There are not many writers of the mettle of Githa Hariharan who have honed the rare capacity to travel to, and imagine, the worlds behind the headlines. From this, she produces fiction which is tender, gentle and lyrical, but at the same time savage in its rage.

There are many familiar headlines that she chooses for her newest novel, I Have Become The Tide – headlines about the Dalit doctoral scholar Rohith Vemula driven to take his life, about the rising anger of young Dalit people, about the malicious and spiteful bigotry of teachers and fellow-students endured by many Dalit students in medical and engineering colleges, about the rage and hate heaped by the Hindu Right on scholars who dare explore dissenting egalitarian and pluralist Hindu traditions, about the support of Hindu godmen for majoritarian politics and violent hatred against minorities, and about the killing of rationalists and dissenters by shadowy terror groups, nourished by the ideological founts of Hindutva.

Woven into these many headlines, Hariharan imagines a dissenting spiritual community of many centuries earlier, one which believes in equality and love, in which skinners of cattle, cleaners of shit, washers of clothes and rat-killers live together in a casteless commune as brothers and sisters, labouring, teaching, and writing songs of resistance, equality and love.

Hariharan stitches these patches into a riveting and compelling tapestry of the fate of people across the centuries who have the courage to dream of equality.

There are three Dalit friends, who enter college with dreams to go where few in their community have traversed. There they are treated as interlopers, usurpers, young people without merit stealing the opportunities of the deserving upper caste. There is a gentle professor who is animated and obsessed by his discovery that a popular medieval Hindu saint-poet was actually the grandson of a low-caste cattle skinner. There is the imagined commune of love and equality in which this saint-poet is raised and nurtured. There is the bitter wrath of Hindutva groups at the revisionist history of the professor which claims that this revered saint was born into the most despised caste.

There are glimpses of the godman who speaks of universal love but seeds in the hearts of his followers the poisons of hate against religious minorities and disadvantaged castes. And then there is his chosen disciple, the young man who finds masculine affirmation and worth in his life through the violent slaying of those whom he is taught to believe are enemies of the glorious Hindu faith.

The wrenching tragedy of these intertwined strands of stories is foretold. Any reader who is even casually familiar with the headlines that are the alchemy from which Hariharan creates her story will know from the start where the stories are certain to end. Yet as we read, there is a longing for it to end differently: that we could have built another alternate world, one in which these stories could have ended in hope, in justice and in triumph.

Yet even as each of the tragedies unfold, the stories are not bleak.

There is tenderness and hope in each of the stories, of love and friendship in the hardest times, and of audacious dreams of equality. The poetry composed and sung lustily by the unlettered brotherhood and sisterhood of the oppressed many centuries earlier, even while they were doomed by their striving for equality, are the iridescent strands that illuminate the stories through their darkness.

Here, for instance, is a song about the mystery of the divine:

The rice and fish to be grown and caught,
the children fed.
That friend of friends
to be held close.
and in the cloth to be woven
the fields to be planted
the goats to be slaughtered
the cows to be skinned
the rats to be caught
the shit to be carried away
the bodies to be loved
the songs to be sung
the stories to be told.
You’ll find it there,
Your mystery.

And the same fierce pride of working people, even laughter, and their gentle private mockery for those who do not work with their hands:

This water is holy,
and this, and this,
they mumble in a foreign tongue, 
sprinkling a few drops on stony dolls in the temple,
on the floors of their houses
and outside,
These men
even sprinkle water on themselves
and say they are born again.
My river, generous as always,
Gurgles as it laughs.
Only those who have sweated day after day
know what it is to be soaked.

The only stories in the book that are not so livened, by humanity, laughter and hope, are those of the godman and his disciple. I wish Hariharan had lingered a little with the disciple, exploring his history, his aspirations, his despair, to understand better what drove him to find meaning in becoming a merciless slayer.

The novel is at its most empathetic – and painful – when it describes, in forensic detail, the many everyday ways in which Dalit students are made to feel humiliated, un-entitled, driving many of them to despair.

In medical college, we see how the Dalit student sits alone in his bench, as though he is unclean, diseased. How the professor never sees his raised arm when he wants to answer or ask a question. How his classmates never invite him to sit with them in the café, to picnics or to watch movies. The insult “Quota” that they hiss behind him when he walks. The textbooks he cannot afford to buy. The professor who malevolently marks him absent even when he is in class, to disqualify him from his examination. The professor’s suggestion that he is just wasting his time and that of his teachers, because he can never match up. And even if he passes his medical examination, what would he do with his undeserved degree? Who would want to go to a “quota doctor”?

Indeed, what shines through the book is the writer’s extraordinary empathy. She is worried from time to time in the telling of the story if she has the right to write about oppression that she has never experienced herself. She asks this in the voice of the professor, not a low-caste person, and her own voice at the end of the book.

No privileged person in terms of caste or class can, despite choices made as an adult, she recognises, really “know” the lived experience of those who have ben historically oppressed. But, as she explains, she writes the book with the conviction that no writer can engage with life in India today without taking a stand on the terrible inequalities that continue to ravage the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

The story, slipping seamlessly back and forth between the 21st and 12th centuries troublingly asks, over and over again – has nothing changed?

As chronicler, Hariharan answers. Yes, things have changed. Dalits have begun to study. Some among them today can aspire to be a doctor, a scientist, a university teacher. But have things changed enough? Fast enough? Deeply enough? Is equality something that oppressed people will continue to have to fight for?

What renders the book harrowing is its depiction of this inexorable reality of India, past and present – that all demands for inequality are condemned to violent repression. This is as true of the 12th century as the 21st. But what still glimmers through its dark recesses is that this is as much a story of oppression as it is of resistance. People are mercilessly crushed, but their spirit endures. The book fittingly ends with a contemporary Dalit rising, patterned after the Bhim Army. The rally is a river rising, a river of living bodies – fighting, resisting - flowing for a thousand years. The oppressed have become the tide.

I Have Become The Tide by Githa Hariharan
I Have Become The Tide by Githa Hariharan

I Have Become The Tide, Githa Hariharan, Simon & Schuster.