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 The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #38 (September 16-22, 2003), page 16.

Even Shiv

In Times of Siege

By Githa Hariharan

Pantheon Books, 2003

Hardcover, 209 pages, $22.00

By Polo

Shiv Murthy is no hero. Shiv Murthy is barely a scholar at a New Delhi campus of barely-a-college. Dr. Murthy and his barely professorial colleagues do all the things real academics do ó they despise one another quietly, they play petty departmental politics desperately, they attend meaningless weekly faculty meetings where all this puniness actually takes on meaning.

Anyone who was ever an earnest student unhappily having to earn the approval of academic authorities like these, will get immediately involved in Indian author Githa Hariharanís wonderful new novel, In Times of Siege.

Shiv Murthy is nothing like a hero. He is more like you and me. He knows about great men ó indeed, he studies historic figures. He specializes in one, the twelfth-century mystic poet and utopian social reformer, Basavanna. Shiv can quote him, liberally.

"If you risk your hand

with a cobra in a pitcher

will it let you


ó Basava, vachana 160.

Whatís more, Shivís father, who mysteriously vanished when Shiv was a boy, was an activist in Pandit Nehruís Indian Nationalist movement. Shiv is a child of that heroic generation. But the child ó this meek, married, and middle-aged minor professor of a correspondence-college history course ó seems far from anything forged out of his fatherís generation.

"Courage is a strange thing, isnít it?" Shiv asks Meena, a student staying at his place while she recovers from an injury.

"Not just courage, but also anger, passion Ö I was thinking of my father," Shiv says, "but for him the freedom movement didnít end in 1947 Ö the burdens of the new world ó the travails of India ó sat heavy on his shoulders.

"He disappeared."

Githa Hariharanís In Times of Siege is about all these things: a generation knowingly squandering its idealistic political eldersí moral authority; an ancient nation acutely aware of the stark contrast between its grand mythological origins and its current episodes of communal brutality; the irreconcilable extremes of numbing conservatism and incendiary activism together producing very bright people, incapable of doing anything, feeling anything, with any real efficacy outside their own tight circles.

But, oh, how they can argue. Elegantly. Persuasively, even if itís only so among believers.

In the end, with a little shove from youth not yet humbled with mediocre ambitions, with a little spark of clumsy sex, Shiv accumulates at least enough emotional momentum for the possibility of courage.

"Even Shiv, despite a long record of lost opportunities, has found his way to the brink; from where he can, if he dares, make the necessary leap off the precipice."

Ms. Hariharan executes the vastness of Indiaís historical terrain, and the minutiae of one sagging human being finding a flicker of inspiration, with great dignity and intimate humor.

In Times of Siege is Ms. Hariharanís fourth novel. Her first, The Thousand Faces of Night, won her the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her middle works of prose are The Ghosts of Vasu Master and When Dreams Travel. The Art of Dying is her short-story collection.

Ms. Hariharan was educated in Bombay, the Philippines, and the United States. The author now lives in Delhi with her husband and two sons.


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