Githa Hariharan’s latest novel I Have Become The Tide centres around the caste system. Almost three decades on since her first novel, and two decades on since she fought a landmark case in court, the writer spoke to Firstpost about the way her writing has evolved, the influence of Rohith Vemula’s death on her work and the politics of her writing.
You travel across generations in your latest novel. In your first, you travelled across worlds. Is this merely stylistic or do you as a writer find great satisfaction in jumping across fences (especially in fiction)? What intrigues you most about this approach and what do you find most challenging in writing this way?
I cannot write without many voices, many stories, being onstage together. This is why I love the novel as a form. It allows me to see different lives and times side by side, and tease out the links between them. In I Have Become the Tide, this way of seeing and writing was especially important. I wanted to show how the terrible cancer in our country, caste discrimination, persists in both old and new ways. So my novel had to travel from the life and struggle of a cattle skinner about 900 years ago, to the lives of three Dalit students in India today. But along with caste, there is a new terror in our midst: the crushing of dissent, of questions, of teaching and learning. I had to weave in the story of a professor who writes about his discovery that a poet who is described as a “Hindu saint” is actually Dalit. Together the three strands ask us to see, with very clear eyes, the India we are living in today. They show us the terrible times we are living through. But they also give us hope, with the bravery of those who resist, who ask questions, and who carry on with what they must do – whether it is writing, or teaching, or studying.
How did you arrive at the title I Have Become the Tide? You said in an interview that the politics of your first novel ‘didn’t strike you at first’. You have since then written political texts, columns and non-fiction. Has your politics nurtured your writing and vice-versa? Should young writers similarly, embrace their politics?
“I Have Become the Tide” is the title of a poem by Marathi poet JV Pawar, translated into English by Eleanor Zelliott and Jayant Karve. Both the title and the poem speak powerfully of the rising anger, and the rising resistance, of Dalits, of youth, and of those who dissent today.
As for writing and politics: the “political” may be overt or implicit in a work of fiction. But I don’t see how you can either write or live, without grappling with the political – the numerous power struggles we witness in our day-to-day lives. The writer and the citizen live in the same place. They may speak in different dialects sometimes; but what they speak of, and their dreams for change, are pretty much the same. We are living through a time when right-wing ideology has led to hate-mongering and war-mongering, and when more and more people are being excluded from full citizenhood. And all of us are being told how to live, love, eat, and even think. How can you not be politically engaged in such a time?
Your latest novel centres the caste system. January, 2016 (Rohith Vemula) was a watershed month in some ways. But has much changed on campuses? Will the Dalit students in your book carry a bit of Vemula in them? Did you find yourself seeing one in the other, when you were writing the book? What does that do to a writer’s method?
I have written fiction. The people in my novel, and what they live through, are fictitious. But they are very close to reality, past and present. I Have Become the Tide was written with Rohith Vemula, and all the Rohiths of India, in the same room. In fact, the novel was written with all the Kalburgis of India in the room as well.
And no, nothing has been done about institutional discrimination since the death of Rohith Vemula. There is the Thorat Committee report from even earlier; there was some talk of a Rohith Act. But we are yet to see any action on either. If anything, the present dispensation has ensured new instances of caste discrimination. Just a few examples: the flogging of Dalits in Una; destroying Dalit livelihood with the right-wing obsessions of the beef ban and cow protection. Official instructions were even given to stop using the word “Dalit” in official communications. The political power contained in the word seems to scare the casteists in the government.
But there is something else we can see: we see that people are not going to keep quiet. Dalit groups, progressive groups, citizens in general, are going to continue demanding better opportunities for Dalit youth, and firm action on discrimination and atrocities. What the writer as a citizen can do is recount the human story behind the reports we read and the news we watch: the terrible human costs and suffering, but also the bravery of those who fight inequality and injustice.
Your first novel debuted fairly late in 1992. But does age also come with its advantages? You have continued to write for three decades since. What has, according to you, changed in your own writing? And what is it that hasn’t?
I was in my late 30s when my first novel was published. That doesn’t seem terribly old to me. I did a lot of apprentice work before publishing, and I also had to earn a living.
There would be no point in writing a new book if it was not more ambitious than the last. I would like to think that of the three novels that deal with story-telling, The Thousand Faces of Night, The Ghosts of Vasu Master and When Dreams Travel, the third is the most sophisticated in terms of craft. Of the three novels that look at contemporary India, In Times of Siege, Fugitive Histories and I Have Become the Tide, I think the new one comes closest to what I wanted to say, and how I wanted to say it – through prose, poetry and song.
You were at one point of time, a poet, mentored by the mentor of perhaps many (Ezekiel). What was the space of English writing at that time like? You have admitted in interviews that you were not as a good as you thought you were (as a poet). How does one, in that case, accept and find another voice as you did? Was it difficult to see others find footing in a burgeoning, young poetry scene? Was the wait worthwhile?
I was never a poet. Like many young people, I showed some samples of what I thought was poetry to Nissim Ezekiel. I must have been about 17 at the time. Quite rightly, he told me these were notes for the self, and encouraged me to keep writing till I found my writer’s voice. Which I did, in prose.
No writing is ever wasted, whether it is published or not. A lot of it is like going to the gym every day – exercising, toning the muscles before writing a work worth publishing. And look, all the work must have paid off – because in my new novel, I have many poems and songs I have written, except they don’t belong to my voice, but the voices of the characters.
The Thousand Faces of Night came out at a time when the reader of English fiction was still being sized and discovered. There is at least a market now, but has it evolved? Has Indian writing in English evolved, and has crucially, its readership?
There seem to be a lot of talented writers; I find writers and readers are of more interest than the “market”, don’t you? And I am talking of writers and readers not just in one language, but all our languages, and in translation as well.
It is also 20 years since you fought a landmark case for a mother’s right to guardianship of her child (not just the man’s). Does India today offer similar freedoms to call out archaic laws and traditions? Is there evidence that we have progressed since?
The women who came before us fought hard to open doors for us. As did the larger women’s movement. So there have been gains. But an ideology such as Hindutva can only breed conservative views on anyone who is not male, Hindu, upper caste, heterosexual. We have to fight, every day, to forge ahead with justice for women, in alliance with other movements for equality.
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Updated Date: Mar 08, 2019 10:19:12 IST