“We are protozoa — the only cell we have is caste or tribe, official names SC and ST,” says Ravi, one of the central characters of Githa Hariharan’s I Have Become The Tide, while discussing what his friend terms “Manu’s taxonomy”. It’s the darkest kind of humour, a joke that fails to be funny by the time the small group goes to sleep.
It is also what ties together the three narrative strands of Hariharan’s novel, mapping a poisonous pattern of bigotry that spans centuries and survives just about anything in between to make it to the 21st century. Chikka, the son of a cattle skinner, runs from his father’s funeral, only to find himself in the company of a group of people who dared to believe that everyone was equal. Travelling with them, he sheds his former self little by little until he becomes Chikkiah, the washerman in Anandagrama who loved the nearby river.
Then there is Professor Krishna, a gentle, elderly scholar who discovers that the medieval poet Kannadeva — long since appropriated as a Hindu saint — was, in fact, the son of this washerman who was considered “low caste” by mainstream society. His discovery and subsequent decision to speak and write about it puts him in the crosshairs of an army of bigots; ones who really don’t seem all that different from the mob that tore down Anandagrama and killed those who created its tenet of equality. It is the same army that three young students — Asha, Ravi and Satya — encounter as they struggle through their college life with the same desire that Chikkiah and his friends had all those centuries ago.
The phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is often used with an undertone of inevitability or resignation. I Have Become The Tide conveys the same message, but with a burning rage. There is nothing defeatist about the way Chikkiah fought to protect a way of life that didn’t make him feel like a prisoner, or about how Asha and Ravi find ways to allow their voices to be heard. Every story in the novel is also a news headline, highlighting a social order and a regime that heaps spite and misery on people who belong to certain categories of “Manu’s taxonomy”. They also tell the story of rising anger against this system, which spans many parts of society, including colleges, godmen and an ideological front ready to mobilise its believers against anything or anyone that appears contrarian to it.
Poetry is the bridge that connects this rawness with the parts of the narrative that celebrate friendship, the power of words and the small joys of life such as ice cream shared by partners in a small hotel. The verses that Hariharan places carefully throughout the novel act as effective, lyrical accompaniments to the harshness of the realities faced by the central characters. They share a great number of poignant moments that ensure that the story does not become completely desolate. The author balances this out by ensuring that these moments of beauty and colour do not lessen the anger or the sense of injustice.
The narrative takes a meticulous approach when it comes to the construction of the central characters. Instead of opting for grand gestures or purposeful obfuscation, the characters come alive before our eyes through walks, small conversations, letters, fragility and poetry. This applies as much to Krishna and Satya as it does to the godman who orchestrates a murder or the shooter who does the deed. The latter two are, however, left with a little vagueness, just enough for them to fuse with the army to which they belong.
However, there are also times in the book when there appears to be a distance between the author and the characters — as if a more impersonal form such as news writing seeps in at brief intervals to mark some kind of boundary. These moments, while few, stand in contrast to the intimate relationship many of the books characters share with the written and spoken word.
While Hariharan’s book is about a call to action, at a certain level, it is also encouraging. By moving beyond the constraints of a headline, she shows that these stories do not fizzle out when they drop out of the short attention span of the ever-churning news machine. While seemingly fragile, the voices of defiance and anger do not exist in isolation — they become part of a rising tide.