Realism Books

‘I Have Become the Tide’ by Githa Hariharan: The years of the flood

‘Where is that land where water flows free?’ This is the refrain of a song that Chikka’s cattle-skinner father sings, longing for renewal in a swift river. His daily reality, however, is the pond in the untouchable colony: frothy, filthy, boiling with algae, and cooking poison. Githa Hariharan’s novel I Have Become the Tide begins a few centuries ago, on the day Chikka’s father is buried. Chikka flees the colony, carrying nothing but his drum and his despair, and finds refuge with two men who are part of a utopian society.

In the embrace of their new village, Anandagrama, where caste will not determine where Chikka lives, what he eats, or whom he loves, his tears and words are ready to flow like the river that runs through the story. A band of mystics and revolutionaries have envisioned a life free of caste, cautiously negotiating a space around the town and its temples, the hard kernel of orthodoxy. They work, they sweat, and they sing about the land they love, the land on which they do not own one blade of grass, one grain of dust. Chikka becomes a washerman, he marries, and it is his son — child of a washerman, grandson of a cattle-skinner — who becomes known as the poet Kannadeva.

Pursuing Kannadeva

The novel braids together Chikka’s story with a modern-day quest. Professor P.S. Krishna, studying Kannadeva, looks through old manuscripts to get a fuller picture of the saint-poet. The quest does not make for narrative suspense — whenever the professor looks for centuries-old palm leaves or singers of old songs, they fall conveniently into his hands — but it is a proper literary chase.

 

Hariharan has the old-school capacity to build a character from the ground up. From the professor’s talks with his students, his mornings with his wife, and his play with his grandson, we not only know what he believes but can also intuit how he has lived his life. As he writes of his new discoveries about the poet, he is shadowed by a “Hindu patriot” who is armed and ready to silence a thoughtful voice.

Another contemporary thread in the novel is the story of three young friends. The diligent Satya in medical school, Asha, studying to be a nurse, and Ravi, enrolled for a science degree. They are all labelled as quota admissions, irrespective of their abilities, and they try to keep in touch and support each other through a lonely first year. The same teachers and classmates who discriminate against them urge them not to harp on their caste. In the case of Satya, even when he excels in studies, there is active malice at work to drive him out of college. His short journey from hope to despair is powerfully written. Hariharan pulls her readers from the tightly constructed world of the three friends and throws them down in front of today’s newspaper.

Spots of light

When The Handmaid’s Tale , set in a stomach-churning future, was first published, Margaret Atwood stated that she had not depicted anything that was not already happening somewhere in the world. Fiction of that kind seldom exaggerates, as the disingenuous might charge. Rather, the worst incidents are likely to be understated, distilled and artistically contained. The experiences of the three students in I Have Become the Tide will ring true for anyone who has faced discrimination in an educational institution.

In the distant past, Kannadeva’s life takes a trajectory less shocking than Satya’s but equally tragic. One of his students at the monastery is driven out merely for asking questions, and soon the students put their minds to sleep and obediently recite whatever they’re told. Kannadeva turns his back on what has become a stagnant pond and returns to the river by which he grew up. Nothing remains of Anandagrama or its revolution — except hope. In the history of all human societies there is a season of dissent and resistance, a flowering of thought, a probe into the essence of humanity, a search for truth and wisdom. And then there is a shrinking back toward orthodoxy, till dissent rises again. Perhaps this is a kind of systole and diastole, both impulses equally necessary in history.

 

In his hostel room one night, Ravi dreams of a putrid canal behind his house and a torrential rain that makes it flow like a river. Floating in the current is a nest with three eggs, the three friends who will go forward one day. These are the episodes that make Hariharan’s novel luminous. The songs in it, written down by Kannadeva but not his alone, are spots of light and warmth in a dark story, and the reader will want to return to them long after the novel is read.

The writer is author of Three Seasons: Notes from a Country Year.

I Have Become the Tide; Githa Hariharan, Simon & Schuster, ₹499


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Printable version | Aug 29, 2022 11:30:16 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/i-have-become-the-tide-by-githa-hariharan-the-years-of-the-flood/article26457403.ece