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Bright Lights, Every City

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A spunky collection of essays takes an acclaimed novelist through India and the world in search of her many homes


Almost Home: Cities and Other Places | Githa Hariharan | Harpercollins India | Pages 252 | Rs 499

‘What do you do with a person...with too many cities in her life, a person burdened and enriched by too many native places?’ The opening chapter of Githa Hariharan’s elegant Almost Home sets you up to go anywhere—and anywhere it is, from her life as a 20-something in Harlem amidst the glory of New York City’s dirty 70s, to a rare meeting of MS Subbulakshmi and Imelda Marcos in Manila, to Córdoba’s Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, a ravishing princess poet who wore translucent clothing in the streets, had many lovers and set up a school of life, love and art for women in 11th century Córdoba. It is both Hariharan’s singular, homegrown cosmopolitanism—she is as fond of Hampi as she is of DC, and in one striking chapter unites the two ‘cities of victory’ on the same plane—and her mellow perspective as a distinguished Indian novelist that inform the book’s story, of shifting ideas of time and place.

And so Hariharan, an ambitious writer of fiction, has made a transition from fiction to non-fiction over the years, marked last year by From India to Palestine: Essays in Solidarity (LeftWord Books), which she edited. She takes off from that point of embarkation here, in 10 journeys that crisscross the world confidently. Often, these are original and pleasurable travels, ones which you may have shared yourself. I could count many of her cities as mine, and not mine, in a way which she explains fully; ‘When you meet a city again, there is an awkward reunion. You have to relearn its body, see it with competing eyes, past and present.’ ‘Trailblazing in Andalusia’ is wonderful in its searching out of the lesser-known heroines of Córdoba and Granada. Less satisfying is ‘Speaking in haiku’, which bites off the enigma of Japan but stops short, not doing brevity justice. Or the author’s life in New York City, surely full of masala, given this writer’s evident appetite for life; she is capable of wonderful moments of hilarity, such as the faux pas that results in her kneeling to serve wine-soaked persimmon to an entire circle of people, moments after profound reflection on the stark Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. Then, there is the summer in Washington DC with her African-American friend, uncomfortably juxtaposed with the helplessly racist Indian Filipino house-sitter (ironically called ‘Packy’) a friend has bequeathed her; the connection Hariharan makes around this nexus isn’t fully explored.

But here is a writer hunting for big game. A throbbing sub-theme is the contradiction between ideals which set up Western models of power and the newer notions of equality they have left the world; ‘A man who believed in liberty and equality,’ Hariharan writes of 19th century French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘who wrote about it day after day: how did he live with his desire for a colony, for subjects?’ She steps into De Tocqueville’s head, as she enters George Washington’s, the first American president and a man who would not free his slaves. And she divines that awful truth: ‘Those signposts of civilization, liberty and equality, were applicable to people. And it was in Europe, finally, that you had people; the rest of the world had natives.’

Similarly, the flying columns or razzia tactic of Bugeaud, governor-general of Algeria, give easily to her keen eye, though the chapter on Algerian nationhood is slowed by the seriousness of her theme; solemnity is not unwarranted in these matters, but the vestiges of academia can be cumbersome in the layperson’s world. Hariharan explains: ‘In 2013, I went to Palestine with the heavy baggage of half- knowledge, conscious I was following in the steps of a long trail of travellers and, like some of them, determined to acquit myself with honour.’ Half-knowledge is increasingly a burden for readers and writers competing to know everything in an internet and social media-enabled free-flow, and she bravely takes on the challenge of seeing this through on the ground. She need not have worried about acquittal.

You may have been overwhelmed by The Thousand Faces of Night (1992), winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize; or, quietly enjoyed her short stories. Hariharan is among the small crop of writers the 90s gave us, closer to home than the Anita Desais and certainly the Rushdies; thus comfortingly familiar. She is sometimes overlooked for louder, more showy writers - even while earning blurbs from Coetzee — perhaps partly because of this. With this, her eighth book, she reminds us of the considerable skill she has yet to fully tap into, like the sea, ‘home, or almost home’.

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