Non-fiction: a fiction writer’s gift
The first time I meet Githa Hariharan, she has just come off a rousing reception to her reading of excerpts from her new book, Almost Home: Cities & Other Places. Hariharan, 61, presents a formidable figure at the podium in the mid-sized events room at British Council, Bengaluru, her sharp eyes noting every embarrassed latecomer and the extra chairs in the corridor, where they can only hear her disembodied voice. But the dry sense of humour cuts through like a knife, especially when she references Bengaluru, heads nodding as she reads aloud about the MTR booklet (“Please remember: Cleanliness is next to Godliness”) and inventive names for housing complexes.
When we meet again, Hariharan is—in a curious nod to my corridor seat at the launch—a faceless voice on Skype, skipping the video to save her dodgy 2G connection extra stress. We chat about the rigour of writing, the upside of a late debut and the importance of allying with diverse movements. Edited excerpts:
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Quite early actually—except that I didn’t know what it meant to be a writer. All I knew was that I loved words. I wrote some derivative children’s stories and then, in college in Bombay (now Mumbai), I began writing what I thought was poetry. I was lucky to find a mentor-figure who nudged me in the right direction. Nissim Ezekiel read my verse and told me, “This, my dear, is what is called juvenilia” (when I mentioned this incident to him years later, he said, “Oh my god, I hope I wasn’t unkind”). I was crushed, but I continued to write “poetry”. All of which came in useful about 15 years later, when I actually did have something to write about, and more important, in my own voice, which is prose.
Given that you knew early that you would be a writer, your literary debut came quite late.
The moment I actually made the commitment to full-time writing came during my first maternity break. I was 30, I had written a lot of apprentice work, and conversation is not good with a newborn! A novel was the only way I could amuse myself—and so it was born, out of loneliness, desire and boredom.
The Thousand Faces Of Night was ready when I was in my early 30s (but finding a publisher was not easy). In a way, it was good, because I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Once I learnt that good intentions and good themes will never guarantee good writing, I’d learnt a lesson for life. The Thousand Faces came out in 1992, when I was 38. My kind of writing is never going to be loud or best-selling. It makes too many demands of the reader for that. But I have kept at it for 30-odd years, while paying my bills and educating my children.
And then ‘The Thousand Faces Of Night’ won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the best first book in 1993.
It felt spectacular. At that point, the politics of it didn’t strike me; all it meant was that I was a real writer and I had some readers. And I could make the very daring decision of not going back to my job and still pay my bills for the next six months.
But there was also a downside: I felt I was being patted on the back for being a woman writing about women since The Thousand Faces happened to be about three generations of Indian women. At some point, I had to tell myself: “Well, I’m not going to be a specialist. I’m not giving up a job for this completely insecure life to sit and write variations of the same story.” It’s wonderful if you have praise, but you have to do what you think makes sense to you.
A women’s writer, a woman writer.... Do labels bother you?
It took me several years to get a handle on the ways in which a writer can be slotted. It’s like multiple identities. Being called a woman writer lazily—in a way that ghettoizes you or diminishes you—means nothing. Outside (India), I could play at spokesperson for all Indian women. In India, I could be “writer in English”. It’s enough to make you feel like an impostor.
The best thing is to develop a sharp, critical shadow that laughs at you cruelly if you start taking all this too seriously, too literally. Then you can see that these categories can be read in meaningful ways. When huge sections of our population, who’ve been marginalized for reasons of caste or class or gender, acquire a voice, this breakthrough is worth highlighting. It makes sense then to have anthologies of, say, women writers, because that is how we remember where we came from. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that a woman like Rassundari Devi (said to be the first autobiographer in Bengali, man or woman) was learning the alphabet sneakily from her son’s books in the kitchen.
But if you’re nothing but a woman writer (or a Dalit writer or a writer in a particular language) and you become sectarian about it, both as a reader and a writer, you limit yourself. Your writing may be affected; and your strategies as writer and citizen suffer politically. If you’re puzzling about India, how can you not look at all the dividing lines, from caste and class to gender? How can you not try to make alliances with other movements?
You’ve moved fearlessly between short stories, novels, essays and newspaper columns, though your concerns frequently remain the same. Does content decide form?
Almost Home combines this political perspective with the multiple voices of my fiction. Like the novel, the essay can hold all kinds of forms—poetry, politics, anecdote, imagined vignettes. I knew that when I wrote non-fiction, it would have to be a fiction writer’s gift to the reader. I wanted to use all the narrative strategies I’ve learned over the years and recreate individual lives in different cities, from Delhi to Srinagar to Algiers to Copenhagen. I wanted to connect these lives through the ideas of justice so many cities are supposedly built on, or the dreams of freedom, or the hope for a life with more choices. It was astonishing, the links I found as I did this. Writing about Algiers celebrating its 50th year of freedom from France, for example, I couldn’t help seeing the contrast between the kind of nation Algeria chose to be and the kind of nation India chose to be. So I ended up getting a sharp view of our Indian national experiment as I described the post-independence dilemmas of the Algerian nation.
In an essay on “cities of victory”, Washington and medieval Vijayanagar, I trace surprising connections—the obsessions with grand monuments, with defence and security, the grandeur that comes at the expense of the slaves and the workers who hold the cities on their shoulders. For me this was more vivid if I could actually imagine the characters involved. So I have sections on (US) president (George) Washington, for example, and the slave girl who ran away from his family.
Finally, the fiction-writer’s special gift—of going into the secretive areas of fear, desire and dream—serves well when you are trying to bring to life both known and unknown actors in history so you can make sense of them.
JM Coetzee has praised your new book. Is his work important to you?
Very important. It’s a rare accident that someone whose work you admire is also deeply generous professionally, with a sense of natural egalitarianism as a reader. I admire the way he uses language, the way he challenges readers, the way in which the politics in his writing is so deeply embedded... I’m also a big fan of (Italo) Calvino and (Pablo) Neruda and (Jorge Luis) Borges... and of course I love (folk) tales, myths and legends, because there is no end to them. And where would I be without A.K. Ramanujan?
You’re a disciplined person. Do you have a particular writing routine?
When you’re working by yourself, no work gets done if you aren’t the worst boss in the world. So I have regular work hours, writing in the morning and what I think of as admin(istrative work) in the afternoon. And lots of regular, planned reading.
A conversation on the craft of writing