The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Playing different roles, doing different things

For Githa Hariharan, In Times of Siege maybe her fourth novel, but it is a first in many ways. For the first time, Hariharan picks her protagonist from the academia — a space she has come to know quite intimately, through her experiences of living with her teacher-husband on the campus and her independent interactions with students. It is also, the author admits after giving it some thought, the most hard-hitting of her novels. And it was for the first time during the writing of this book that Hariharan felt reality overtaking fiction with uncanny regularity.

“Be it the controversy about the rewriting of history textbooks, or the unwarranted debate over beef-eating, or even Gujarat. But stranger still was the revelation that the Kannada playwright, Sivaprakash, had got into trouble for his play on Basava, for a course paper on the same ‘saint-singer’ would land my protagonist, Shiv Murthy, in trouble”.

Hariharan, who won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for her first book, The Thousand Faces of the Night, has another claim to fame, too. She, along with her husband, Mohan Rao, happened to be the petitioners in the case that prompted the Supreme Court to declare the mother to be the natural guardian of the child. The ruling made life a lot easier for single mothers, and this is a source of satisfaction for Hariharan, since “these were the women— some with broken marriages, some on the verge of separating from their husbands — who needed the ruling more than I did.” Laughs Hariharan: “The child over whom I fought this case is 18 now, and incidentally, studying to be a lawyer himself.”

All her fighting for women’s rights does not make her an activist-writer, though. “I am not comfortable with such labels at all,” she defends. “The agenda for the rest of my life would include women’s rights, communalism and the peculiarly lopsided global situation of today, above everything else. But I cannot see myself playing any one role, either of a writer or of an activist”. She would rather be a socially and politically-aware citizen, feeling relieved when the Bharatiya Janata Party loses in Himachal Pradesh, after despairing at Narendra Modi’s victory in Gujarat.

Githa Hariharan’s literary career — which, she claims, would never have begun had she not gone on her first maternity leave — is also about playing different roles and doing different things. She has written novels, short stories, children’s stories, edited a collection of “secular stories for children”, translated stories from South Indian languages and even Urdu ghazals. “I am also a ruthless editor of my own writings,” she says candidly. “In fact, I have chopped off so much from the sub-plot of In Times of Siege — involving the 12th-Century reformer poet, Basava — that I nearly have a plot for another novel.”

In Times of Siege was released in Calcutta on Monday, at the Oxford Bookstore, where Hariharan read out sections from the book. Before the year is out, The Winning Team, her collection of 10 short stories for children, should be in the bookstores as well.

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