April 05, 2020
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Tight Black

Hariharan finally seems to have found the exact tone and language that she is at home in: spartan, elegant and nuanced

Tight Black
Fugitive Histories
By Githa Hariharan
Viking/Penguin Pages: 256; Rs. 450
Githa Hariharan’s writing has, over the years, come to inhabit a very distinct space: that of the creative writer responding to political events, which she makes no attempt to allegorise. Rather, they are present in all their starkness, irony, and tragedy. Beginning with The Thousand Faces of Night and working her way through The Ghosts of Vasu Master and When Dreams Travel, Hariharan finally seems to have found the exact tone and language that she is at home in. The somewhat oblique irony and humour of the tale told in In Times of Seige transforms itself into the spartan, elegant and nuanced prose of her latest work, Fugitive Histories.

The parallel with Anne Michael’s brilliant and moving novel Fugitive Pieces (winner of the Orange award some years ago) is too obvious to miss. Hailed at the time as startlingly original, Michael’s novel tells the interlocking story of two men of different generations whose lives are deeply touched by war.

In Fugitive Histories, Sara, the daughter of Mala and Asad, travels to Ahmedabad in the wake of the carnage of 2002 to make a film about the survivors and meets Yasmin, a young woman struggling to put the violence behind her, yet haunted by dreams of the fear, the humiliation, and the loss— of Akbar, the brother who simply disappears, and of whose fate the police cynically inform Yasmin’s parents, "better lost than dead". Just as Yasmin is haunted by her past, so also Sara carries hers with her; while in Delhi, her mother, Mala, spends long afternoons making her way through her late husband’s sketches and paintings in an attempt to both remember and forget. It is through Asad’s artistic notebooks that Mala comes to understand the darkening of his sky.

At times lyrical, at times luminous and sharply perceptive, Fugitive Histories is perhaps Hariharan’s most mature work to date. While deft at the weaving of political events into private lives, Hariharan has often been accused of structuring a somewhat cerebral narrative (although her early work is anything but cerebral), and some critics hold that she is better at the art of short story than at a longer narrative structure (and there is no denying that her story, The Remains of the Feast, is a masterpiece of sorts which many writers have tried to replicate). Yet this work is clearly a deeply felt one, even though the reader may sometimes wish for a loosening up of the tightly held characterisation that is the writer’s trademark.

Consider for example the following description: "It’s a diverse crowd. It’s brought together doctors, goondas, housewives looking for god, policemen, real estate agents in search of a killing, priests in search of new converts and ministers in search of votes. But they must have something in common. They have worked hard together. They have finished with Nasreen’s dargah. They have just lit the matchstick in Zakia’s little neighbour’s mouth so he can burst like a firecracker. They have just shot Sabiya’s sister as she was drying clothes in her courtyard.... They should be exhausted or satiated or sick with revulsion, but they’re going strong." After such knowledge, one might ask, what forgiveness?

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