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A Delhi Obsession

by M.G. Vassanji


In 1993, M.G. Vassanji
went to India for the very first time. His ancestral home by way of his grandparents has become a subject of enduring fascination – the 2007 novel The Assassin’s Song began its story there, and in 2008 the author produced a travelogue, A Place Within: Rediscovering India. Vassanji returns to the country in his latest work of fiction, which, unlike his brief detour into speculative fiction in 2016’s Nostalgia, is a much more conventional read. A Delhi Obsession tells the story of Munir Khan and Mohini Singh, two strangers who find themselves caught up in a love affair that pushes societal boundaries in politically charged contemporary India.

The recently widowed Munir is a self-described “mediocre has-been” of a writer from Toronto, born in Kenya and Muslim in name only, whose work has mainly focused on Asians in Nairobi. Now retired and an empty nester, he follows a sudden whim to travel to India, where he ends up staying at an elite club in New Delhi. There he comes across the married Mohini, a vivacious Hindu woman who is a weekly newspaper columnist and harried mother. She offers to show him around the capital; soon after they begin a slow-building affair, initially made up of meetings in public spaces and quickly deleted texts. Again and again, Munir returns to Delhi, where he finds solace in Mohini and renewed inspiration.

Complicating matters are the politics of India itself, a country beset by a resurgent Hindu right determined to restore religious and ethnic pride. This movement has resulted in lynchings over the buying of beef and “love jihads” – the violent beatings of young couples who dare to fall in love across religious or caste lines. Unbeknownst to them, Munir and Mohini are being watched by a love jihadi, Jetha Lal, a menacing presence at the club who appears to know everyone. Jetha Lal is accompanied by the Purifiers, a coterie of threatening young male followers dressed in white.

Told from the alternating perspectives of Mohini and Munir, the novel revolves around questions of identity, nationality, and religion. Despite seeing herself as a modern woman, Mohini is often struck by Munir’s lack of self-affirmed identity – he is neither appropriately Muslim nor sufficiently Indian. Munir, whose late wife was Scottish-Canadian, is taken aback by Mohini’s need to define him. Mohini’s response is instinctual: her family mythology is shaped by their fear of “murderous Muslim hordes” from the days of partition, when her parents had to flee to Delhi from what would become Pakistan.

Vassanji, a two-time winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, expertly intertwines episodes from Delhi’s history and the personal histories of his protagonists. However, while attempting to keep the duelling narrative strands moving, Vassanji takes Munir through a seemingly random tour of India, retracing aspects of the author’s own travels. The sometimes meandering plot resolves itself in an ending that is somewhat abrupt.

Narrative infelicities notwithstanding, A Delhi Obsession is worthwhile for its examination of marriage and love, what holds a family together, and the impact of history on a couple from seemingly different worlds.