Githa Hariharan On Writing About Caste, Dissent And Resistance
“To seek permission to speak, write or sing is a form of death,” says writer, editor and activist Githa Hariharan. She spoke to SheThePeople.TV’s Books Editor Archana Pai Kulkarni about why her latest book I Have Become the Tide is not just a novel but a citizen’s statement, and why writing, reading and talking about caste in its old and new forms, about dissent and resistance is of paramount importance.
As I write to you, Arundhati Roy’s talk “Utmost Everything” scheduled to be held today was cancelled last night by Chobi Mela after police withdrew permission for the event. In the face of such gagging, do you think that writing today is essentially a form of activism, and that our very existence depends upon our free artistic expression?
Writers engage with questions through their imagination. This is true for both writers of fiction and non-fiction, both prose and poetry. But the writer and the citizen live in the same place. In what may pass for times of peace, the writer can be as elliptical as she likes about taking on the political issues of the day. But in times of siege like ours, artistic practice is necessarily different; it is heightened. When the writer is told what to write, what to think; when the reader is told what to read and how to read; and the citizen told her thought and expression need to be approved by the thought police, the writer must act in the only way she knows how. She must write in a way so that she is speaking up. Imaginatively, boldly, powerfully.
To seek permission to speak, write or sing is a form of death.
Is your novel, I Have Become the Tide, an answer to the questions being raised now, a plugging of the holes in knowledge that you have spoken about earlier, a finger on how exactly we annihilate the powerless? Is it an attempt to, apart from narrating a story for the joy of narration, assert the right to tell one?
Telling stories, hearing them, twisting them for our times: these are exercises – and joys – essential for both the individual and the community. We tell stories to understand the great mysteries, the world around us, love, hatred, friendship, death, how best to live. We also have stories in our lives so we can understand not just ourselves, who we are and where we come from, but also others – in the plural. A life with just one story, just one sort of people, is pointless. One of the great joys of knowledge is understanding people who seem different from ourselves. And to understand relationships, the larger community, to know our society, we have to look and look at the plays of power.
A life with just one story, just one sort of people, is pointless. One of the great joys of knowledge is understanding people who seem different from ourselves.
We have to see and hear and learn, discuss and argue about it so our knowledge — of say how caste works every day in real lives — can transform each one of us; and, possibly, lead to action and change. What I am saying is that storytelling, and openness to other people’s stories, leads to knowledge that stretches our minds. But it also shows us ways to change the world, make it a place where there is a little less place for those who hold power in their clenched fists.
In the three distinctive narratives, one of which is set a hundred years ago, and the other a reflection of today’s splintered society, caste remains the tool of subjugation. While some things change, some remain unchanged. As a writer, does this unchanging, inhuman state of affairs ever make you feel that writing is a futile endeavour? What keeps you hopeful?
The story of the cattle-skinner Chikkiah who becomes a dhobi and joins a movement to live a caste-free life, is set some time in the eleventh to twelfth centuries, south of the Vindhyas. The medieval movement for equality – in the novel – draws its inspiration from the various bhakti movements in India. There is another linked story, set in the present, which should offer a contrast, given that more than 900 years have passed, and we now live in a country that has a constitution with the promise of equality for all its citizens. Yes, some things have “changed”. In the “caste story” of the present, the novel follows the lives and struggle of three students who happen to be dalit. But between Chikkiah, the cattle skinner or dhobi of the twelfth century, and Satya, the dalit student in a medical college, how much has really changed? It’s not the change that we are struck by. It is the fact of how much has remained the same.
Writing, reading and talking about caste in its old and new forms, about dissent and resistance – all this is important.
Writing, reading and talking about caste in its old and new forms, about dissent and resistance – all this is important. Each one of us must do it in the way we can, whether we are writing or reading about it, talking about it, or agitating on the streets or classroom or court about it. While we live, while we have voices within us still, how can this be a futile act?
You have chosen the names of your characters with great care—Satya, Krishna Kannadeva, Ravi, Asha—names which represent truth, hope, the ability to see clearly, watch, observe, and make room for a new day and order with the rising sun. These are the foundations on which a free society is built. What transpires though is a stark contrast to the promise in these names. Is that deliberate?
It’s hard for a writer to say how much in the process of writing is deliberate, and how much is a natural and logical choice once you let the people in your novel lead you from chapter to chapter. I say this despite the fact that I structure and plan my novels quite carefully.
Almost all the characters in your novel carry hope in their hearts and songs on their lips. To them, singing is as natural as breathing. Where do these songs emanate from? Is singing survival? Is it a political act? Or is it a natural expression of the free souls that we are essentially?
Too often, we think of an individual’s music alone, by itself, as if people singing together has not been a powerful tool of survival.
Yes, actually I think it is. It is as natural to sing as to speak. Too often, we think of an individual’s music alone, by itself, as if people singing together has not been a powerful tool of survival. People passing on what they have learnt about beauty, sorrow, about living; people working in the fields; people having to lift a great weight, so encouraging each other to make that final painful push; people oppressed but looking for a way to tell their stories, their fear and despair, but also their dreams and hopes: all these find their way to expression, quite naturally, in singing.
“There is always a river to cross,” says Elder Brother to Chikka. The rivers in your story have a thousand faces. It lures the hopeless and wounded into its arms. It swallows their words and songs. It carries the myriad voices of those who have passed on. Does crossing a river truly bring you ashore? Or does it set you adrift? What does the river symbolise?
There are many water bodies in the novel. There’s the stagnant untouchable pond Chikka grows up with; hundreds of years later, there’s the pond Satya meets his end in. There’s the still, serene river Chikka’s son Kannadeva is supposed to learn tranquillity from. In contrast to these are the sea, and the fast-moving, speaking river. If there is one image that is central to the novel it is this: that if we want our lives to be better, there has to be movement, movement that brings change.
If there is one image that is central to the novel it is this: that if we want our lives to be better, there has to be movement, movement that brings change.
There is a particularly disturbing and painful scene in your narrative, where the establishment finally breaks Satya’s spirit, and an individual who struggled to be counted, gives up the fight. Why are you drawn to these wounds? Was there something in the way you grew up that makes you so empathetic and sensitive to the current prevailing social conditions?
We only have to look around us today, to see struggle, defeat, triumph – of individuals, movements. Of students, farmers, activists. On campuses, in the streets, in homes. We are at a point in 2019 when all of us have to join this battle. As a writer, I have to speak of this battle. I have to amplify the voices in the battle, whether they are weak or strong, individual or collective.
Issues of caste, of rabid religiosity, of deliberate and systematic oppression of the marginalised, of silencing voices of protest, of distortion of history arise in your novel. This is the new normal. What does it mean to write about a decadent society?
The India we live in is divided along caste and communal lines, hounded by the thought police. All of it is dictated by an exclusionary ideology, an ideology of hatred and polarisation. In the India we live in today, how can a writer not be an activist? Everything we do by way of work, including writing, reading and teaching, has to be directed, in some way or the other, at taking ownership of the Constitution again, and struggling for the India we want.
The India we live in is divided along caste and communal lines, hounded by the thought police.
Do you think that despite the intolerance and the divisive forces that are plaguing us, the fact that we are a nation where people from widely varying and different cultures are still trying to make their lives together, offer hope?
We only have to look at the bravery of those who dissent in India today – students, farmers, activists – to see that there is hope. Every time we hear a voice that resists hatred, or inequality, or injustice, there is hope.
In becoming the tide, you surrender to its rising and falling, its unpredictability. Is this what Asha chooses to do? Will the tide turn? Can we be optimistic?
I do believe the tide will turn. We must believe it will, because that is the object we are struggling toward. To begin with, we must use our vote wisely in the upcoming elections. We must get rid of a government that has torn apart the country like no other government has since independence. That is only the first step. The old monsters – caste, communalism — that have been strengthened, and the new monstrous creations such as “sedition” and “cow protection” and “anti-nationals” will have to be fought over a longer period.
Do you feel compelled now to write only about themes that are socially conscious? How do you choose your subjects?
I don’t think of caste inequality and the crushing of dissent as themes. They are what we are living through. For me, I Have Become the Tide is not just a novel. It’s my citizen’s statement at this point in our collective lives. I am a novelist, so my statement is best made as a novel.
For me, I Have Become the Tide is not just a novel. It’s my citizen’s statement at this point in our collective lives.
Are you a disciplined writer? Describe your writing routine. How do you organise your time?
I have learnt, over the years, to juggle writing, income-earning work, raising two children, and just living a little for myself. Also, if you work on your own, you have to be a very stern boss to yourself. A fixed workplace, regular working hours, very few days off.
Do women write differently from men? If you think so, where lies the difference?
All working women face certain challenges. So why should writing women be any different? I am not sure there is such a thing as men’s writing and women’s writing. But there is a definite difference in the way in which women writers are viewed. Some may have to be secretive about their writing for fear of offending husband, family or community with their choice of subject, or their mode of writing; or the very act of writing itself. Many have to work in isolation, or steal time to write. And as in all aspects of life, there is an old boys’ club and a young boys’ club in writing and publishing as well. It’s the backstage story of women writers’ lives, not the actual writing, where the difference lies – and which can often make writing costlier, more painful, for women.
What are you working on now?
I barely finished the last draft of I Have Become the Tide when I had to begin editing a book called Battling for India: A Citizen’s Reader. The book, which I have co-edited with Salim Yusufji, will be published later this month.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
To read; read widely, critically. To be curious, ask questions, all kinds of questions. And of course, write, write, write, till you find your own voice.
Githa Hariharan has written novels, short fiction and essays over the last three decades. Her highly acclaimed work includes The Thousand Faces of Night which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1993, the short story collection The Art of Dying, the novels The Ghosts of Vasu Master, When Dreams Travel, In Times of Siege and Fugitive Histories, and a collection of essays entitled Almost Home: Cities and Other Places. She has also written children’s stories; and edited a collection of translated short fiction, A Southern Harvest, the essay collection From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity and co-edited Battling for India: A Citizen’s Reader. Her most recent novel is I Have Become the Tide.
Feature Image Credit : Saurav Singh/githahariharan.com