Stark Reality

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d0105a3eaf2c2d332c1894b076f472ea-1IN TIMES OF SIEGE. By Githa Hariharan. Viking, 2003. Hardcover, 206 pages.

Not only has she proved herself a gifted writer, with her latest book In Times of Siege, Githa Hariharan proves herself an extremely socially relevant one as well. Concentrating on the often ridiculous minutiae and vapidity of everyday modern life, Hariharan, in her latest narrative, chronicles the ordinary and quiet lives of people for whom the menace of politics and often brutal gang mentality of the vox populi can strike terror unexpectedly. While revealing zealotry in all of its dangerous and insidious forms, Hariharan turns what seems to be improbable to a fact of life. Perhaps this is the aspect of the novel that is most chilling: ghoulish nightmare into stark reality.

Shiv Murthy lives a quiet life as a professor of history at an open university, seemingly going through the motions of everyday life, comfortable and quite settled in a position that is neither mundane in its duties because he rather enjoys them, nor stellar in that while he is good at what he does, he has, thus far, done his job without sensation or provocation.

Though he too lives in a university, it is a world apart from this living, breathing mass of students. Where he teaches, only the teachers are visible. The students are names, addresses, postmarks. Part of what is called, oddly, an Open University, as if the gates are perpetually open and the students have wandered away. … He drives to the “academic complex” in the north part of the campus to sit every day in an office with an intimidating bilingual nameplate: Professor Shivamurthy in English, Shiv Murthy in Hindi. He is, at fifty-two, finally a professor of history, though not quite the sort his father imagined in daydreams on his behalf. He no longer teaches students; as his Department Head likes to put it, he coordinates resources for his educational clients.

Hariharan’s talents are sublime. As she sets up a story with no ripples on the surface, what bubbles beneath is sinister and earth-shattering. When a fundamentalist group known as the Itihas Suraksha Manch draws attention to Shiv Murthy’s lesson plan on the social reform movement led by saint and singer Basava, the natural order of things slowly and seemingly irrevocably gets turned around. Facing charges that he has seriously distorted the caste system and a well-known historical, Murthy attempts to fight against the powers that be with the dubious help of a university student named Meena who stays with him while she recuperates from a broken leg. Though at first their relationship is rather standoffish and Murthy perceives her as inscrutable, once she gets wind of Murthy’s increasing alienation from students and faculty, she rallies her friends and would-be supporters, with good intentions that eventually go awry.

Hariharan successfully pieces together a rich story of a man with a complex family history, who continually faces not only his own demons, but the demon that has become society itself. Though the novel takes place in India, religious and national fundamentalism abound worldwide and one would only have to change the names of the players for this chilling story to apply just about anywhere. And what happens to the human psyche when all that we know has been torn from us? Hariharan gives us a glimmer of the indomitable human spirit as she shows her characters struggle, pick up the pieces, and like time itself, move on:

But something will remain; something new must remain entirely his own. There is a time—the space of a day, a year, a moment—waiting with the patience of fate in every human life. A moment of discovery, irreversible, so that when you try to return to the business of ordinary living, you find your old life has been misplaced.

Michelle Reale

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