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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.
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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
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