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Singing about the dark times

Sharanya Manivannan | Updated on April 12, 2019 Published on April 12, 2019

Between the lines: In certain sections of the book, characters poignantly reflect on the merits of a life of working with words   -  ISTOCK.COM

Fortified by poetry, Githa Hariharan’s novel I Have Become The Tide holds a mirror to a contemporary India riven by centuries-old prejudices

In her memorable 2003 novel In Times of Siege, Githa Hariharan wrote about a fictional professor who received the ire of right-wing fundamentalists because of his work on the historic Kannada Bhakti poet Basavanna. In I have become the tide, she revisits a similar premise, expanding it by reaching into other centuries and circumstances, and what results is a work that is both an accurate representative and a dire harbinger.

I have become the tide; Githa Hariharan; Simon & Schuster; Fiction; ₹499

 

Professor PS Krishna, a senior academic immersed in devotional poetry, makes a stunning discovery — the medieval Kannadeva, revered as a Hindu saint-poet, was quite unlike anything his self-appointed modern-day defenders believe him to have been. Krishna had first come to their attention after a lecture on Kannadeva’s Jal Samadhi (in which an enlightened being ends their mortal life in a body of water). But when he finds evidence that Kannadeva was of Dalit origin, raised in an egalitarian society called Anandagrama, and what came to be known as his work was in truth a multitude of voices — and then publishes a book on these discoveries — his detractors become truly livid. “How did Kannadeva or any of the poets and mystics of the past become theirs?” wonders Krishna. Later, he answers the question himself: “We see multiple processes of forgetting here, all of it choreographed.”

Meanwhile, a young medical student, Satya, reads about the poets of Anandagrama and finds himself writing verses in a symbolically blue notebook too. They help him cope with the vile anti-reservation and casteist prejudices he encounters at university every day. He stays in touch with his friends Ravi and Asha, each of whom struggles on a different campus for the same reason. Asha, studying nursing, is made to clean bedpans; Ravi, languishing in a zoology course, finds solidarity in Bhim Shakti meetings; and the bright Satya is tormented by a professor intent on failing him.

Intertwined between these two plotlines, of the students and the professor, is an older narrative: Anandagrama, in which renouncers of all caste backgrounds come together for a social experiment that lasts but a few decades. The Anandagrama that Hariharan conjures is vivid. A child buried beneath the boughs of a bauhinia tree, how someone self-corrects the pejorative “whoresons”, for sex workers too are welcome in this place, the way Kannadeva’s parents Mahadevi and Chikkiah fall in love — and alongside all this, always, a river of polyvalent moods and effects, addressed in the poems as “O river of a thousand faces”.

In one beautiful sequence, Krishna lies awake imagining in fine detail how Kannadeva may have compiled the poetry that carries his name — the painstaking inscription on processed palm leaves using a needle called a kanta, the application of coal powder, the threading of the leaves and the attachment of wooden covers. This gives way to philosophical musings on what Kannadeva must have felt as he worked, and why and how Anandagrama existed and was erased. When Krishna finishes his own book, his wife and publisher Shanta instructs him: “Hold it close to your heart...Now let it go.” There are many such poignant reflections on a life of working with words. Mahadevi, inscribing leaves after almost all is lost, is described thus: “She has to work for one reason alone. She has to insist... that what she lived and loved did happen.”

Seeded through the pages of I have become the tide are verses which Hariharan, in an act of meta-narration, contributes to the palm leaf volume that carries the name Kannadeva. Each has the familiar quality of Kannada Bhakti poetry rendered into English by AK Ramanujan, with lines like “Can you teach a man/ who thinks hill and stream/ mud and leaf/ skin and heart/ live in worlds apart?” and exquisite images like the “long-eyed belly” of a boat.

In so many ways, this novel is made powerful through its poetic heart. Not only in the lines that Mahadevi, Chikkiah, Satya and others compose, or in the renditions Krishna hears sung by a man who tells him scathingly, “(Sanskrit) refused to live, that’s why it’s a dead language”, but equally in the small moments in which life’s sweetness is noticed. Mahadevi holding a chick in her palms as she shyly tells Chikkiah she can’t sing; Krishna admiring his wife at a concert; Asha buying sugar cane juice by the sea, warmed by her friendships and by thoughts of the directions in which they may grow.

But in the most complimentary of ways, it also resists easy reading. How can one simply turn the page after atrocity and everyday abuse? The stories of Asha, Ravi and Satya are particularly painful to swallow, for they are grounded in living — and killing — truths. Hariharan etches many unbearable moments of humiliation and sabotage, and through the book are shades of the denouements that too many have met for daring to oppose the caste system or political and religious fascism. There is a necessary bleakness to this book that the poetry assuages, but insists we do not deny: “Only those who have sweated day after day/ know what it is to be soaked, O friend.” I have become the tide is required reading for the contemporary Indian context, a highly recommended novel sowed with verse, which provides an unflinching reminder of the eventualities of hatred. It is full of pain. But it is also buoyed, like a boat, on much depth and beauty.

Sharanya Manivannan is the author of The Queen of Jasmine Country and The High Priestess Never Marries

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Published on April 12, 2019
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