Githa Hariharan

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censorship, gender, Hinduism, identity, post modernity, post-colonialism
Written and spoken word (anthology, criticism, essay, novel, short story, story)
Asia, Southern and Central
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October 7, 2003
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Githa Hariharan
Ghita Hariharan© Joseph Mehling


´Our scope dwindles from day to day!´

Githa Hariharan´s literary career began with her winning the Commonwealth Writers´ Prize for her first work, The Thousand Faces of Night, in 1993. ´Githa Hariharan´s prose is just wonderful - subtle, humorous and tender at the same time´ wrote the Indo-English star author Michael Ondaatje about the book on its publication. Born in 1954, Githa Hariharan has since written four novels and a collection of tales and is due to bring a further collection of tales out, this time for children. Her works have been translated into French, Spanish, Dutch and German, and though she is loath to see herself as a feminist author, her prose has become a key part of post-modern women´s literature in India.
Githa Hariharan´s work belongs to the renaissance of Indo-English literature which began with the appearance of Salman Rushdie´s novel ´Midnight Children´ in the early 80s. Authors like Ben Okri, Caryl Philipps and Sashi Tharoor, writing about India´s modernisation and tallying beak-up and loss of roots, found resonance among the Indian middle class then gradually among readers in Europe and the USA, as the rigour of the centralised government run by Indira Gandhi together with the growth of Hindu fundamentalism led to a progressive counter-culture expressed in English.

Githa Hariharan wrote her first novel, The Thousand Faces of Night, while on maternity leave. ´I was sitting at home the whole time with a baby who was altogether charming but a thoroughly poor partner in a conversation and was surrounded by women of all ages with various faiths. I thought it was just the time to start writing.´ In the resulting book, she wove together the lives of three women belonging to three generations in Madras in the south of India. The book shows how they are torn between tradition and modernity in trying to shape their lives in their own ways and, in doing so, recalls and reinterprets the great myths recorded in Sanskrit - the Mahabharata and the Ramayana - to show changes in the relationship between the sexes.

In the novel ´When Dreams Travel´ (Picador 1999), Hariharan explores the world of the ´mother of raconteurs´, Sheherazade. Since writing ´The Thousand Faces of Night´ I have been fascinated with women´s dreams and longings... In the earlier book love and lust were relatively muted´, she said in an interview with Urvashi Butalia, the founder of ´Kali´, India´s first feminist publishing house. She described the genesis of the book in the following words: ´The question at the back of my mind was: What was Sheherazade doing while telling her tales. I imagined her in bed with the sultan. Where was her sister sitting and waiting? Where was her brother? Hence the scope became ever greater and included further characters. The tale began to grow.´

Githa Hariharan´s fourth and most recent novel, In Times of Siege, (Penguin India 2003) has a real, personal background. In 1995 she tried to open an account at the Indian Reverse Bank for her son, then eleven years old, but was told that she could so only with her husband´s signature. The decision was based on the Hindu law, which at the time was still in force, that a mother has a right of guardianship over her children only when the father is dead. Together with her husband she decided to take it to court and she won the case.

The fact that the Indian court changed the constitution in favour of women in 1999, saying that a mother ´is undoubtedly a child´s natural guardian´, now counts as a milestone in the history of women´s liberation in India. ´Just imagine not being the ´natural guardian´ of the children to whom you have given birth, especially in a society in which motherhood is so highly esteemed,´ says Hariharan about her success. ´But the most important thing is that in India all laws limiting private lives are directed against women, the lower castes and folk on the fringe of the outdated system for whom these traditional laws were formulated.´

In ´Times of Siege´ Githa Hariharan turns to oppression and repression in another form. The novel is set in the academic and literary circles of Delhi , a world with which Hariharan is personally familiar. The book´s main person is Shiy Murthy, a professor of history at Delhi University, who has prepared a lecture about Basavanna, a 12th century poet and social reformer critical of the caste system. Certain that the lecture will do the great poet´s reputation no good, fundamentalist colleagues - the ´fundoos´ - call for it to be banned on the grounds that it does not take the traditional Hindu view of holiness into account and hurts religious feelings. Hariharan´s choice of Basavanna as a victim of censorship was due to the fact that an attempt had just been made to ban a play by the author H.S. Shivaprakash for similar reasons.

´Times of Siege“ is Githa Hariharans most recent and radical book. It is about the ruling political parties´ attempts to rewrite history and about giving the educational system a Hindu slant. Universities exist partly for the sake of encouraging debates and a plurality of opinions but, asks Hariharan: ´How should one learn to think for oneself when expected only to regurgitate answers formulated already by others?´ The novel holds a mirror up to Indian society which is increasingly marked by fundamentalism, hate, mistrust and censorship. ´The land we are living in is falling apart,´ says Hariharan. ´The best word for describing the state we are in is ´siege´. Our scope as citizens, writers, teachers and students, as rationally thinking people, is shrinking from day to day.´

Her dislike of the strategy for creating a uniform Hinduism - ´as if one could force a complex and lush cultural landscape into one and the same uniform´ - and of its anti-Muslim excesses is shared by Paul Zacharia, the southern Indian author with whom she gave a reading in the House of World Cultures in October 2003. She admires his works ´owing to their poetically capricious style and the way in which he is always sticking his neck out´.
Author: Barbara-Ann Rieck


Githa Hariharan was born in 1954 in Coimbatore in the state Tamil Nadu in the south of India. Her grandfather was a teacher of English and a practising Brahman, and her father was a founder and publisher of the Indian newspaper ´The Economic Times´. Hariharan learned Tamil as her native language and did not begin learning English till the age of eight. She grew up in Manila and Bombay then studied English literature at Bombay University, where she gained a B.A. in 1974. She then continued her studies at Fairfield University in Connec ticut in the USA, where she gained an M.A. in communications. After working for awhile at a radio station in New York, she went back to India and worked as a lector for several years for the Indian publishing House Longman Orient in Delhi.

After the success of her first novel, The Thousand Faces of Night, she gave her job up and now lives as a free-lance writer and publisher with her husband and two sons in a Delhi suburb. For various publishing houses, she has edited books including ´A Southern Harvest´ - a collection of 16 tales in the southern Indian languages Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu, which offer a fascinating panorama of the variety and riches of southern Indian literature. Githa Hariharan has published several essays about cultural and political issues and written book reviews for various Indian newspapers.


Fugitive Histories

Published Written,
Penguin Books India

The Winning Team

Published Written,
Short stories. Rupa & Co.: New Dehli

In Times of Siege

Published Written,
Novel. Viking Penguin: India

When Dreams Travel

Published Written,
Novel. Picador: London

Sorry, Best Friend!

Published Written,
Short stories. (Hrsg.) Tulika Publishers: India

The Ghosts of Vasu Master

Published Written,
Novel. Viking: New Delhi

The Art of Dying and Other Stories

Published Written,
Short stories. Penguin Books: New Delhi

A Southern Harvest

Published Written,
Short stories. (Hrsg.) Katha / Rupa: New Dehli

The Thousand Faces of Night

Published Written,
Novel. Penguin India: New Dehli


1993: Commonwealth Writers Prize (for: »The Thousand Faces of Night»)


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

New Perspectives from India

(19 September 03 - 16 November 03)


Official website


Extracts of selected interviews

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