Githa Hariharan is one of India’s finest English-language writers, in my opinion. Although well-known in India, and having received the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for best first book in 1993 for The Thousand Faces of Night, Hariharan is not really known abroad. With her last two offerings, In Times of Siege (2003) and Fugitive Histories, the reason for this is fairly clear–her fiction is fiercely political (at times it is not even fiction), rooted in the atmosphere of jingoistic nationalism and communal trouble that have intensified in India in the past two decades. It is a political problem that ‘western’ readers could do well to learn something about, but this type of rationale does not necessarily make it onto publishers’ agendas.
Fugitive Histories goes where few have dared to go in literature–yet, at least. That is, the massacre of over two thousand Muslims in the western state of Gujarat in 2002. Shifting between various narrative subjects, it largely settles on Sara, a half-Hindu-half-Muslim young woman from Bombay, aspiring documentary filmmaker and NGO worker. She travels to Ahmedabad on a script-writing assignment, a couple of years after the massacres to learn the stories of Muslims affected by the carnage. There, she befriends a seventeen years old girl who is struggling to live up to the multiple pressures she faces after having lost her elder brother–missing, presumed dead. Sara, herself, finds that she cannot live up to the pressures of representation and of bearing witness.
Complicating Sara’s attempts to write the script is her own identity. In contemporary India, “half-Hindu-half-Muslim” is not a comfortable hybridity. Sara’s Muslim father vehemently rejects religion, and cannot come to terms with his son’s embrace of Islam as an adult. Sara is haunted by memories of a childhood friend murdered in that earlier instance of communal rage, the Bombay riots of 1992-3, because her Muslim name became known. Sara’s Hindu mother–whose consciousness we sometimes enter–feels rejected by her husband after he enters a depressed but artistically productive state after the 2002 Gujarat massacres. Sara has never “been” a Hindu nor a Muslim, but finds that with the public expressions of communal hatred and political posturing, remaining neutral, or secular, is not really an option. Society will not allow for shades of grey.
Hariharan’s skills go beyond delving into the political and social problems of her country. She produces rich and complex characters with compassion. Characters we may not always agree with, but whom we can understand. This combination of the personal and the political (yes, Hariharan is a feminist) is what draws me to her books, particularly her two most recent ones. As an India Today reviewer put it, “She can do magic.”
Esther David, a Jewish Gujarati writer, poignantly recalled experiencing extreme writer’s block when attempting to write about what she witnessed in Ahmedabad in 2002. Being a woman and belonging to a minority religious community, she felt writing about such things was too dangerous. David did, eventually, write The Man with Enormous Wings (Penguin, 2010), a collection of vignettes inspired by the idea that Gandhi returns to his home state to witness what it has become. Gandhi, “the great soul”, makes fleeting appearances in Fugitive Histories too:
“It’s a diverse crowd. It’s brought together doctors, goondas, housewives looking for god, policemen, real-estate agents in search of a killing, priests in search of new converts and ministers in search of votes. But they must have something in common. They have worked hard together, they have just finished with Nasreen’s dargah. They have just lit the matchstick in Zakia’s little neighbour’s mouth so he can burst like a firecracker. They have just shot Sabiya’s sister as she was drying clothes in her courtyard. They have just finished gang-raping Zainab’s sister as her little son cried. They have just left Zulekha’s girls with stumps of wood in their vaginas. They have just given Adeba all those bodies to wash, some of them burnt, others split down the middle. They have just brought down the pipe on Nasreen’s arm to leave a cucumber-sized mark. They have just burnt Noorjehan’s husband and father and son. They have just converted Mahrukh’s neighbour’s corpse with kerosene and cremated it.
They should be exhausted or satiated or sick with revulsion, but they’re going strong. It’s time to find the great soul, finish him off properly this time.
The rampaging mob is here, they’re in the abode of peace. The birds and the tape that wouldn’t stop running in Sara’s head have gone, but the screeching voices are back. It’s much worse than before. And this time the voices don’t just speak of the enemy, they are the enemy. They can make anything happen and they know it.
The ghost’s cymbals drop to the ground. His song stops though he is not yet done. His voice whispers in Sara’s ear, in the mob’s ear, In the dictionary of satyagraha, there is no enemy. His whisper is too insistent for a ghostly whisper.
‘Keep your soul force if you want, you Mian-lover,’ the mob roars at him. ‘There’s a more powerful force with us.’
‘You may think I’m no match for you,’ he says gently. ‘I don’t have spears, kerosene, flags or soda bottles. I only have a spinning wheel, a pair of cymbals and a few old hymns. And I’m only a ghost now,’ he confesses, though he looks far from humble. ‘But I’ll never give up. The word defeat is not to be found in my dictionary.’
‘You talk too much, and you talk too much of dictionaries,’ the mob laughs. ‘We don’t read books. We only worship them, ban them or burn them.’
‘I can’t watch the destruction of all I’ve lived for. I would rather drown myself in the waters of the Sabarmati than harbour hate or animosity in my heart.’” (pp. 175-6)