A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulting us into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history, although it had invented the game of chess and traded with Middle Kingdom Egypt, was nevertheless quite imaginary; into a mythical land, a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will—except in a dream we all agreed to dream.—Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children (129-130)
Ila has no right to live there [in England] she [my grandmother] said hoarsely. She doesn't belong there. It took those people time to build that country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned the right to be there with blood: with their brother's blood and their father's blood and [End Page 93] their son's blood. . . . War is their religion. That's what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu or Bengali or Punjabi: they become a family born of the same pool of blood. That is what you have to achieve for India, don't you see?—Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines (76)
In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community. . . . Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined.—Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (15)
The one narrative about India to capture the West's imagination is, of course, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Clarke Blaise's comment, "Midnight's Children sounds like a continent finding its voice" (19), is only a somewhat more hyperbolic variation on Tariq Ali's "no other novel about India has had such an impact" (91). Despite the novel's insistence on its own fictionality, despite its explicit awareness that it offers only one version of India ("There are as many versions of India as Indians" ), Midnight's Children has nevertheless often been read as a definitive account of the birth and development of the Indian nation. A mere two decades before the publication of Midnight's Children (1980), Attia Hosain published Sunlight on a Broken Column (1961), also a narrative about the emerging Indian nation and about emerging national identities. Yet no one that I am aware of has remarked on this.1 Indeed, the recent reissue of the novel in 1988 by Virago Press, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, says something about its credentials as a book by an Indian woman about an Indian woman's experiences while growing up in the years preceding India's independence from the British—credentials, that is, accruing from the recent enthusiasm for women's narratives and from the West's appetite for books about India stimulated by what Rushdie has called "the popularity of Raj fictions" ("Outside the Whale," 129). Nor has Sunlight received the kind of media or critical attention that Rushdie's novel has garnered. But my purpose in this essay is not to argue the relative "merits" of one text over another; rather, I wish to explore something quite [End Page 94] different for which the reception of Rushdie's work as the account of India serves only as a point of departure.
When we see any one work as embodying the definitive exploration of a nation, we do so by ignoring, even suppressing, other works, like Sunlight for example, that attempt to do the same, albeit by different means. As readers, then, we consciously or unconsciously repeat the processes by which "official" nationalism constructs itself as the singular, homogeneous "truth" about what constitutes national identity and experience.2 Narratives of nation/ nationalism are, as several recent critiques point out, narratives about political power whereby an author claims the authority to speak on behalf of the entire nation and its diverse inhabitants. The particular power that mobilizes these narratives is male power, for nationalism has most often focused on, and itself issues from, what is constructed as a masculine, "public" sphere and its concerns. Furthermore, nationalism not only construes...