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Saturday, June 25, 2005


Githa Hariharan’s first book The Thousand Faces of Night won a Commonwealth Prize for Best Fiction by a newcomer. In Times of Siege is one of the more serious and scholastic fictional accounts one can find.

Shiv Murthy, a History Professor in his fifties is asked by a twenty-four year old girl, Meena, for whom he is the local guardian in New Delhi, to let her stay on in his house till the time her cast is off ( she has fractured a knee in an accident ). Shiv’s wife is away visiting their daughter in the States & Meena deems it fit not to inform her own parents of the arrangement.
Shiv slips into a hitherto unknown garb of domestic provider & Meena fights ennui aided by Shiv’s ministrations and her circle of friends.

This quietude is disturbed irrevocably when a piece Shiv had written about Basava-a twelfth century Kannada poet, is arrogated by a group of self styled Hindu history henchmen as being seditious and incendiary, as it talks about his spiels and skirmishes against the caste system. The honourable s.s.H.h.h.of course want the contents purged and quickly settle into a familiar hate mail-violent protest-direct action mode and force the reticent Professor to take leave. His department colleagues react mostly in his favour, yet he finds himself comforted more by the youthful zeal of Meena and her politically active friends as they rally around him with renewed energy and chutzpah. The book thus explores the inextricability of ideology and practice, the intertwining of personal and professional lives and captures a time of intense scrutiny and duress.

I found the book wistful, economically worded, devoid of flourish and fanfare and able to articulate the futility of historical revisionism and gunpoint compilations of history. There is a distinct passiveness in Shiv—a la Murakami, I am told, which is artfully blended with Meena’s energy and zest. The predicaments and conundrums are crafted with subtlety and finesse, and the gauche physicality of an unlikely relationship is realistic too.

I imagine that the book can be read as a parable-- the overt lack of restraint from a physically superior entity, minatory in its propensity to control and covet, and the gradual courage in the oppressed who scurry to protect their threatened spaces. Post 9/11, surely .

A 7.5 on 10 !


I lingered long after I read this book in order not to overreact. I would dearly loved to like this book- after all, it satisfies a lot of aspects I’d been craving for –it was not from the St Stephen’s School of Literature, a true blooded Mumbaikar, no literary legerdemain, an Indian whose Indianness was beyond reproach.

This Kiran Nagarkar book ( he won the Sahitya Akademi for Cuckold ) is about Ravan, a Maharashtrian Hindu born to a good for nothing retrenched father and a unwittingly beauteous mother Parvati, and Eddie Coutinho, born to a Roman Catholic family, who live in the same PWD chawl in Mumbai. Their lives are painfully interwoven even though they inhabit separate worlds as they meander through eventful childhoods, weather familial storms and live in the moment. Ravan sleepwalks through black magic, a live-in mistress shamelessly taken by his father and his resilient mother as she desperately tries to cope. Eddie , for his part, turns a resolute chaddiwallah, and fights off a naughty sister.

“There are only two kinds of people in the world. Those who have English and those who don’t. Those who have English are the haves, and those who don’t, are the have nots.” This line probably is a piece de resistance from the book, and my guess is that Nagarkar took it literally.

Make no mistake, the imagery is vivid and colourful, the black humour wicked and ironic, the detailing is evocative, visual and descriptive, the innuendo delicious and veiled, and he reveals a lived-in mastery of a dazzling array of school and domestic lives, ragging, subterfuge, adultery, teenage angst, class prejudice, sibling scrapes and regimentation. He effortlessly recaptures the ambience that his myriad characters inhabit, the air that they breathe and even the buzzing-bee thoughtlets in their overclouded and heavy heads. His language is wicked, wry and direct, his plot is compelling and engaging.

So what went wrong ?

My take is that I may have liked it if I had been a decade younger. The more perfunctory of perusals would bare a fervid attempt to portray dichotomy and distance—he perhaps goes overboard in swinging Tarzan-like from one world to another, unctuous in his rush in inveigling the reader to appreciate his repertoire.

Richness for detail is overblown and though practical, dustracting.

His uninhibited use of sexual longings and leanings has come in for praise—I found the prose no better than what you will find in a lubricious novella, those which are published for a discerning audience, and which are not bashful in using terribly contrived phraseology. Apparently, his directness and lack of reserve are his strengths and he plays to those throughout.

Societal demands turning turtle are no more than what folks like Vijay Tendulkar had suggested eons ago in plays like Sakharam Binder. Attempts to be egregious and over-the-top are actually effete and detract from the storyline.

Maybe, if he had proferred me a skimmed-milk version of the book, I may have given it a Thumbs-Up. Instead, I got a Condensed quaff.

A 6.0 on 10 ! ( will be back for Cuckold though ! )

Thanks to those who tagged me but no thanks, no Meme for me, Saheb.
I find the concept sacrilegious and scary--I am a humble farmer....


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