Fugitive Histories by Githa Hariharan
Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 13, 2009
The cover of Githa Hariharan’s sublimely written Fugitive Histories, done by Rosana Claudia Marchini(photograph), Gunjan Ahlawat(design) and Urmimala(illustration), has, coming out of a mudglaciated-over map of India, a pair of hands of a person doing a military ‘stand at ease’, but not quite: the fingers of the hand are straight, not at ease, like the person – the country – they belong to is itching to do something but can’t, forced to look like he(/she) is at ease. We also see that in this odd representation of the country, the three cities of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Delhi have been brought much closer than in reality. We open the book and we see Mala, whose painter husband Asad has just died, trying to sort out Asad’s possessions, his sketchbooks, wallowing in her childhood memories, of the time before she had even met him, and memories of her children Samar and Sara when they were still that and using those memories to understand her life as it is now, and one of His – Asad’s – drawings. Soon, we come across this:
That’s how the ant not only shows what she can do, but also makes them all a part of a living chain, so they change from creatures indifferent to other people’s stories to creatures changed by other people’s stories. That’s the way Samar and Sara also saw it once, a game in which everyone is linked. What happens to one also happens, in some way, to the other. That’s how all those fragments that pass for different lives forge a cunning chain. The interlocking links may not always be visible, but still they are made of iron. And the ending of a chain story can’t really be the end. To make sense of it all, you have to go back to the beginning.
There, to be sure, is a lot more to the book, lots of little(r) themes, and vignettes of considerable power, – otherwise, to paraphrase J. M. Coetzee, why not scrap the rest of the book altogether? – but this, as defined by the cover and the quote, is the centrepiece of my reading of the book.
The book has three central characters; Mala, her daughter Sara, and Yasmin, one of the victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat, based in, respectively, Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad. All three are facing identity crises. Mala wants to know what she is without Asad – once, when she was a child, her grandmother told her about a dead twin brother (something which might or might not be true) and said that she, Mala, would only be completed by him -, Sara doesn’t know whether she should stay at her job or go off to Ahmedabad with her roommate Nina and write the script for her – Nina’s – documentary about the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots and what it means to be a half-Hindu half-Muslim in modern India (Mala is Hindu and Asad Muslim), and Yasmin just wants to be what she was before misfortune struck.*
The book is divided into three parts: ‘Missing Persons’, ‘Crossing Borders’ and ‘Funeral Rites’. The first introduces us to Mala and Sara and their loss of Asad. Sara, needless to say, goes to Ahmedabad and meets Yasmin in the second part of the book. I’m not completely sure when exactly the third part comes, but it is somewhere in this region that Yasmin gets her point-of-view, and that is the best part of the book. A walk to school, for example, becomes a beautiful and sad indictment of rehabilitation efforts. There’s also a description of the time of the riots and before, which is at least as good. Maybe, all I should say is that I was whimpering when the climax of the Yasmin story came, and let me tell you: no other book has ever made me whimper – cry, yes, but never, ever, whimper.
Whatever else it may be, this book, finally, is also a coming-of-age story, without the reservation that you can do that only at puberty. This is one of the reasons the parts are named what they are. First, there is ‘Missing Persons’, the loss, the thing for which we are not of age. Then, there is ‘Crossing Borders’, into the come of age. Finally, there are ‘Funeral Rites’, the expression of having come to terms with death, and life, an expression which, ultimately, is the very essence of coming to age.