‘There is no one single authority in my stories’: Githa Hariharan

It is difficult for an author today to write without any fear. The important thing is to acknowledge that fear but not to be defeated by it, says Githa Hariharan

April 06, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 06:18 pm IST

She has been challenging the status quo since the past millennium. Her first novel, The Thousand Faces of the Night, won her the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993. And then the landmark case she fought and won, with the Supreme Court ruling that children can carry their mother’s name, made Githa Hariharan the face of a modern India.

Hariharan comes back to the literary scene with her new novel, I Have Become the Tide, which deals with a country more politically turbulent than ever before. In this interview, Hariharan discusses the complexities of living in India today and stresses the importance of having a profusion of voices. Excerpts:

Is there any specific event which drove you to write this book?

I think, at this point, we are spoilt for choice of events when the entire idea of what a nation or a democracy should be is being torn apart. My novel was written with not only Rohith Vemula in mind, but for all the Vemulas and Kalburgis we know and do not know. It is very much a novel for this present moment, but it’s a novel.

What fiction-writers can do is go to the past and link it with the present to see if there are differences and similarities. More importantly, they must check how we got where we are — what did we forget, what didn’t we take care of, where did we fail?

But this novel is not about victimhood.

I think a novelist can show quite clearly through specific lives that a dissenter is not necessarily someone who is brave in the obvious ways. All those things like secularism, freedom of expression, that you take for granted because you don’t have to fight for it every day — suddenly you come to a point when the situation calls your bluff.

The question is not just of renewing the idea of India as our freedom fighters had envisioned it about 70 years ago, it’s also about allowing those who have been pushed to the margins to say ‘This is the India we want to make.’

‘Don’t be so political!’, ‘Caste doesn’t exist in this day and age’ are sentences often thrown around. Do you think it’s possible to separate politics from one’s identity?

Reports on the Dalit experience will show a wealth of human detail that you will immediately recognise as true. One of them is the sheer frustration of being continuously told that caste does not exist, but you (the Dalit) are thinking about it all the time. Bezwada Wilson (the head of the Safai Karamchari Andolan which seeks to eradicate manual scavenging) comes to mind in this context. He had said that it’s wonderful for the privileged to live without thinking about caste, but the marginalised have been asking to live without having to think about their own caste, or to be defined solely by it. It’s easy for us to live in bubbles, to think caste doesn’t operate any more. But it does.

Have you received any backlash in the process?

If you see yourself as a blend of

multiple identities (writer, citizen, and, in my case, a mother), how can your work not be politically engaged? And if you are politically engaged, especially in India in 2019, how can you not be at the receiving end of criticism from people who don’t know the meaning of debate, those who attack a book without reading it or a film without seeing it? I’ve got some hate mail but in today’s atmosphere that seems innocuous. It would be difficult for an author today to write without any fear. The important thing is to acknowledge that fear but not to be defeated by it.

You’ve said before that you found your writer’s voice not through poetry but through prose. Can you describe this voice?

Like all young people, I too wrote what I thought was poetry, in college. I wrote a lot of short stories for a while — my apprentice writing. I never got them published because I worked in a publishing house for sometime and I knew what was print-worthy.

I started writing my first novel out of boredom on maternity leave, although the baby was quite nice ( laughs ). I wanted to write about middle-class women’s lives because their tales seemed so thin.

It occurred to me, especially because I was surrounded by so many women at that point in my life, that the myths and tales my generation grew up with tell us how to live. But they also speak about how to break the rules. That struck me.

So my first three novels really have the story as a kind of heroine. The beauty of that exercise is that there is no one single authority to the story. Someone once pointed out to me that my titles always have plurals, and I did not realise this myself. But then it made so much sense — there is always a multiplicity of voices. In I Have Become the Tide , the stage is crowded, and I want that.

Do you write not just as an author but also as a female author?

Of course, no doubt. I’m a woman citizen with all its connotations, and I also had that court case. My belief in the equality of women informs my writing. But it’s not a quota that I try to fill — I do not make sure that there is a certain number of women characters in my work. I am a writer first. So I have to be true to the demands of the novel.

I assume that everything I believe in leaks into the novel. I can be pouring my ideas into a male or a female character — I certainly hope there is the ‘feminine’ even in my male characters. I would like to think my character Satya has all the best qualities of the ‘feminine’. In an earlier novel, The Ghosts of the Vasu Master , the male character’s concerns were actually mine.

What books are you working on at present?

I have co-edited a book with Salim Yusufji called Battling for India: A Citizen’s Reader . It has essays, poems, conversations, cartoons, and the like. A lot of them have been translated from languages like Hindi, Malayalam and Kannada. It focuses on the people in power and their cohorts, and also on those who are battling for India, sometimes in modest but significant ways.

The interviewer is a postgraduate student of English at Jadavpur University.

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