Review: I Have Become the Tide by Githa Hariharan
In the acknowledgements section of her latest novel, Githa Hariharan writes, “No privileged person in terms of caste or class can, despite choices made as an adult, really ‘know’ the lived experience of those who have been historically oppressed.” But, she argues, “no writer can engage with life in India today without taking a stand, in some modest way, on the terrible inequalities that continue to ravage the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.”
And so we know that I have Become the Tide is a well-meaning novel – even if its three inter-linked narratives are essentially oversimplified knock-offs of the stories of Rohith Vemula, MM Kalburgi and a 12th century Bhakti movement.
The most promising sections are about three best friends who face casteism on campus. Asha studies nursing, Ravi zoology and Satya medicine. The rigmarole on campus – meeting new people, immersing themselves in books and writing, and checking on each other – are told through their interactions with caste. In scene after scene, we witness their humiliation. Asha quietly reconciles to college life, Ravi begins to understand the tenacity of caste oppression through activism, and Satya spirals into a lonely depression. But even as we follow these events in their lives, we never really get to know any of three. This is especially frustrating because they – especially Satya, a poet – are modeled on Vemula, the PhD student driven to despair by discrimination. Vemula, in his suicide note, wrote about how “the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility… Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust.”
It’s a pity then to not be privy to things that these three characters, like all young people, are made of: infinite feelings, racing thoughts and stardust.
The parts based on Kalburgi, the literary scholar murdered in 2015 after receiving death threats for his views, is familiar territory for Hariharan. The protagonist of her 2003 novel In Times of Siege was a university professor who faced the wrath of Hindu fundamentalists for his views on Basava, a medieval poet – also a subject of Kalburgi’s work.
In this novel, Krishna, a literature professor, is targeted by Hindu militants for his research on Kannadeva, a character based on Basava. Krishna’s theories about the mystic poet’s life and verses are confirmed when he examines some medieval palm leaves. His wife pours out her PPF savings and his friends help him self-publish. Duller than the process of his discovery are the Hindu nationalist characters outraged by Krishna. A godman draws up a hit list, sevaks are groomed to execute, we’re told about their megalomania and their misogyny but left wondering why ideology becomes murderous.
The novel opens with the son of a cattle skinner, who runs away from his village and is introduced to Anandagram, an egalitarian community, where he settles down. Here, Chikkiah and his wife sing about their surroundings, incorporating ideas of love and equality. These songs, inspired by Basava’s verses, are peppered throughout the novel. Basava’s signature line addressing “O lord of the meeting rivers” becomes here “O river of a thousand faces”. Chikkiah’s son eventually becomes Kannadeva, a revered philosopher. Anandagram, though, doesn’t survive – and the old order is restored. This portion of the novel is educational, a throwback in time that breaks down the continuity of India’s most vicious social institution, despite reformist movements.
Read more: Non-fiction: a fiction writer’s gift
The main problem of I Have Become the Tide is captured in a small but significant scene where a young woman accuses Krishna of cultural appropriation. “I mean you’re talking of a cow skinner. Can you ever understand his life?” she says. He wants to tell her that these characters – Kannadeva’s family – don’t leave him alone, asking him to speak on their behalf. But instead, he tells her “with great kindness” that she is right, he “can never directly understand — in the sense of experience — the day-to-day life of a cattle skinner, his suffering, his fears and his dreams.”
This may be true for scholarly work. But for novelists, understanding characters, particularly in the sense of experience – day-to-day, dreams and drama – is the job description. Hariharan, a past winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize who serves on juries for several important awards, demurs from inhabiting her characters. The result is not a political act, but instead one of “great kindness” – a do-gooder novel that does no good.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist.