What makes a place home? Is it something that implies a sense of belonging? A sense of having stakes in the place or its collective life perhaps? This is what the winner of Commonwealth Writers Prize, author Githa Hariharan explores in her new book, Almost Home: Cities and Other Places.
Born in Coimbatore, brought up in Manila and Mumbai and later educated in the United States, Githa’s book takes on this question through the real stories of individuals, cities and countries. “It looks at them as they struggle with colonisation, the business of making a new nation, poverty, or simply the day-to-day businesses of life: making money, love and culture, or being in the crossfire of power struggles,” explains Githa, who was influenced by memorable encounters with certain writers, like Italo Calvino’s playful and powerful writing about different kinds of journeys for instance.
Together, these linked narratives locate the search for a home, the balancing act of juggling multiple homes, the pain and dreams of those who are homeless, or those who have had their homes taken from them. “As a writer and a writer of fiction, what I can bring to non-fiction is an unashamed kind of speculation. I enjoyed writing the imaginative bits, sometimes playful, sometimes dead serious, that make historical, literary figures, or ordinary citizens in Delhi or Washington come alive,” says the author whose published works include novels, short stories and essays. Since reading, like thinking and living, was an essential part of her life, writing too followed.
After winning the Commonwealth Writers Prize for her first novel, The Thousand Faces of Night, Githa went on to write novels like The Ghosts of Vasu Master, When Dreams Travel and The Art of Dying, which have been translated into a number of languages including French, Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Greek, Urdu and Vietnamese. Her books are known for their remarkable clarity in structure and language. Ask her what her secret is and she smiles and says, “Each of us has a blessing and a curse or two as a writer.”
As a visiting professor in several universities like Dartmouth College and George Washington University, University of Canterbury (UK) and Jamia Millia Islamia, she often imparts this knowledge to her students. “I often tell students who show me their work that they will know best when they have found their own ‘writer’s voice.’ What I mean is that with experience, you realise what your strengths are and build on them, what your weaknesses are and how to overcome them,” says the author.
Most things she is passionate about feed into her writing in some way. “It could be my involvement with what we can do, as citizens or about shrinking spaces for rational debate,” says the writer who challenged the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act in 1995 in the Supreme Court as being discriminatory against women and won. “Women in all societies learn, every day of their lives, what it is to live their idea of equality. What it is to achieve a small victory, or suffer a defeat. But if we remember that women don’t do this only as individuals but as movements — their own as well as allied movements for a more just world — it makes you stronger,” she says passionately.
Ask her what else drives her and she says, “Passion or no passion, it would be sad to have to live without good music, good stories and good conversation.”