about us | contact us | home

Our spaces are shrinking
all the time : Githa Hariharan

Born in 1954, Githa Hariharan was educated in Mumbai, Manila and the United States. She worked for public television in the US and returned to India in 1979 to work as an editor with a publishing house. She works as a freelance editor now.

Her first novel, The Thousand Faces of Night (1992) won the prestigious Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. Her other works include a collection of stories, The Art of Dying, (1993), followed by two novels, The Ghosts of Vasu Master (1994) and When Dreams Travel (1999). She has also edited A Southern Harvest, and co-edited a collection of secular stories Sorry, Best Friend! Her latest book, In Time of Siege has just been released in India, the US edition would be out in August 2003.

Hariharan's work has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch and Greek.

In a landmark case filed by her, the highest court of justice in India changed the guardianship laws to give a mother more right on her children than what was earlier provided for. Married with two sons, she now lives in New Delhi.


Your latest book In Times of Siege holds up a brutal mirror to India, an India that has been completely seized by fanaticism, hatred, and mistrust. The book unfolds the story of ordinary men and women struggling to make sense of hatred, ignorance, love and loyalty - to individuals, ideas and the nation. As a writer how do you react to such fanaticism?

I felt compelled to write In Times of Siege. The book is my writer's equivalent of shouting a slogan; and a writer's slogan is something more than mere rhetoric. It explains why the writer is issuing a warning, a call to understand what is besieging us, and why we have to resist. A writer's "slogan" challenges comfortable middle class placidity and asks dangerous questions.

In the last several years all of us know -- as citizens, as people with high stakes in the place we live in - that the world as we know it, the country we think of as ours, is falling apart.

The best word to describe what we feel - the state we are in - is siege. Our spaces, as citizens, as writers, as teachers, as students, as rational people, are shrinking all the time. There is a sense of the immediacy, and the all-pervasiveness of prejudice and hatred - they're no longer far away in some remote part of the country; or out on the streets. They are at your doorstep, in your own living room.

I felt a tremendous compulsion to write, not just about a specific aspect of the fundamentalisms we are seeing around us, but the insidious ways in which minds are being shrunk. This is why I set the novel in a university. The process of learning is supposed to break down walls and enlarge the student's world; not shrink it by encouraging the irrational, or reinforcing prejudice or inculcating hatred of anything or anyone that is different from the self. Most of all, it is supposed to encourage debate and disagreement. How do you learn to think for yourself if you swallow all the answers someone (and someone ill-equipped) has cooked up for you?
And there is also the danger of everything being homogenized, as if this rich and complex India we live in can be reduced to one uniform. It's like a nightmare when all difference is denied and all of us have to wear the same prison uniform.

But not one of us can say we are not a "minority" - there's caste, gender, language, life-choices - so many things make for difference, and we can't just ask for "tolerance". We have to understand the differences, make space for them to thrive, and celebrate them. That's what the Great Indian Experiment is all about. The events of 9/11 and the aftermath, and closer home, Gujarat, only confirmed for me the necessity of this book. I knew I had to finish the story I had begun.

In the book, Shiv Murthy, a professor of history finds fundamentalism at his door. He then discovers that the ideas he has inherited - about history, nations and patriots - are shrinking day by day. He knows that prejudice speaks different languages but carries the same message: 'Trust only those of your kind'. Isn't this the world we are all living in? Where can it go from here? More hatred, more death? Do you see a ray of hope anywhere?

There's always hope, otherwise what's the point of going on? There are all kinds of fundamentalists, warmongers and hate-speakers in the world today, yet there are large numbers of people who are against war, hatred. Who want to live with different kinds of people and cultures. Who want, in fact, to celebrate these differences, not just tolerate them. We have seen evidence of this all over the world. In India, we've seen ordinary people (like my Shiv Murthy) react to hatemongers with revulsion, after the Gujarat carnage for example.

Shiv Murthy has to battle the past, his demons and ultimately choose a path for future. But do we all have choices? Don't most succumb to the demons - demons that we willingly choose or are compelled to choose?

The "respectable, decent" middle class person, the sort that respects others even if they are different, that's the kind of person the book is looking at. When the cushioning this group traditionally enjoys is taken away - as it was in Gujarat for example - people, however cautious and "uncommitted", will suddenly wake up and say this is not acceptable. They have to stand up and speak for themselves, because even their relatively safe world is falling apart. You could be a respected doctor or lawyer, but because you belong to a particular community you are in danger from the fundamentalists and their instrument, the mob.

About your first book The Thousand Faces of Night, you say: I've used myths to help examine contemporary women's lives - to suggest that they might help us to understand these lives, which on the surface seem rather placid and devoid of event. Isn't it always difficult to be a woman? There is so much happening in their lives that most of the times they are not even aware of their own Self. Don't they need to pause and look for answers, or at least ask questions?

It's always "difficult" to be a member of any group that has been oppressed or marginalized in some way over a long period of time. And when you belong to two or three of these groups simultaneously - as in the case of a poor dalit woman in India or a poor African-American woman in the US - things can get doubly difficult.

In The Art of Dying, Death is the protagonist, you weave stories around it. What drew you to Death?

At certain times in your life, there are certain themes that obsess you. That you use as a window to view the world and all its mysteries. In The Art of Dying, I look at death to see how it co-exists with the living. So the stories finally celebrate life despite the pervasive presence of death.

Michael Ondaatjee called your prose "full of subtleties and humour and tenderness". How do you blend the laughter, the sensual and the cerebral into one?

I think the humour in my work tends to irony, wordplay, dark humour for the most part. I love to make all kinds of things alive - whether it is animals or buildings or the moon, give them human features and moods - this may be part of the combination of the sensuous and the cerebral. Finally it is all in the language, the image, the obsession with story.

As you yourself say: I feel both lucky and cursed to have a particular kind of voice - I can look at the contemporary world in an invented landscape. Is that the permanent voice of Githa Hariharan?

No. When writing In Times of Siege, I felt compelled to take the most direct approach available to a writer: to meet what we are living through head on and turn it into fiction. The landscape is far from "invented" - and the ideas and emotions are equally real and contemporary.

Most of your works have the resonance of a dream, myths blur with the present, some change, others remain the same. There is a lot of retelling in your works; you seem to be preoccupied with storytelling and as in the case of When Dreams Travel even the storyteller.

My first three novels looks at a small space - whether it is a woman's space or a teacher's or a storyteller's -- and expand this space through the power of the story. And there is no such thing as the final, authoritative version of a story. Stories only have meaning when they are retold for our times, from different points of view - by different storytellers. In the new novel, of course, there is no dream, no magic - only the very dubious magic of day-to-day life!

In an earlier interview you had said that you have polished your language to such an extent that it has become diaphanous. Is that the most important tool in your arsenal?

I expect it is for any writer. Language, completely intertwined with ideas, images, designs.

Most critics feel that your books have amazing clarity of structure and language. Does your experience as an editor help here?

I wouldn't be the kind of writer I am if I were not an editor. I rewrite endlessly; I have editoritis - which may be a nuisance for my publishers, but I think it helps the text. I want the language, finally, to be as clear as a mirror. And for the structure to be part of the story, in the sense that any complexity or acrobatics in structure is linked with what is happening in the story.

You were instrumental in changing India's guardianship law. Under the Hindu personal law, the husband is the sole guardian of his children; the mother was not a legal guardian so long as the husband was alive. Was it a natural extension of your concern for women's voices and their desires?

It's difficult to separate the woman and the writer and the citizen in you. Personally, it was very important for me to challenge this law: imagine being told you are not the "natural" guardian of the children you have borne - and that too in a society that places such a high premium on motherhood! But the important thing to remember is that all the personal laws in India are anti-women, anti-lower castes, anti anyone who was marginal to the scheme of things when these traditional laws were formulated.

You have named Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata's Palm of the Hand Stories and J.M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg as 'significant reading experiences'. Any other favorites? Any other influences?

I don't think about influences as I work, obviously. But like any writer, I am deeply indebted to the writing I admire. And this definitely includes Coetzee's work, from Age of Iron to Disgrace. Also Andre Brink, Calvino, Rushdie, Borges, Pat Barker, Amitav Ghosh, all the traditional tales from different parts of the world…

    >> features
    >> profiles
    >> interviews
    >> education
    >> diary