This elegant little novel begins with an unusual arrangement: a college student breaks her leg and asks her guardian, a friend of her parents, if she can stay with him until the cast is removed in six weeks. Professor Shiv Murthy is tantalized by the idea, even though his wife is currently visiting their daughter in Seattle and Meena doesn't think her parents need to know about her slight inconvenience. Of course, the middle-aged man is unable to resist this faintly scandalous arrangement.
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, working from home on his lectures. Meena occupies the professor's small study, enjoying his attentions; neither expects the political maelstrom about to descend upon their quietude.
The professor has drifted into euphoric days, shopping and cooking for two, chatting comfortably over afternoon tea, Murthy indulging in the occasional sexual fantasy: "Wherever he is in the house....Shiv is aware of another presence. The woman in the narrow bed in his study, a young woman." But Shiv's private romantic fantasies are innocent.
Shiv's content is Meena's boredom. In any case, their peace is destroyed by a phone call, when a reporter asks whether Professor Murthy is taking a "forced" leave. A group of fundamentalists has attacked Murthy's lecture on the life of a 12th Century poet/reformer, who challenged the caste system, working for social reform and equality. The extremist's real agenda is the suppression of any conflict in Indian history, in effect, historical revisionism, creating the illusion of a perfect, homogenous society. Their methods of bullying and intimidation are not an issue.
Shiv is a simple, uncomplicated man who avoids confrontation. With the young woman's guidance, Shiv understands the significance of the situation. Rising to the occasion, Meena demands that he take a stand, calling her college friends to aid in his defense. Inspired by the poet's struggle in 1168 and his own predicament in 2000, Shiv is inspired to speak out against the bullying of the fundamentalists and his right to teach history with integrity.
While Meena is at the center of their small world, Shiv is isolated from the larger concerns around him. Yet Meena is the catalyst that enables Shiv to confront his biggest challenge. Their intimate domestic contretemps evolves into an awakening to the dangers of revisionism, the implicit deception of censorship on demand.
Hariharan has written a parable for our times, one with an important message for any country that allows the censorship of facts. The author deftly stages her battle in New Delhi, but the parallels are obvious. This powerful novel offers a thoughtful reminder about the freedoms we take for granted. Luan Gaines/2003.