Githa Hariharan presents in this book a set of essays on haiku, Kashmir, the thinkers of Andalusia, and other subjects. Her opening essay will be recognisable to most writers of her age or younger; it is the “you are from which place” essay. There are no short answers to this question any more. Each writer is forced to answer at tedious length. So we read about Colaba, Parel and the Gateway to India rather than Mumbai. Her last essay, about her present life in Delhi, brings to one’s eye all the open ugliness and hidden graces of that city.
Essays are a fuzzy genre. It ought to be impossible to disappoint a reader because our expectations from essays are so indefinite. Hariharan’s first essay seems entirely like a personal excursion but those writers who move from one city to another — who cannot state in one word where they are from or even where they belong now — are surely particularly alive to the histories of refugees, of the homeless, of those who are told they do not belong anywhere. In the last essay she lays a heavier emphasis on those others.
France’s habit of parading its love of free and offensive speech has long clashed with its simultaneous silence on its own history of racism and colonialism. Hariharan discusses the psychology of colonialism, what happens to the identity of a people when you occupy their land and force them to speak French, think in French, and dress like the French, what happens when you indoctrinate them in French principles and philosophy and yet deny that they are French.
It is in her essay on Palestine that Hariharan best evokes the living voices of people under occupation. She traces the slow and yet remorseless process by which Europeans first re-envisioned the holy land, harking back to a Biblical past until the present disappeared. The Christian Zionist visions of the 19th century first described Palestine using the words “desert”, “desolation”, “empty of inhabitants”, until one chilling day a century later Golda Meir announced, “There are no Palestinians.” In conversations with lawyers, farmers and shopkeepers, the writer conveys the daily reality of caravans, settlements, a maze of concrete walls, uprooting of orchards, razing of homes, poisoning of wells, all directed inexorably toward emptying the land of the people who, in spite of all announcements, actually do exist. In over 60 years of erasing a history and wiping out a people, it has become clear that Israel can teach Europe a thing or two about occupation, apartheid and genocide. But the writer ends with a poet’s visions of home, a vision that has not yet been wiped out from the hearts of Palestinians.
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