Photo courtesy: Pratik Pukayastha)
Githa Hariharan was born in 1954 in Coimbatore, India, and she grew up in Bombay and Manila. She was educated in these two cities and in the United States. She worked as a staff writer in WNET-Channel 13 in New York, and from1979, she worked in Bombay, Madras and New Delhi as an editor, first in a publishing house, then as a freelancer.
In 1995, Hariharan challenged the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act as discriminatory against women. The case, Githa Hariharan and Another vs. Reserve Bank of India and Another, led to a Supreme Court judgment in 1999 on guardianship.
Githa Hariharan’s published work includes novels, short stories, essays, newspaper articles and columns.
Her first novel, The Thousand Faces of Night (1992) won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1993. Her other novels include The Ghosts of Vasu Master (1994), When Dreams Travel (1999), In Times of Siege (2003), and the new Fugitive Histories (2009).
A collection of highly acclaimed short stories, The Art of Dying, was published in 1993, and a book of stories for children, The Winning Team, in 2004.
Githa Hariharan has also edited a volume of stories in English translation from four major South Indian languages, A Southern Harvest (1993); and co-edited a collection of stories for children, Sorry, Best Friend! (1997).
Hariharan’s fiction has been translated into a number of languages including French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Greek, Urdu and Vietnamese; her essays and fiction have also been included in anthologies such as Salman Rushdie’s Mirrorwork: 50 Years of Indian Writing 1947-1997. Hariharan writes a regular column for the major Indian newspaper The Telegraph.
Githa Hariharan has been Visiting Professor or Writer-in-Residence in several universities, including Dartmouth College and George Washington University in the United States, the University of Canterbury at Kent in the UK, and Jamia Millia Islamia in India.
Book in our Library
The Thousand Faces of Night
Call No. 823 GIT-T
The Thousand Faces of Night, Githa Hariharan’s first novel, was published in 1992, and was awarded the Commonwealth Prize for the best first novel. That fact acted like a kind of recommendation for me to pick the novel up. The curiosity soon turned into surprise as it was difficult for me to plough through the chaotic nature of the novel. Rather than being called The Thousand Faces of Night, it should have been called The Thousand Thoughts of Githa Hariharan. Well, I have not counted whether there are really thousand thoughts here, but there are certainly quite a few thoughts, and it is not easy to recognise any kind of order amongst them. There is chaos even in the way the story is told, which in fact is a pity as it could have been a very good novel.
The greatest degree of chaos is in the development of the characters – of Devi, her mother, Sita, and the servant, Mayamma. When the book starts, Devi is in the USA. If she did any thing else there apart from getting into a relationship with Dan, a fellow black student, then it is not talked about. The justification given for this relationship, which was never meant to be anything but a temporary one, is that “Dan was Devi’s answer to the white claustrophobia of an all-clean, all-American campus”! Well, Devi returns soon home, to Madras, to her mother, Sita. The Devi one meets after her journey back to India, is not even a shadow of the Devi whom one comes across at the beginning. This Devi is one of the most boring, most colourless characters ever created. She has no initiative, no urge to do anything, and waits passively for others to arrange her life. Well, there are many people like her in the world. The question is then what was the necessity of sending her to US when that experience left no trace at all on her personality? Hariharan hints that Devi’s character developed as it did as a consequence of the many mythological stories told to her in her childhood by her grandmother. So stories after stories are told in this novel. At the beginning it is very interesting to read them. But soon they loose their meaning, perhaps the only time I ever got such a feeling reading our mythological stories.
Well, Devi’s mother arranges her meetings with suitable boys. Devi marries Mahesh. Why? Who knows? There is nothing to sustain the marriage, neither the husband nor the wife have any interest in making the marriage work. Mahesh is one more example of what a husband should not be. Devi lives like a stranger in her own home, with a stranger whom she has married, a father-in-law who quotes for her sayings from Sanskrit books, Mayamma a servant. Mayamma is the second important female characters of this book. She is introduced as if she would be the Indian equivalent of Mrs. Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but soon turns out to be nothing but a victim of a heartless husband and mother-in-law, and whose life became worth living only after she came as a servant to Parvatiamma, Mahesh’s mother. Even Mayamma’s philosophical outlooks learnt from the hard life she had had to lead, cannot and do not influence Devi. Mayamma does not judge Devi, does not stop her when the latter decides to elope with Gopal, a musician next door. She could not have as after all she was the servant and Devi was the lady of the house, though she does not understand what that role implies.
About two-thirds into the book it starts getting interesting. The main character there is Sita, Devi’s mother. This Sita is a woman who knows her mind, has clear views on what she wants to achieve. Like the stray branches of the jasmine plant she prunes in her garden, she prunes the stray branches, thoughts, and actions in her life to achieve what she wants to. As a girl, her ambition was to become a great Vina player. She achieves that, but silences her craving for music for ever, when she pulls out the strings of her instrument when the instrument comes in the way of her being accepted as a good wife and a good daughter-in-law. The Sitas and Devis of this novel are very unlike the mythological characters of Sita and Devi. Sita of the novel is very firm in character and stops at nothing which could come in her way. Devi who carries the name of that great goddess, the goddess who vanquished demons as if they were flies, is a person without any back bone. The only times Githa Hariharan’s Devi exhibits any firmness of mind is when she gets into and out of senseless relationships – once with Dan and the next time with Gopal. Both relationships are doomed to be nothing other than temporary answers to the dilemma which Devi faces in her life – dilemma of not knowing what to do with it.
Hariharan is a talented writer. The book has quite a few interesting ideas. Unfortunately they are a bit disjointed.