- Gandhian Communalism and the Midnight Children's Conference
[W]e may be heading towards a world in which there will be no real alternative to the liberal-capitalist social model (except, perhaps, the theocratic, foundationalist model of Islam). In this situation, liberal capitalism or democracy or the free world will require novelists' most rigorous attention, will require reimagining and questioning and doubting as never before. "Our antagonist is our helper," said Edmund Burke, and if democracy no longer has communism to help it clarify, by opposition, its own ideals, then perhaps it will have to have literature as an adversary instead.—Salman Rushdie, "Is Nothing Sacred?"
Many Rushdie scholars call Midnight's Children the political reawakening of Indian English fiction. The story begins with the gestation of the Indian English novel during the movement for independence, when "there was an urgency to foreground the idea of a composite nation."1 After 1947 comes a period of atrophy, as the nation-building that was the source of the genre's power now becomes an "ideological straitjacket."2 According to Gayatri Spivak, "reportorial realist writers" depicted the "miniaturised world of a nostalgia," as political independence set them "adrift, away from the current from which the post-colonial monstrous would emerge."3 In Bishnupriya Ghosh's view, novelists made "essentializing and homogenizing gestures" in an alignment with a statist project, "the Nehruvian vision of a modern and progressive India when there was a dire need to establish common national registers and field[s] of communication."4 Then Midnight's Children explodes over Bombay in 1981, its Emergency-induced gloom counterbalanced by an invigorating cultural eclecticism and spirit of political critique. For Meenakshi Mukherjee, the novel's vision of an "inclusive and tolerant" polity clarifies a set of public ideals for a socially diverse nation, while Michael Gorra claims that "no one else has so fully used [English] to probe the nature of [Indian] national identity or to define a model for [End Page 975] the postcolonial self."5 Midnight's Children inaugurates a renaissance for Indian English fiction, a development that is codified by Rushdie's own coedited anthology of post-1947 writing.6
My essay argues for an inversion of this narrative: Midnight's Children can be seen as a foreclosure of possibilities, erasing alternative models of the Indian nation. Although Saleem Sinai characterizes his writing as a restorative for an "amnesiac nation," Midnight's Children has itself created a kind of literary-political amnesia, either blotting out the work of earlier writers or encouraging critics to read their work in the light of developments after 1981.7 For example, although Josna Rege chides that "few critics of whatever theoretical bent or political stripe, especially those in the US-UK, have placed Midnight's Children in its Indian literary context," in her own placement of Midnight's Children in an Indian literary context she focuses mainly on what happened after its publication (on the fiction produced by the so-called Rushdie's Children); a potential contrast between Midnight's Children and earlier novels goes unexplored.8 I will take a brief look at political novels written between 1947 and 1981 to tell a story different from the one in the above paragraph: that Indian English writers treated pan-Indian themes does not mean that they necessarily supported a nationalist project of industrial modernization, and if they did support elements of such a project, this new society need not be an individualistic bourgeois civilization. Writers like R. K. Narayan, Nayantara Sahgal, Bhabani Bhattacharya, and Arun Joshi were far from being Nehruvian technocrats, as they all explored aspects of Mohandas Karamchand ("Mahatma") Gandhi's critique of modernity in their novels: Narayan depicting a communal morality that involves a politics of local engagement, and Sahgal, Bhattacharya, and Joshi attempting to locate the possibility of satyagraha (political action based on love and suffering instead of force and coercion) in the post-1947 era of national independence. Neither advocates of modernization nor reactionary antimodernists, these writers largely shared Gandhi's position of "critical traditionalism," opposing liberal capitalism in an attempt to find an alternative set of core values for the nation.9
Rushdie, by contrast...