Mild-mannered professor of medieval history Shiv Murthy finds himself faced with a tantalizing proposition when a friend’s daughter breaks her leg and is unable to negotiate around her college dormitory. Meena, the student, requests temporary shelter in Shiv’s home for a few weeks, even though his wife is away in Seattle and Meena doesn’t think her parents need be informed of her problem. Of course, the middle-aged man is unable to resist this faintly scandalous arrangement.
So begins Meena’s brief sojourn, occupying the professor’s small study. Neither expects the political maelstrom about to descend upon their quiet days. Shiv composes medieval history courses for college correspondence students, so it is a simple thing for him to request a leave of absence from his assigned office and work from home on his classes. Relishing his temporary situation, the professor drifts into euphoric guardianship of the young woman, shopping and cooking for two, chatting comfortably over afternoon tea and indulging in the occasional innocent fantasy: “Wherever he is in the house, whatever he is doing, Shiv is aware of another presence. The woman in the narrow bed in his study, a young woman.”
Their island of content is destroyed when a reporter calls, asking if Professor Murthy is taking a “forced” leave. A religious fundamentalist group has attacked Professor Murthy’s portrayal of a twelfth-century poet/reformer who challenged the community at large, elitism and the caste system. Their hidden agenda is the removal of any apparent flaw in Indian history, any hint of the natural chaos of reform. In effect, the purpose is historical revisionism, an image of a perfect, homogenous society. That they intimidate and bully is not an issue.
Shiv is stunned, even overwhelmed. This simple man studiously avoids confrontation at any cost. But Meena rises to the occasion and demands that Shiv take a stand, gathering her college comrades in the professor’s defense. Gradually, with Meena’s assistance, Shiv realizes the significance of his position. Contrasting the similarities of the poet’s struggle in 1168 and his own in 2000, Shiv speaks out against the bullying of the fundamentalists and his right to teach the truth.
What begins as a domestic contretemps evolves, by virtue of circumstance, into a lesson on the dangers of revisionism, the implicit deception of censorship. With Meena at the center of their small world, Shiv is isolated from the larger concerns around him. Yet Meena is the very catalyst that enables Shiv to step up to the challenge of his finer self.
Githa Hariharan's In Times of Siege is a parable for our times, one with an important message for any country that permits the censorship of facts, although New Delhi is where the author so deftly stages her battle. The parallels are obvious. This small novel packs a powerful punch, and I didn’t see it coming.