This is a writer who writes with a certain acuity, insight, blazing honesty, disconcerting directness, as anyone who has read her last work Almost Home will testify. That was a lacerating indictment of the injustice being perpetrated in places like Palestine and Algeria, in which the whole world is complicit.
It’s that raw, in-your-face, speaking truth to power quality that one misses in this book that takes the more lyric path of allegory, laden metaphor and symbolism, to comment on recent happenings that have brought into question the very moral core of this country: the Vemula suicide, the Kalburgi murder, the orchestrated right wing “outrage”, “ hurt sentiment” over alternative readings/ versions of mythological texts—think Wendy Donniger, A.K. Ramanujan. What one expected from the writer was a sledgehammer blow; what one gets on the other hand are soft focus, diffused lens images of a Walden ravaged. Even the angst, the pain of the principle protagonists has the mimetic quality of the stylised Kalakshetra gesture.
Three stories, separated by a few centuries, run concurrently through the book and, in a sense, mirror each other. The moral: the more things change the more they are (frighteningly) the same.
Chikka, Puttanna, Rangayya, Mahadevi, Kannappa aka Kannadeva, the Benevolent Elder Brother constitute the star cast of the first tale: subalterns, castaways, renegades, refugees all, fleeing death, discrimination, oppression, seeking to create and inhabit their own Eden. Young Chandra (Chikka/ Mahadevi’s little girl) is the first tragic casualty of this quest for a more egalitarian alt universe. Another violent upheaval claims the rest. Except for Kannappa , Chikka and Mahadevi’s son, who’s to become the mystic saint whose poetry and the alternative reading of its sub-text by a professor centuries later provokes a ‘bhakt’ to the kind of murderous rage that leads him to kill the professor. The cataclysm that consumes Chikka, his family and his fellow travellers is horrific but leaves one unmoved. Characters perish here. Not people. Because they remain cardboard and paste. They never come alive as flesh and blood humans.
The second concurrent story that references present times is sincerely told but again not informed by passion that elevates and takes it above the level of mere ‘telling’. The three Dalit friends: Satya the medical student driven to suicide by the malefic, sadistic faculty member Mr Sharma; Asha, who’s training to be a nurse at a college where she faces subtle but cruel discrimination; Ravi the BSc student who is fast evolving into a political animal, acquiring awareness about the political and socio-economic underpinnings of caste/class. These are characters with explosive potential. In Hariharan’s hands, though, they remain sadly under-explored and mostly unrealised. This is not about their innards. This is more about The Outsider looking in.
It’s all there: writerly craft, structure, the visual haikus. What’s missing is the soul that truly breathes life in them. The only characters who come to life—Professor Krishna, the academic singled out for assassination, his wife Shanta, the quiet love between them, their relationship with their grandchild Chitthu, is tenderly delineated.
The hapless, unsuspecting academic , viciously trolled, felled by an assassin seeking to avenge perceived slight to religious sentiment by his foray into an ancient Kannadeva text is a trope that sounds depressingly, disgustingly familiar. So does Srikumar, uniformed, illiterate, lethal , lumpen, mere puppet in the hands of his shadowy masters—a variation on the theme of the Swami’s, Sadhvi’s, Hindutva goons, crazed gaurakshaks that proliferate today across the Indian political firmament.
Krishna resonates: the Everyman who loves his wife, filter coffee, grandson, Subbalakshmi, birds, books, research, work (not necessarily in that order) is killed. Suddenly. At just-another-day-at-work. By someone whose “sentiments were hurt”. So violence/ murder, replaces reason/ debate. Krishna, that afternoon in the university parking lot, is looking up at a tree, looking for an elusive barbet. What he gets instead is a bullet to his forehead.
Not unlike the reader. Given the grand sweep of the theme you go in expecting the crashing sound and fury of Beethoven’s Ninth. What you get INStead is the thin strings of a duet.