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In Time of Siege, by Githa Hariharan.

March 15, 2015

In Time of Siege, by Githa Hariharan.  Pantheon (2003), Edition: First American Edition, 1st Printing, Hardcover, 224 pages.

4 stars

A thoughtful novel of about a mild professor re-engaging with life when a young woman stays in his home and Hindu Fundamentalists attack his historical scholarship.

Shiv Murthy is an unassuming history professor who works in a small department in New Delhi writing and editing correspondence courses. When his wife is on an extended visit with their daughter in Seattle, he is called upon to take Meena, a young college student, into his home while she recuperates from a broken leg. Her presence enlivens and arouses him. In addition, she inspires him to defend himself when fundamentalists challenge the content of a course he has written on Medieval Indian history. He is proud of what he has written about Barasa, a radical reformer and a man some believe was a saint. The “Fundoos,” as Meena calls them, reject what Shiv has written. They call for his lesson to be thrown out and put his job in jeopardy. Their view of the past is nothing more than a simplistic call for Hindu domination and unity that ignores the facts. The novel becomes the personal and political account of a scholar under siege, forced to reconsider his own past and present.

The struggle with the fundamentalists pushes Murthy back to thoughts of his father, a man who fought for India’s freedom and then disappeared from his life.   Murthy believes in a multi-cultural India, emerging from a variety of traditions. He rejects attempts force its history into a narrow mold. In the past as in the present, there have been “hatemongers” who falsely claim that they have the only correct views.

It is the right of the people to a complex, pluralistic history. It is true that history is not an indisputable body of knowledge. But history itself shows us that attempts to ‘rectify’ it have all too often been a camouflage for the doctoring of history.

He understands that a complicated historical figure like Barasa can be viewed as dangerous because he challenges existing power structures. Those who would control power need to control how he is viewed.

Turn a leader into a minor god; a man into a saint. That is the only way to make him safely untouchable. Then his ideas and politics need not be understood; they won’t make your life uncomfortable. The lessons his life holds—what he saw then and what we see in hind sight—no longer have to be recalled. Or put into practice.

As Murthy gradually understands, his father and other aspects of the past can remain part of who he is.

Once he throws away all the safe crutches, he can truly walk in the present. Be free to be curious, to speculate; to debate, dissent. Reaffirm the value of the only heirloom he needs from the past, the right to know a thing in all the ways possible.

As an historian, I share Murthy’s challenge and appreciate his affirmations. I am all too aware that around the globe fundamentalists of various descriptions are demanding that we all reject parts of the body of knowledge that humans have worked to discover for centuries. The “culture wars” that have resulted push us all to ask ourselves how we know what we know and why it matters. What Githa Hariharan has done is to write about how such attacks become interwoven with our personal concerns and ability to fight back. A novel addressing these issues may sound dry and abstract, but not here. For Murthy the intellectual challenge opens into questions of who he is and what he stands for. Her depiction of him is teasing and playful, drawing us into his life and his choices.

Githa Hariharan was born in India and lived there much of her life. Now living in New Delhi, she has had a distinguished career as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. In addition she has held positions writing, editing and teaching at various institutions in India and aboard. Her writing often addresses social and political issues. As she says on her website, ‘All my work looks at power politics in some way or the other. Both fiction and non-fiction have a thousand ways of giving us a new take on the dynamics of power relations.’ She is particularly concerned about intolerance and the attempts in India to reject its multi-ethnic identity. She also a strong, articulate feminist. Although women are not the focus of In Time of Siege, her feminism is prominent in her other books and in the stories and articles on her website.

I strongly recommend this book, especially to all those who care about history in any form.  I am looking for some more of her books to read.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2015 4:13 pm

    I’ve just ordered this. I have been hoarding my pennies this year because I am saving for my trip but I just had to have it.
    It makes sense to me that writers explore this territory at this moment in time, what puzzles me is that (of the books I’ve read) unpacking fundamentalism seems to be a theme not tackled by the West except in shallow terrorism thrillers. I can’t think of an Australian author who’s written anything thoughtful like this, and the only thing that comes close is a book by an American writer about the interior world of a would-be suicide bomber on his way to blow up one of the famous bridges – *frustrated frown* I can’t remember the name of the book now.
    Have you read The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam? Set in Bangladesh, it explores the fraught relationship of a secular feminist and her fundamentalist brother who comes back into her life and wants her to take the veil.

    • March 18, 2015 4:57 pm

      Yes, I liked Anam’s book, but I liked her earlier one better. The focus here is less on the fundamentalist in the street and more about what it means to search for truth, especially in the past.

  2. March 15, 2015 4:18 pm

    In Time of Siege sounds very interesting to me. BiblioBoyfriend is reading The Hindus by Wendy Doniger at the moment, so we’ve been talking quite a bit about censorship and Hindu fundamentalism.

    • March 18, 2015 4:59 pm

      This book would overlap nicely, I think. I haven’t read The Hindus and mostly know what I see in the media.

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