession. Munir Khan is a Nairobi-born Toronto novelist of Muslim-Indian heritage who, when the book begins, isn’t in a great place: His Scottish-Canadian wife, Aileen, has recently been killed in a car crash, while his daughter, who lives in New York, has married a Jewish intellectual and failed to invite him to the wedding. He doesn’t even have his art to fall back on. Although his agent assures him the world is breathlessly awaiting his next novel, Munir knows what he’s suffering from isn’t writer’s block, but writer’s impotence: He’s simply lost his drive.

When Munir decides to visit his ancestral homeland for the first time, it’s thus with an air of dejection. He sets his sights on Delhi, the city from which his goldsmith grandfather migrated to Kenya under mysterious circumstances a century earlier. Days after his arrival, that nothing-to-lose spirit remains at play when Munir sees a woman with Bollywood good looks at the bar of a tony social club and decides to approach her. There’s a mutual frisson, partly from the illicitness of their situation: Mohini is a married mother of two teenagers. When Munir boldly asks her to show him the “real India,” it seems to surprise them both when she says yes.

Initially, it’s an affair of the heart. Although she’s unafraid to ruffle feathers with modern takes on topics such as teen love in the daily newspaper column she writes, Mohini is still a devout Hindu with conservative family values. As she and Munir traipse around various shrines, temples and neighbourhoods, an occasional brushing of hands is about as steamy as things get.

Author M.G. Vassanji.Handout

Still, with Mohini and Delhi (which at times feel interchangeable) acting as a kind of hybrid muse, Munir’s romantic and writerly mojo starts to return. When he’s not with Mohini, Munir goes to the library, where he becomes captivated by a 13th-century Sufi poet and begins to patch together the events around his grandfather’s sudden exodus. When the time comes for him to leave India, Munir promises Mohini he’ll return, which he does, twice more, the pair filling the months between visits with surreptitious, teenagery texts and e-mails.

Mohini’s gallivanting justifiably raises the suspicions of her philandering security-officer husband, who believes all Muslims, even Munir, an atheist with slim ties to his Muslim heritage, have terrorism in their DNA. It also elicits the disapproval of her family, who fled Pakistan’s “murderous Muslim hordes” during Partition, and of Jetha Lal, a menacing white-clad presence who seems to pop up everywhere Mohini and Munir go, and whose avowed mission, to protect the sanctity of cows and Hindu women, has earned him the nickname “the Purifier.”

A Delhi Obsession has plenty of Delhi. It could, however, do with a bit more obsession. Munir and Mohini’s relationship is presented as a grand passion, a corrective to the fact that both married for security and status rather than love. Yet, ours is mostly the backstage view: Munir in hotel rooms, or his home in Toronto, waiting for the phone to ring and feeling disappointed when it doesn’t. Vassanji seems uncomfortable writing sex, putting it off as long as possible before delivering a few brief, Harlequin-esque clichés: “They made passionate, reckless love. A fearless consummation oblivious to the fire outside.” A bigger issue is the novel’s sway-back arc: a plodding middle is made to feel more so by the sudden, shock ending.

As in his past novels, identity is a prime focus for Vassanji, and he mostly does a fine job playing off the complex religious and cultural ironies of Munir and Mohini’s situations. “Identity is all the rage now,” Munir says in reference to his North American daughter, but if his embrace of India and Indianness shows him anything, it’s that identity has never stopped being the rage; or, for those like Jetha Lal, the cause of it. Mohini makes Munir question his status as a “happily deracinated” Canadian, while Mohini comes to see how the erstwhile safe harbour of her culture can also act as a kind of prison.

A Delhi Obsession was written, Vassanji tells us in an author’s note, in response to the radicalization of attitudes about identity he observed on his own trips to India, and indeed, it often reads like something he felt he needed to write. Now that he has, here’s hoping he dons that space suit again soon.

Emily Donaldson is the editor of Canadian Notes & Queries and Best Canadian Essays 2019

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