Utpal Borpujari

April 13, 2009

Of history that escapes our spaces

By Utpal Borpujari

Mala, Sara, Asad, Yamin, Bala, Samar, Laila are people who roam Githa Hariharan’s latest novel, “Fugitive Histories”. With these characters, and many more, Hariharan has weaved a tale of contemporary society in India with a deft pen that had also produced the equally-strong, fictionalised social document “In Times of Siege”. The latest book by Hariharan moves between spaces and places, weaving a powerful and evocative imagery of life and times ravaged by machinations of fate, politics and hatred.


For Hariharan, the juxtaposition of various characters, times and spaces has been as important as it was in “In Times of Siege”. The multiple and deftly-interwoven narratives in the novel, which is set primarily in the aftermath of the 2002 post-Godhra riots in Gujarat, takes a look at how such incidents not only change histories but also alter lives of ordinary people so much that they sometimes become unrecognisable to themselves.


Though a fictional story, it is also a story that seeks to put on record the “history” of these ordinary victims of circumstances created by politics of hatred, history that are never recorded in any form of official history writing. As Hariharan says, “These numerous narratives are incomplete without each other. At the same time, they have their own narratives that somehow escaped the mainstream, the official history. They speak about those who are marginalised, those who are temporarily rendered invisible, those who can only be in the centre of attraction only for a while, like those effected by what happened Gujarat in 2002, before the society’s attention shifts elsewhere. We have to remind ourselves every day in some fashion or the other – through our public debates, through our literature, through our art – that there are many narratives which may escape our public space and which we need to complete our collective history.”


For the author who had won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Best First Book for “The Thousand Faces of Night”, “Fugitive Histories” is more “cunning” than “In Times of Siege” they both provide a socio-political take on contemporary India – cunning because it, she says, makes its comment through a complex texture of various lives.

“That’s what I have tried to do in this book. Even the three cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad are sort of characters here as there is a breezy sense of narrative in these cities. The aspirations of wanting to be in the global stage come through in these three cities, but because we are in India, these aspirations are completely mixed up with many other Indias,” she says.


The new book, in a sense takes forward what she was saying through “In Times of Siege”, but more than in terms of the story, it has been done in terms of style and treatment. “Looking at not just at the political stage, but even more at the back stage,” as she says, explaining, “The minute you start looking at prejudices, you go to pretty secret areas of mind. Through this novel, I have tried to look at how these stereotypes get constructed, how they made certain narratives other people’s live, so that you drive a wedge. At the same time, you try to understand how they became the other people. What does it do to you if you feel hated, of when you hate someone? These are not simple things.”


Taking up serious socio-political issues is something that Hariharan feels is the outcome of her search for answers to certain events around the society she lives in. “I am not an expert, and, therefore, the only use of me as a writer is that along with the readers, I can be puzzled about these things. These are the things I want to share with everyone else. I can ask these questions through the narrative, the framing of characters, situations, ideas, and hopefully asking the right questions together will give some hint of the answers. I am very clear I am a fiction writer and this is how I can ask questions, hinting at the answers. Of course, this is as much a hint to me as it is to the reader,’ she says.


The idea for the novel first came to her mind when she had gone to Ahmedabad in 2004, to speak to cross sections of  people to gather material for columns she planned to write on the aftermath of the riots two years before that. She spoke to a large number of people and was astonished to find that a lot of them were very much in denial about what had happened. This set her thinking about the larger picture, about whether one should just look at the immediacy of things or also at the past and the future to understand how various thought processes were getting prominent. “Which is why a character like Yasmin came to my mind. Here’s a girl whose brother is missing, so she is really now the future of the family. Not just what her dreams, but also what is possible for her, what are the options for her, what is there for her – that is the most important question you can ask not just about her or about Gujarat but about India, because you cannot just use 2002 and just say people suddenly went crazy and then things became normal again,” she says. Thus, the picture kept getting bigger and bigger.


The fact that post-2002 Gujarat has been the backdrop of quite a few creative endeavours in recent times has not gone unnoticed by her, but Hariharan says there are reasons for this. “I think we have had a lot of, as we should, work examining various watersheds in our life as a nation. I think this is a good thing, as it is important that we as chroniclers of our times examine and probe things that have happened to us as people. But it is also a fact that I am not necessarily going to write a better novel or make a better film because I had a particularly important national event as the backdrop. Finally it is about how you frame that and whether you have something to say about it or not,” she says.


And yes, though there was anger about the events that form the backdrop of her novel, she is clear that “you cannot feel angry indefinitely, and anger is not always known to sharpen your thought”. But one has to use anger and also one’s imagination and intelligence to understand the context. “That’s where the artiste’s figure comes in, the figure who tries to name the unnamable. Anger yes, but not alone anger – there is also a lot of anguish,” she says.

(published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 12-04-2009)


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