Gaines: What was your inspiration for In Times of Siege? Was there any particular incident that captured your imagination?
More than inspiration, I would have to talk about compulsion. Both in India and elsewhere, we are living in times that allow less and less space for debate and dissent. As far as specific incidents are concerned, when I was midway through the novel, there was actually a case in India of two very eminent historians being attacked for their work by rightwing watchdogs. This was not so much inspiration for me as a strange parallel track being taken by both the reality around me, and the fiction I was writing.
Meena hangs a poster in the professor’s study and it addresses the necessity of taking a stand against injustice (“When they came for…I said nothing”). How is this particular message important today?
In my generation, we knew this particular quote from the anti-Nazi Niemoller very well. It said a lot to me that several young readers and reviewers were struck by this quotation when they read the novel. Obviously it meant something to them, and it was new to them.
Does Meena speak for her generation, as a student and a feminist?
I think a writer would finally want each character to speak for herself, this mysterious individual full of secrets waiting to be discovered. But yes, Meena is representative of a particular kind of young person – not the yuppie sort, but the kind passionately engaged in the world she lives in – and wanting to change all the inequities it breeds, tolerates and promotes.
Is it possible for the younger generation to infect the older with their enthusiasm? For example, is middle-aged, cautious Professor Murthy a good candidate for such an awakening?
I definitely think so. One thing about being middle-aged, is this sense that this may be the last chance to act, to change, to experience something you have not before. Usually, in a cliché sense for a man at least, this means some little affair. But in the novel, Shiv is actually challenged on both personal and political fronts, and both aspects come together in the person of Meena.
The romance between Shiv and Meetha is mostly fanciful, but for a few moments of intimacy. Does the medieval historian’s renewed romanticism inspire him to greater feats of courage?
It’s not so much a romance as plain lust on his part growing into something more difficult to name. And perhaps it’s this sort of undefined, unconsummated relationship that can finally be the most powerful impulse to change. As far as his memory of his dead father, and his knowledge of the medieval poet are concerned – they (along with Meena) – challenge him to aspire to their rather high standards of courage. And Shiv, like most “heroes” of our times, is a reluctant one. His act of courage, finally, is simply not to give in, to continue to teach, to read and write as he thinks right despite government or mob censorship. It sounds mock-heroic almost, but from our own experience, we know it’s not all that easy to do.
If Murthy’s wife Rekha were not in Seattle, would he be more likely to back down without a fight, even apologize to the fundamentalists?
That’s difficult to say, especially when I decided as a novelist that he was going to be on his own when he meets the two new challenges in his life! But yes, I suspect the force of habit would have been much stronger if his wife had been at home.
The phone call regarding the extremist’s attack on Shiv’s history lesson changes the tenor of the story, significantly escalating the action. How did you make that difficult transition work so well?
That was the idea I began the novel with. But I wanted it to be sneaked in so that it is startling and unbelievable – in the same way it springs into his life, fully formed and menacing, and pushes him into the political act of making a choice.
In many ways, Murthy is an “Everyman”, content in his daily life, avoiding confrontation whenever possible. As an author, you are able to reach a wide audience. With that in mind, have you any suggestions for overcoming personal fears and finding the courage to speak?
As both author and citizen, I can say that despite fears like my character Shiv, I would not be able to live with myself if I didn’t speak up about prejudice and injustice. I think the best way to begin doing this is the tried and tested method – to be part of concerned groups. Later, you develop the toughness to disagree with them if you must!
The College seriously considers the fundamentalist’s attack for “an end to tampering with our precious and glorious Indian history,” even to the point of deference, yet Meena disdainfully calls them “fundoos”. Is this simply a matter of perception or are the differing responses more significant?
The point is that if a college -- a place of learning, debate, openness of mind -- is actually taking mob censorship seriously, we really are living in times of siege. And the siege is not just external – the mob or the fundamentalist or the terrorist – but within minds.
Professor Murthy is haunted by his father’s mysterious disappearance. How does that memory affect Shiv’s response to his attackers?
His father stands for another era in Indian history – the freedom struggle against the British, then Nehru’s socialist vision for India. Today, both are merely memories, and often tainted. All the inheritance Shiv took for granted (as we do) – democracy, liberalism, secularism – are in danger.
“Do you imagine an ordinary man cannot be a hero?” When Shiv poses this question to himself, his answer is pivotal. Why is this transition to action essential?
I am very interested in what makes the ordinary person take a stand – whether in a small way or otherwise. In other words, the almost invisible heroics of day-to-day life. So finally, when Shiv takes a stand, it may not make a difference to anyone but himself. But there is a difference – because he reclaims, both as an individual and as part of a group, the values he grew up with.
Professor Murthy is a thoughtful, likeable man. If he can conquer his reticence and speak out in the face of accusation, is that not an example for all?
Yes, in societies like India particularly, academics and writers do have a particular (though small) place on the public stage. It makes a difference anywhere if an “informed” person shares his knowledge with the people at large and sticks his neck out in times of trouble.
As you say, the world we live in has become black and white, with no room for differences. What actions can alter this paradigm and/or temper the increasing extremism? Is a rational discussion even possible?
Whether it seems possible or not, what other sane options do we have? Even if it were desirable – and I can’t see how it can be – the world is never going to be one tribe, one race, one nationality, just as it is never going to be either just men or just women. It seems to me that the important thing is to move from mere tolerance to active learning about others so we can actually celebrate differences. It certainly makes life more exciting, don’t you think?
There is a powerful lesson packed into this small novel. Does India serve as an example for other countries challenged by the bullying demands of ideologues?
Though the novel is specifically about India, sadly, it could be about so many other parts of the world. It’s just the manifestations of bullying and giving in that are different. Bigotry speaks many different languages.
Do the poet/philosopher’s ideas pose a real threat to Hindu history, as presented in Professor Murthy’s lectures, or are the fundamentalist extremists perpetuating this issue to further their agenda?
Fundamentalists – whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian – are not exactly well known for their knowledge of history. Which is why they have to resort to censorship, force and violence as their contributions to debate.
Are there similarities in the myths surrounding the twelfth-century poet/philosopher and Christianity? Parallels with other great social movements?
Absolutely. All social movements for equality – whether of caste, class, race or gender – have a common thread running through them: they enable people to include others, rather than exclude them from their lives.
Individuals in society are increasingly badgered by extremist views of all kinds. What will awaken people from their apathy to the increasing threat of extremism?
We have actually seen several events in the recent past that have woken up many apathetic people. In India, the killing of Muslims in Gujarat State woke up a lot of people – the sort who think trouble is always far away. And on the global level, Afghanistan, 9/11 and Iraq have got many people thinking and taking a stand against divisive politics or international bullying or warfare.
As the plot progresses, so does the message of the title, In Times of Siege. Is it your intention to contrast the professor’s small contentment with the more dangerous (and real) world?
Oh yes. Unlike the journalist or the historian, we writers can go backstage and say, here is this real little world – the personal world – and what happens when the dangers of the outside world land on your own doorstep? How do you react? How do you change?
Have you always been such an astute observer of cultural issues?
I don’t have too many answers, but I certainly have a lot of questions about the society I live in and the world this society is part of. I think questions – asking the right ones, asking them in different ways – make you sharper over time!
Your characters are familiar and accessible. I felt as though I was in the room with them, a fly on the wall. As a writer, is this quality, this presence, something that can be taught or is it purely intuitive?
That’s wonderful, because as a writer I feel like a fly on the wall myself. I have never liked identifying too closely with any one character in my novels. All of them have something of me, and all of them are different as well. Writers are just greedy to live more than one life – experience more than what their own lives give them.
Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
Anything at all. Once I read a review of my novel that said “She tells stories like an unstoppable Scheherazade” and I immediately put down the paper because I was fascinated by the idea of Scheherazade in a modern novel, trying to figure out what she would have to say to all of us – her "descendants".
Do you have a particular research method?
I read a lot, I make a lot of "notes", and I write and rewrite. And each work calls for a different kind of research and revision.
Have you begun work on your next endeavor? Anything you can share with us?
I am always thinking of the next work – the whole world of possibilities enticing you to make one more commitment to this somewhat crazy business of locking yourself in a room and writing day after day! I am hoping to work on a new novel as well as a book of essays. I write a monthly column for a Calcutta newspaper called The Telegraph, and that’s got me thinking about book-length non-fiction.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Githa Hariharan via email for curledup.com. Click here to read her review of In Times of Siege.