The Read Interview
Indian writer Githa Hariharan loves to tell this story: As a child riding a bus in Mumbai, she saw a woman take off her slipper and hit a fellow passenger who had been sexually harassing her.
"The message she was sending was: 'This is my city and I have the right to go safely to work,'" says Hariharan, smiling.
It is a lesson she took to heart - multi- lingual and much-travelled, the now 60-year-old writer has lived in and travelled to places from the Philippines to Andalusia, Japan, Palestine and the disputed Indian state of Kashmir.
She wrote about her adventures in her most recent book, the collection of essays Almost Home, published last year by HarperCollins India.
She has just embarked on a new adventure in Singapore, as writer in residence at the Nanyang Technological University until July, and is looking forward to learning about the country and its "officially sanctioned multi-racial, multi-lingual" culture.
Hariharan will give a reading at The Arts House on Thursday and conduct a workshop on writing about home there on Saturday.
In the course she teaches at the university as well, she asks students to think about their "native place" and sense of self, from the various flats they may have lived in around Singapore to the languages they speak at university and at home, to their friends and to their grandparents.
"If you keep a diary, do you keep it in English, Singlish or Chinese?" is a question she likes to ask. "To have several languages is wealth, definitely for a writer. You may write in one language, but all the other languages, their points of view, the jokes, the double meanings, all that will feed into the language you write in."
She can speak English, French, Spanish, Tagalog, Marathi, Tamil plus "the best sort of Indian English and a singular hybrid of 'Bambaiyya' Hindi (as spoken in Mumbai) and Delhi Hindi, which means I'm laughed at in both places."
A resident of Delhi for the past 27 years, Hariharan was an editor of books for many years before writing her first novel.
The Thousand Faces Of Night (Penguin India, 1992) linked the representation of women in Hindu mythology to the problems of women in modern India. It won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book in 1993 and has been translated into languages such as Italian, French and Dutch. It continues to be reprinted in countries from Switzerland to Vietnam.
She went on to write four other well- received novels and two collections of short stories, as well as editing anthologies, but much of the fan mail she receives today is about her 1999 challenge to existing Indian law which states only the father in a Hindu family has the right to act as guardian of minor children.
Hariharan realised this when trying to buy Reserve Bank of India bonds for her then 11-year-old son - she and her former husband have two grown sons - and immediately filed a writ petition in the Indian Supreme Court challenging the constitutional validity of the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act (1956).
The court ruled in her favour and though the law itself was never changed, her case is used today as a precedent by women seeking custody of their children or access to them.
"The government was happy to take my money as tax, society was happy to call me a goddess because I am a woman and a mother but if there's a medical emergency and the father's not around, my signature is worth zilch?" she says. "Are we so blind that we need a law to tell us a mother has the right to be her child's guardian?"
Her own mother, a housewife, fostered a love of Carnatic music and language in her three children - Hariharan is the middle child and has an older sister and younger brother.
Hariharan's father was a journalist, founded the Economic Times in India and later the family moved to Manila as he worked with the Asian Development Bank.
In Almost Home, the writer recalls a dinner with the then-ruling Marcos family who were hosting a renowned Indian musician.
Hariharan did her bachelor's in English literature and psychology from Bombay University and master's in communications from Fairfield University, Connecticut.
She worked as a staff writer in WNET-Channel 13 in New York, and from 1979 to 1984, as an editor in the Mumbai, Chennai and New Delhi offices of publisher Orient Longman, later going freelance while raising her sons.
Feminism was part of her family life and obvious in the cities she grew up in - take the scene she witnessed as a child of a woman fighting back against harassment.
"Everyone agreed with her and joined in. The driver pushed the man off the bus," she recalls.
In Almost Home, she writes movingly of the fight for human rights and gender equality around the world, from the 11th- century outspoken female poet Wallada the Umayyad in Cordoba to present-day women in Kashmir who are subject, on one hand, to sexual violence from Indian troops and, on the other, from their community's increasingly patriarchal moves to "protect" them by insisting they restrict their movements and dress conservatively.
In a 2013 essay in the joint University of Leeds-NTU publication Moving Worlds, Hariharan wrote of the "Nirbhaya" tragedy in 2012, in which a physiotherapy student was gang-raped in Delhi and died of her injuries.
The response to that is not to insist on curfews or rules about who women should be seen with in public, Hariharan says in the interview.
"We don't want your patronising protection, we want freedom to be in our own city. This is our right as citizens."
But there is also another narrative, she says in the next breath, which she writes about in Almost Home, such as the story of Soniya, a domestic servant in Delhi turned- activist and mother figure for slum dwellers.
"We hear of the fear ingrained in women about going out, about taking public transport, but there is this other narrative," she says. "This is the narrative of resistance, which is equally powerful."
Books by Githa Hariharan are available at Books Kinokuniya.
World Lit Featuring Githa Hariharan, Living Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane, Thursday, 7.30pm, Free with registration at wl-githahariharan.eventbrite.sg
World Lit Workshop: Writing Home With Githa Hariharan, Living Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane, Saturday, 10am to 1pm, $50 from bytes.sg
This article was first published on Mar 29, 2015.
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