“That was the Past.
Tie me, tether me so I don’t stray there again.”
I Have Become the Tide – Gita Hariharan

I read a review recently which argued that fiction was not free of the necessity to be political. If we address a subject, we must also address its political and social nuances. I’m not sure I agree with the reviewer’s stance, but I thought of it a lot when I was reading Gita Hariharan’s latest work. I Have Become the Tide, published by Simon & Schuster India, follows three very different sets of people, and in each situation we are shown, and not allowed to look away from, the caste system… its inescapable operations, and the dangerous rise of a religious nationalism that the novel posits, has actually been with us for a millennium and more. I would go back to that earlier reviewer and say, I’m not sure that every piece of fiction has to be political. And further, I will argue that sometimes a work can be too political, taking it out of the realm of fiction, and making it a thinly disguised manifesto and documentary. Hariharan walks that line very finely here, and sometimes art does give way to agenda.

In some undefined moment in the past, Chikka leaves his home, carrying his dead father’s drum. He is running away from pain, from oppression; he has nowhere to go. But he is more fortunate than most — he meets people from Anandagrama, which is set up to establish a casteless society, where anyone can live, and everyone is welcome, and everyone chooses the work that they wish to do. All labour has dignity, and no one is alone unless they wish to be. Chikka becomes Chikkaiah, and learns to share his song. In the present day, Asha, Ravi and Sathya are three friends who all want to go to medical school. Only Sathya gets through. All three are Dalit, and this fact informs their every interaction because no one will let them forget it. Against this unending storm of bigotry they form a resistance through their love and friendship. Still in the present, Professor Krishna is under fire for suggesting that a beloved Bhakti saint might have been born within a ‘lower’ caste, and might not have been a big-hearted Brahmin mystic. Professor Krishna’s storyline takes the burden of referencing as many national errors as possible – statues, Hindutva violence, educational saffronisation, book bans and love jihads — everything gets crowded in, as though if they are not mentioned, his narrative will fail as a progressive academic voice. Within Krishna’s storyline, you see how Chikka’s story ends, and mirrored there you see the finality of everyone’s lives. The endings, when they come, are not
a surprise.

Hariharan tells her stories with complete control, with nothing out of place or useless. Her prose is grand, visual, and tender. At times, especially when we see Chikkaiah’s life, the visuals are cinematic in scope and beauty. Hariharan weaves together three disparate lives to make her point about caste, yes, but also to show us the common core of human aspiration — freedom, dignity and equality are not new-fangled concepts. People in India have been singing about them for aeons.

The novel reminds one of the coring depths of the human need for touch. This human need is why treating someone as untouchable should be recognised as a literal sin. Through Asha, Ravi and Sathya, in their loving togetherness, and through Chikkaiah and his friend Puttanna, we feel again the power of human connection, and why the word “connection” is not just a spiritual matter but a physical, bodily necessity. We return to see that dirt and sweat, our visceral homes, are not to be scorned but
rather celebrated.

In Anandagrama we see an unformalised analysis of caste and its oppressive action, repeated generations later on Ravi’s campus in more formal, political terms. It bears repeating that freedom and equality are not new concepts; the only thing that is new is the academic and political framing of these concepts. Sathya, Ravi and Asha are not in the same academic institution but we see them all face the same snide, low-key disdain and mistrust.

In theory and in law, every student has the same access and the same reach for an education, for marks, for a future career. In reality all it takes is a moment of malice from a teacher or administrator and your day, or week, or year is ruined. Or your life. Ravi shows you moments of life when he attends Bhim Shakti meetings, learns to speak of oppression, agitates and finds hope. Otherwise, hope is a fragile thing for these three, and over and over we see the hatred cast against them resisted only by their faith in each other and their support for each other.
The past ended in tragedy. Will it happen again? Are we doomed to stay in unending moral failure forever? Hariharan suggests that if change comes it will be because of Dalit, and Schedule Caste and Tribal resistance, and bonding, as opposed to any organic change in a Brahminical oligarchy. That is a very small sliver of hope, and a great responsibility for the communities most affected by casteism.

I Have Become the Tide is concerned also with poetry. When do we recognise something as poetry? When someone with authority tells you it is poetry. This begs the question — how much poetry do we ignore because it is written by the marginalised, by women, by people we don’t respect enough to see that they understand beauty and expression just as well as we do? What have we lost of oral traditions? What did we lose when we stratified those traditions on paper? Who owns poetry, and where does it go? Chikkaiah, his wife, his friends; Asha, Ravi and Sathya; Professor Krishna and his friends — all of them intimately are concerned with poetry, as audience, as academics and
as artistes.

I still think I Have Become the Tide is a very unsubtle narrative of caste politics in India, but maybe we need something unsubtle now. With her finely drawn characters, and intense emotional understanding, Hariharan has crafted a novel to shake the foundations of our acceptance of the caste system, which is also an ode to poetry, and love.

Publishers: Simon & Schuster India

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