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In Times of Siege: A novel [Hardcover]

Githa Hariharan
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 19 2003
Shiv Murthy is a meek, middle-aged professor of history at a college in New Delhi. When Meena, his twenty-four-year-old ward, breaks her leg, she calls on him for help, even though they barely know each other and even though Murthy’s wife is visiting their daughter in another city. Coping with Meena’s care, struggling with the feeling this intellectual, self-possessed, politically minded, and sexually aware young woman stirs in him, Murthy’s life is thrown into even further turmoil when one of his medieval Indian history lessons is challenged by a group of religious extremists. The university responds by giving Murthy the opportunity to apologize publicly. But increasingly in thrall to Meena and influenced by her political convictions, Murthy takes an entirely unexpected plunge into the political world: he defies the university and the fundamentalists, and defies as well his most basic sense of who and what he is.

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From Publishers Weekly

Thoughtful and perceptive, this novel by a young Indian writer-her first to be published here (her debut novel, The Thousand Faces of Night, won the Commonwealth Prize for first fiction)-suggests provocative parallels between life in contemporary New Delhi and the U.S. Its main issue is the militant attempt by religious fundamentalists to revise a historical event. The man who unwittingly sets this uproar in motion is diffident and naive Shiv Murthy, a 53-year-old history professor at a correspondence college. An extremist group accuses Shiv of anti-Hindu bias because of his lesson about the 12th-century poet and social reformer Basavanna, who campaigned for citizen equality and called for the end of the caste system. The media sensationalize the dispute, hate mail pours in and violent protests occur on both sides. These unsettling events come at a time when Shiv's personal life has acquired a new dimension. His 24-year-old ward, Meena, who has broken her leg, is recuperating in Shiv's home, and Shiv's wife is away. In addition to the sexual feelings she arouses in Shiv, Meena introduces him to young political activists who take up his cause. The university, meanwhile, withdraws his syllabus and pressures him to issue a public apology. Shiv's moral crisis brings back memories of his father, a social reformer who disappeared when Shiv was a boy, but whose lessons about personal courage still resonate. While the narrative poses important questions, it lacks dramatic tension. Meena's presence in Shiv's home feels too convenient, while Shiv's largely reactive personality is colorless, even when he does make a decision to attempt "a raggedy bit of heroism." Still, Hariharan succeeds in illuminating the siege-like mentality that exists when extremists set the agenda for intellectual culture.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Historian Shiv Murthy enjoys the intellectual challenge and the serenity of his work writing lesson booklets for a New Delhi correspondence university, an existence rendered all the more meditative this summer because of his wife's sojourn in Seattle with their grown daughter. But his tranquility is short-lived. Meena, a 24-year-old student and political activist whose out-of-town parents asked Shiv to be her "local guardian," has broken her knee and needs a place to stay. Shiv is utterly unprepared for the cosmic impact this bright, zealous, independent, and voluptuous young woman has on him, particularly after his frankly human interpretation of the life of Basava, a revered twelfth-century Hindu poet and revolutionary, enrages a fundamentalist religious group and puts his career in jeopardy. With entrancing grace and adept distillation, Hariharan orchestrates a bittersweet time of siege and a piquant season of awakening as she considers the persistent significance of the past, the toxicity of dogma, and the inseparability of the personal and the political. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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5.0 out of 5 stars Fine fictional treatment of an important issue. Dec 10 2003
Format:Hardcover
A low key, middle aged history professor in Delhi has his calm world torn awry when a group of religious fundamentalists seize upon his scholarly interpretations of a medieval poet saint's life, twisting and sensationalizing the work to further their own aims. Githa Hariharan deals with the theme of extremism deftly and with an impressive depth of understanding, not only of human nature, but of ancient and modern Indian history.
Throughout the ages, narrow minded religious extremists have been responsible for a disproportionate share of the world's horrors (I depict several of these events in my historical novels India Treasures and India Fortunes). In our present age, as Hariharan so adeptly shows, fundamentalist extremism can be a major threat to academic freedom, as well as to a civil society. Although the troublemakers in this book are Indian Hindus, in only a slightly different setting they could just as well be extremist Christians or Muslims threatening anyone who doesn't subscribe to their own strict views. In this case, the previously uncouragious Shiv Murthy, with some inspiration from the young college woman he is taking care of, summons the strength to take his life in new directions. The reader gladly identifies with him as he resists not only his antagonists, but also the timid university administration which would compromise its principles.
The novel is a must for readers with a particular interest in India, but anyone enjoying well written, serious fiction will find it highly rewarding. Review by Gary Worthington
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Format:Hardcover
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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine fictional treatment of an important issue. Dec 10 2003
By "gworthington" - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
A low key, middle aged history professor in Delhi has his calm world torn awry when a group of religious fundamentalists seize upon his scholarly interpretations of a medieval poet saint's life, twisting and sensationalizing the work to further their own aims. Githa Hariharan deals with the theme of extremism deftly and with an impressive depth of understanding, not only of human nature, but of ancient and modern Indian history.
Throughout the ages, narrow minded religious extremists have been responsible for a disproportionate share of the world's horrors (I depict several of these events in my historical novels India Treasures and India Fortunes). In our present age, as Hariharan so adeptly shows, fundamentalist extremism can be a major threat to academic freedom, as well as to a civil society. Although the troublemakers in this book are Indian Hindus, in only a slightly different setting they could just as well be extremist Christians or Muslims threatening anyone who doesn't subscribe to their own strict views. In this case, the previously uncouragious Shiv Murthy, with some inspiration from the young college woman he is taking care of, summons the strength to take his life in new directions. The reader gladly identifies with him as he resists not only his antagonists, but also the timid university administration which would compromise its principles.
The novel is a must for readers with a particular interest in India, but anyone enjoying well written, serious fiction will find it highly rewarding. Review by Gary Worthington
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars �When they came for me, there was no one left to speak�� Nov. 16 2003
By Luan Gaines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and Interesting Jan. 14 2005
By Devoted Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
For those with epistemological inclinations, this is a very interesting, and beautifully written, novel. There are important issues raised about objective truth, particularly historical truth, and the relationship between history and identity politics. Highly recommended.
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