I have always had trouble braiding my hair, and prefer keeping it short in order to avoid confronting that additional inadequacy. How hard could it be? Section one’s hair into three segments, make them overlap neatly until all one sees is that perfect fishtail. However, what if these three sections were to represent three ostensibly different stories that an author is boldly trying to weave into a whole?
In ‘I Have Become The Tide’ by Githa Hariharan, the hagiography of a 12th century saint poet Kannadeva is unpacked the son of an erstwhile cattle skinner, Chikkiah. Asha, Ravi and Satya, the only Dalit students in their class, studied assiduously to make it to medical school. Satya makes it, Asha takes admission in a Christian missionary led nursing school and Ravi pursues zoology. Lastly, Githa Hariharan’s novel consists of an esteemed professor, P. S. Krishna, who experiences joy in his intellectual probe of Kannadeva’s life and in basking in the warmth he shares with his wife Shanta, and his family. Where is the convergence? Githa Hariharan already has an answer for her readers: Chikkiah at one end, Satya at the other; Krishna is a narrow bridge in between.
Those far more capable of a literary review than I, have already made incisive observations about this book: Sharanya Manivannan has penned down the significance of the verses composed by the egalitarian community of Anandagrama in the book. On a more critical note, Saudamini Jain calls Githa Hariharan’s book an “oversimplification” of three events: the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula in Satya’s arc, the murder of MM Kalburgi in the professor’s story, and Kannadeva’s symbolisation of the 12th century Bhakti movement.
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Yet, despite extensive and exhaustive reviews, there remain three facets of Githa Hariharan’s writing that deserve due adulation and consideration. The first is found as we journey with the professor through Kannadeva’s life and discover that it was the revolutionary residents of Anandagrama defying caste who composed the verses, but they are considered Kannadeva’s creations. In a project of saffronisation, this phenomenon may take a dangerous turn, because a gradual erasure of Kannadeva’s background takes place to fit the ‘prolific childhood-sudden epiphany-unadulterated spirituality’ archetype of poet-saints. However, one cannot help but wonder two things: firstly, why does a saint become a site to locate songs and poems of a particular bygone era, is authorship that intricately linked to memory? Secondly, why do hagiographies fit into these neat archetypes as they are present in public memory?
The first question yields a deeper discussion of which we find ample examples in the Bhakti movement. In certain kirtans, Namdev and Kabir were envisaged as contemporaries whereas historically they belong to different epochs. This demonstrates the power of public memory where the audience interacting with songs and stories imputes an element of fluidity (empiricists would say falsity) to it. Githa Hariharan herself is able to encapsulate this in a rather delightful extract:
‘In a contemporary South Indian variant of this episode [in the Ramayana],’ Krishna reads, ‘the storyteller says that Hanuman dropped Rama’s ring into the ocean; then the storyteller asks his listeners,
“How can Hanuman retrieve the ring?”
Someone in the audience (within the story) jumps up, runs to the ocean, finds the ring, and returns it to the storyteller, who then continues his narration.’
Steering one’s thoughts subtly in these abstract directions is no easy feat, and Githa Hariharan accomplishes this quite comfortably. One of the reasons she is able to do this is because of the lucid flow of the novel and the stellar quality of her writing, in spite of the three distinct plot lines. Hariharan’s weapon of choice whilst writing changes from a fist to a feather in seconds. The former is visible in the following exchange between Satya and Ravi as they discuss their college experiences:
‘And there’s a professor who–’ Satya hesitates– ‘I am worried about passing his course.’
Ravi looks at him closely. ‘Caste?’ he asks. Satya nods. That word is shorthand; it’s enough for them to understand each other. The rest of it is detail.
Our perception of a patois within a community is instinctively one that stems from familiarity and fondness. It is therefore essential to acknowledge one’s ignorance of a shorthand formed from individual experiences of injustice that can be framed in a collective and understood through a single word.
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On the other hand, the feather is used by Githa Hariharan on multiple occasions, one being a a (not-so) subtle and well-deserved jibe towards academia when Shanta (a botanist) attends an academic conference with Krishna:
It sounds ambitious; the session titles and descriptions are peppered with words she finds daunting, such as ‘intersectionality’ or ‘deterritorialising’ or ‘assemblages.’
We are all cognisant that we do not need these words to put an opinion across, and yet we use them as shields for the eventuality that we do not have a distinct opinion, and these words let the charade last a little longer. It’s almost as if we remain students in school asked a question by the teacher whose answer we don’t know, and try to prattle our way out of it. If they don’t realise we were faffing, it’s a victory.
To put it simply therefore, if you are a reader who prefers finishing a book in a night, you could do so with Githa Hariharan’s I Have Become the Tide: it is captivating and gripping. If you are the reader who ruminates and ponders, Hariharan will gently nudge you into a deeper vortex, which she may or may not help you get out of. An example of this treatment is in a seemingly uncomplicated sentence about Asha’s mother:
Her mother is always working. Maybe she is afraid that if she stops, she may have to consider her life, and that would be a waste of time.
The primary inference from this statement is of Asha’s mother’s hardships as a labourer on land that will perhaps never be hers. The secondary thought that may strike you, is: is considering one’s life a waste of time? Some might consider it a reflexive exercise and a sign of human maturity, others may deem a nugatory, or worse, narcissistic exercise.
Apart from Githa Hariharan’s engagement with public memory and the writing style, what set this novel apart was its use of motifs. The river “of a thousand faces” or one that “moves to stillness” represented freedom to Chikkiah and his growing horizons, but a tragic end for Kannadeva and Satya. Chikkiah’s father’s drum which he beats as if it holds everything he knows- hunger, humiliation, the grinding repetition of day after day is juxtaposed with Ravi’s beating of the drum in his journey of resilience with the Bhim Shakti Army in his college.
These motifs give me the courage to bring back the pained opening metaphor of the braid. There were definitely loose strands as the weaving progressed: the predictable background and life of Krishna’s assailant can read a tad tired to a reader otherwise ensorcelled by the ebb and flow of the protagonists’ plotlines. The familiar symbols of attention to physical fitness, Hanuman, hatred of the intelligentsia may appear stale, and there is no nuance added to the stereotypes immediately conjured on hearing the word “bhakt.”
It also appears that Githa Hariharan was attempting to make a proposition about the cyclical nature of oppression and resistance in the story of human civilization: Chikkiah and the residents of Anandagrama, and Ravi and his Bhim Shakti Army represent resistance across time. This remained incomplete, and sometimes forced to bring the braid together. Hariharan’s real victory is in the beauty of each segment. Apart from that, even its incompleteness and its obstinacy to deprive a reader of some semblance of a happy ending, I Have Become the Tide leaves a whirlpool churning somewhere inside you: for better or for worse, only time will tell.
Pritika is a student of political science who recently completed her M. A. from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is fascinated by Indian political thought and feminist theory, and runs a weekly book club that reads texts by women authors. She can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.