“Bad times,” mused Salman Rushdie in his Imaginary Homelands, “traditionally produce good books.” One of the most creatively influential “bad’’ periods was undoubtedly the National Emergency (1975-77). It threw open the Pandora’s box of Indian politics, unveiling the appalling suppression of Indian democracy during Mrs. Gandhi’s reign and releasing the foul airs of communal discord, which continue to pollute the political scenario of India today.
Indian literary fiction in English of the 1980s and 1990s responded strongly to the authoritarianism of the Emergency rule by reviving the Nehruvian vision of a pluralistic democracy so vividly expressed by Nehru in his Discovery of India: “I am convinced that nationalism can only come out of the ideological fusion of Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other groups in India. That does not and need not mean the extinction of any real culture of any group, but it does mean a common national outlook, to which other matters are subordinated.”
Writers like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Rohinton Mistry, Arundhati Roy — followed by the younger lot ranging from Upamanyu Chatterjee to Vikram Chandra — have offered what the cultural theorist, Homi Bhabha, called ‘the narratives of the social imaginary’. Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Vikram Seth’s The Suitable Boy, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance find a common ground in fashioning new forms of collective life while rewriting the story of India as a nation. The writers endorse in their work, either explicitly or implicitly, the Nehruvian ideals of a secular nation both as an antidote to current communal inequity and as the heart of Indian democracy.
Secularism attained its contemporary meaning mainly because of its adoption as a state ideology by Nehru after independence. Nehru’s The Discovery of India can be viewed as a “foundational fiction” of the Nehruvian novels. Based on the idea of India as a “composite culture”, it showed how religious and cultural tolerance was the basis of Indian civilisation. The cosmopolitan thrust of Nehru’s nationalism provided the ideological matrix from which Rushdie, Seth, Ghosh, Tharoor and Mistry constructed their social imaginary viewed through a historical perspective. Interestingly, a common thread that links these novels is the fictional configuration of the narrator as a historian. The narratives focus on the National Emergency as a critical event that eventually led to the collapse of the Nehruvian secular construct of the State policy, giving rise to an alternative national ideology: Hindutva, based on a single religious identity to establish its exclusive communal power. Strongly contesting the singularity of Indian identity and citizenship, the novels foregrounded the importance of relegating religion to the private space and adopting the Nehruvian model of liberal democracy emphasising that the Indian secularism is the fundamental principle of the public domain. Nehru’s ideology did not promote an anti-religious or a sans-religious state but envisaged a non-sectarian state that did not privilege one religion over the ‘many others’.
A notable feature of the state policy formed by Nehru was the way in which the English language developed as a language of secular identity. Nehru’s developmental ideology favoured the English-speaking educated class providing them job opportunities in the public sector. The founding texts of English as a secular language, in a sense, arguably were the Indian Constitution and Nehru’s The Discovery of India. Fiction of the 1980s and the 1990s demonstrated the role of English in embracing secular modernity to move beyond the pigeon-holes of caste and tradition. In Rushdie, we note the use of linguistic excess, particularly in the Midnight’s Children, symbolising the democratic mingling of all linguistic forces and the ‘chutnified’ outcome of English when spoken alongside other bhashas (languages).
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is a powerful anti-Emergency narrative and can be in many ways — alongside Vikram Seth’s The Suitable Boy — seen as a Nehruvian epic. Where Rushdie dismantles the idea of a single national identity through a minoritarian perspective, Seth’s novel is an explicit endorsement of Nehruvianism and strongly opposes a way of imagining the nation on religious terms. Similarly, Rohinton Mistry in his A Fine Balance engages deeply with the issues of the State and offers a relevant critique that is more reformative rather than revolutionary. Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel is a modern political allegory of the epic Mahabharata that acknowledges, as Tharoor puts it, the “multiplicity of many truths, which have helped give shape and substance to the idea of India”. Tharoor sees cultural reassertion of a pluralist India as a vital part of the enormous challenges confronting the country. The cultural reassertion is a return to Nehru and is as vital as the nation’s economic development. Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines draws our attention to the divisive lines: ‘the shadow lines’, which are drawn between nations and cultures and are potential sites of violence when dialogues between them fail. It has attained a status of a cult novel, I would say, and powerfully resonates with the crises of communal conflicts across India in the past as well as the present.
A common feature that is central to these novels is the description of the crowd emphasising on the inclusive — plurality of the nation. Nehru’s emphasis on the term ‘secular India’ in today’s language can be seen more meaningfully as a plural India. To Rushdie, the defining image of India is the crowd which is ‘many things at once’ — multiple, heterogeneous and hybrid. This is the idea of India that is a sheer marvel of plurality shaped by difference — a dream that Nehru so cherished! How we cope with the collisions within the plurality and find resolving ways to coexist forms the existential ethos of India.
Authors discussed here have been cynically dismissed for many reasons; one of them being their over-indulgence in strategic exoticism to be circulated on the global market. On the contrary, I believe that these writers have mobilised the imagination for a positive recasting of the nation while seeking to make connections between the social imaginary and the ethics of political agency. Can literature potentially reform a society? May be or may be not. I believe good books can shape good times, as they do have the power not only to react to society but to refashion it by offering an alternative social way of thinking. The Nehruvian narratives may well be considered as worthy repositories of South Asian culture and education in general — their safety should be ensured, as they sit precariously on book shelves in libraries and book shops the world over suggesting a social change.