Hard times
Rumina Sethi

Fugitive Histories. 
Githa Hariharan.
Pages 244. Rs. 450.

Fugitive Histories made me think of bollywood flick ó Delhi 6. In both, the book as well as the film, one waits expectantly for a tightening of the plot, for details that strikingly affect oneís imagination and make it impossible to look away from the screen or the text, as the case may be. Gita Hariharan has a formidable reputation and Rakeysh Om Prakash has one amazing film behind him; but on the whole, I am a little ambiguous whether to shower praises or to admit candidly that the composition did not work. Yet, to be fair, credit must be given where it is due.

Fugitive Histories is a melancholy book. It is a narrative which works through images retrieved from memory. Malaís artist husband, Asad Zaidi, is dead: the novel opens with her reminiscences as she pulls out sketches and drawings from a trunk hitherto left untouched. Sifting through its contents, her mind moves back and forth into the landscape of the past into which the lives of her son, Samar, and daughter, Sara, are woven. The movement ebbs and flows as the focus of the narrative shifts from Malaís memories to Saraand back again. From Malaís crazed grandmother Bala to Asadís broad-minded mother, and from Saraís adult friend Laila to Yasminís ammi, Hariharan reveals them all in broad brush strokes, keeping Azadís paintings as the backdrop to create links for the reader and "themes" for the critical mind.

The early portions of the novel abound with descriptive passages where the author yokes in a variety of metaphors and personifications involving roads, cars, buildings, sea breezes and bras which make the story stagger and virtually halt. There are nearly three pages spent on Mumbai rain in Chapter 3: "The monsoon may be almost spent, but outside the station the rain is still bravely trying to wash up the place." Similarly, Saraís taxi ride is made to appear like an odyssey: "Every time the taxi halts at a red light or stops simply because thereís no place to move, it makes a rattling sound as if itís trying out its death throes."

After much ado, the pace of the novel begins to gather momentum and reveal layers. Sara, a documentary film maker, goes to Ahmedabad to become a spokesperson for the riot victims. She is the product of her parentsí idealistic zeal, especially that of Azad, the defiant but distressed Marxist. Asadís "secular" ideology, which he seems to exude all the time, makes him almost a cardboard cut-out: his insistence to his children that they are neither Hindu nor Muslim; his exhortation to Mala not to be a traditional Muslim wife; his anti-American cant; and his typical kurta-jhola exterior almost prepare one for the Hindu-Muslim animosity which underscores the novel.

Not for nothing does Hariharan give these words to the character that is undoubtedly her favourite creation: "You donít know what it is to fight for something. Youíve never had to fight for anything. Freedom struggle, the Emergency, all old movements for rights, even the Cold War; theyíve all been fought. . . . You had nothing to fight for, now you do. Thereís a battle going on. . . . The enemy wants to tell people whether they are Muslim or Hindu or Christian or something else, as if people no longer know themselves. Letís see how you do in this new war."

This leads us to the dizzying vortex of the Godhra carnage of which Sara will be a part, if only to appease her dead father. These free-floating characters acquire complexity as Sara meets Yasmin whose brother Akbar is missing. A co-sharer in grief, supporting a Muslim surname, Sara finds succour in Ahmedabad by "crossing borders", helping Yasmin continue her education.

We might ask: Is Fugitive Histories a political novel and does the author have a social purpose? Hariharan has said: "My job as a novelist is to ask these questions as passionately as the readers might ask. So, my novel is political in that sense. I donít think that a novel should scream Ďpolitical, politicalí to be political."

Yet, it is when the novel translates into politics that it becomes gripping, like the last scenes of Delhi 6. The description of Yasminís abba looking for his son in the morgue, the boy who is set alight after petrol is poured down his throat, and the woman who is raped and then burnt, is straightforward yet devastatingly painful. A quaint digression from the horrors of Godhra comes from the predictable juxtaposition Hariharan makes with Ahmedabadís other relic, Gandhiís ashram, where Sara unpredictably meets Gandhiís ghost who has returned to douse the fires.

The Ahmedabad episode reveals Sara as a child-woman ó unsure, not quite ready to stride alone, hardly the rebel the earlier chapters had conspired to make her. Towards the end, we are back with Malaís reveries that act as parentheses to Saraís big chunk of the novel. Hariharan brings the curtains down with the last of Asadís paintings, one in which five men menacingly approach the sixth who cowers on the floor while the seventh, unarmed, stands apart watching. He is the helpless artist who knows "how to use his hands and eyes and head only when heís safe on the sidewalk."

We are left wondering whether Hariharan purports to lament the tragedy of the ineffectual artist or the victims of the Gujarat carnage.