Book Reviews

Review Published in BOOK REVIEW

Oh ! For the Realms of the Spirit

Navtej Sarna

IN TIMES OF SIEGE. By Githa Hariharan, Viking, PPS 206.

The first few pages of Githa Hariharan’s In Times of Siege quicken the reader’s pulse. Fifty-two year old Professor Shiv Murthy drives to a University girls hostel and picks up his young ward who has just broken a leg. Immediately she sets up a brilliant conspiracy scenario by insisting that he not tell her parents that she has broken a leg and is staying in his house for some weeks. Add to that the fact that the professor’s wife, a martinet of sorts from all accounts, is nowhere in sight. In fact she is far away in Seattle under the pointed shadow of the Sky Needle. Endless possibilities scurry around these pages and the reader settles back with a long nimboopani in delighted anticipation. What do we have here? An Indian version of Lolita, even if slightly grown-up? Or an Indian version of Coetzee’s Disgrace? Will temptation do in the staid, diffident professor? Will Seattle prove to far a town for the hold of marital fidelity……And when the Professor, in what is obviously an uncharacteristic move takes long leave and begins to help with the housework just to be in close proximity of his twenty four year old ward, the scene seems set for a battle royale between temptation and habit, traditional fears and the desire to jump.

Just then-and quite regretfully at least for this reader- Githa Hariharan chooses to shift gear. Convinced, it would appear, of the need not just to write a novel, but also to make an unambiguous political statement, she drops the tale of temptations and begins a predictable tale of liberal versus fundamentalists or “fundoos” as we get to know them. A lesson by Shiv about the twelfth century reformer poet Basava becomes the centerpiece of discord between the two groups. Arrayed against him and his friends is the Itihas Suraksha Manch, the self professed protectors of history. The ambiguities of the long dead Basava, his challenge to caste and his iconoclasm do not go down well with the more uniform and saintly image that this group would rather project. Inevitably then follows the confrontation, the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the right with the left. The novel unfortunately meanders down the path of predictable plotting and posturing. The academics divide- the fundamentalists reveal their true colours, the rest try, without much conviction, to hang together. The higher-ups seem to be just waiting for an opportunity to lose their spine. The young ones- friends of his ward Meena- plan, over potato chips and coke, to fight back, revolution against counter-revolution. The media gets into the act; anonymous callers swing into action. In the midst of all this, Shiv cuts a sympathetic figure, convincingly lost, unable it seems to fathom the enormity of the furor he has caused, yearning for normalcy and simplicity. The unlikely hero finds himself caught in the vortex of a historic moment. He has to stand up and be counted. But it seems he would rather be following his daily routine of planning lessons for distance learning, drinking chai in the corridor canteen, making occasional desultory love with a colleague. Or if he cannot do that, it appears he would rather just disappear to a mysterious end. Like Basava did, leaving the city and the movement he had started collapsing behind him. Like Shiv’s father did, disillusioned by the actual achievement of the freedom that he had helped fight for, getting off the train at a station and never coming back. Now that would have been a story…But Hariharan puts Shiv through the grill. He appears in TV interviews, speaks at functions, plots and plans, takes himself seriously. And all for the sake of a not very original message, the truth that Basava sees in the glimmering river: that cross currents can coexist, that rapids and the most placid of waters are fellow travelers, that there is more than just one way of looking at things. And hate mongers exist today as they did in the twelth century.

For a brief while towards the end, Hariharan seems to go back to the book that she originally started with. Once again Shiv’s struggle is not with the "fundoos” or those castigating his lesson but with the twenty four year old temptation still lying in his study, waiting to get the cast off her leg. There is a clumsy, half sexual encounter and then she is gone, back into her world, confident, decisive and, above all, young. At that moment, the political part of the book seems irrelevant, almost unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with the book as it is. It works fine as a novel; some would say, a useful novel, demanded by the times to fight the forces of darkness. But as a lover of fiction, I would rather prefer to tread not through the known territory of newspaper columns but through the realms of the spirit, the oddities of the mind, the vagrancies of the heart. Just imagine if Githa Hariharan had carried on the story of a fifty-two year old Professor on leave, his twenty-four year old ward in a plaster cast in his study, his wife thousands of miles away…a Professor wishing to learn the mysteries of unknown life, like his father did when he just upped and got off at a non-descript railway station and never returned…..