What words, what poetry, can rise to the challenge of giving language to a broken dream?” ponders a character in Githa Hariharan’s I Have Become The Tide. Poetry is resistance in this penetrating novel about the shackles of caste across two time periods.
It follows three narratives in Karnataka. The first is set in the 12th century, and tells the story of Chikka, the son of a cattle-skinner and drummer, who flees his village and its caste rigidities after his father’s death. After meeting an inter-caste duo—a teacher and a rat-catcher—he goes with them to Anandagrama, on the outskirts of Jayapura. There, an unusual community houses ex-Brahmins, cattle-skinners, rat-catchers and fishermen, all forging a casteless comradeship.
The reverberations of Anandagrama are felt in the present day, too, where P.S. Krishna, an academic and epigraphist, is consumed by the poetry and hazy origins of Kannadeva, a venerated Hindu saint. Kannadeva, he discovers, is the son of Chikka, who, in the centuries after his death, has taken on the halo of casteless piety. His poems encompass an entire community’s history and aspirations.
In another narrative strand, three Dalit students—Asha, Satya and Ravi—find their ambitions of education at odds with the Brahminical university system.
It becomes clear early on that Krishna is a stand-in for the late M.M. Kalburgi. One of the final controversies before the murder of the epigraphist and translator in 2015 involved his re-evaluation of Basava’s life. Basava, a poet and spiritual reformist, spearheaded the anti-caste Lingayat movement in the 12th century and has emerged as a prominent figurehead of various political outfits in Karnataka over the centuries. His influence is seen in the character of Kannadeva, while Chikka might owe a debt to Nandanar, the Tamil saint whose religiosity was a threat to Brahmin orthodoxy.
Hariharan astutely conveys the many burdens that Dalit students face in universities—the social ostracization and the sheer pressure of always having to be an embodiment of defiance against caste strictures. The most captivating narrative is Chikka’s. As he adjusts to a life outside the confines of caste, he discovers subversion in poetry: Where is that land/ where water flows free?/ Tell me. Tell me./ Where is my land/ where water flows free?
Unsurprisingly, there are troubling echoes of contemporary events in the novel. When the denizens of Anandagrama rally in the courtyard of Jayapura’s Grand Temple and sing iconoclastic songs, they are slaughtered by the temple guards. “Maybe it is this walking, marching image of unity, made up of men and women of all sorts of trades and castes and names and histories, which strikes awe and terror into those who peep out of windows from the biggest houses on the way,” Hariharan writes.
The novel’s epic canvas occasionally drowns out its more quietly powerful qualities. Kannadeva comes to realize that the river doesn’t signify tranquillity and stillness, as his teachers have taught him, but “the roar of people’s voices”, reflected by his parents and members of Anandagrama. It’s a realization signifying resilience but his tale is hastily wrapped up with a tragic turn of events. The segment that suffers most is the one detailing the lives of Asha, Ravi and Satya. Hariharan isn’t able to flesh them out satisfactorily. Their sense of kinship with each other is the strongest element but their geographical separation renders those moments in short supply. A sharper focus on their relationships, as Hariharan manages in her Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning debut The Thousand Faces Of Night, would have given this novel’s narrative arc heft.
I Have Become The Tide is acutely aware that savarna saviours shouldn’t take the spotlight. There’s a powerful moment where someone questions Krishna if he is appropriating the story of a Dalit saint as a scholar of Kannadeva’s work. He replies, “I can never directly understand—in the sense of experience—the day-to-day life of a cattle skinner, his suffering, his fears and dreams. But I can listen to his voice…”
Yet, one troubling aspect of this powerful and politically perceptive book is the tragic denouement faced by several of its Dalit characters. Allowing characters from marginalized communities to survive can be a radical choice in fiction. After all, writers have a tricky balance to maintain in reflecting caste atrocities without devolving into exploitative “grief lit”.
As Satya mulls over Krishna’s book on Kannadeva, “No, the times are not exactly the same. But there have been hundreds of years in between. Shouldn’t they be more different?”