- The Agent in the Margin: Nayantara Sahgal's Gandhian Fiction
In the winter of 1995, while I was a graduate student on a visiting Shastri research fellowship at Jawaharlal Nehru University, I made a special trip [End Page 374] to Dehra Dun, Uttar Pradesh, to interview Nayantara Sahgal. In what now seems typical of her generosity, Sahgal had responded to a letter I sent her from Delhi, agreeing to an interview with me if I should find the time to come to Dehra Dun during my stay in India. As I read Clara Joseph's The Agent in the Margin: Nayantara Sahgal's Gandhian Fiction, I was brought back to that first meeting with Sahgal and our wide-ranging conversation about her life, Indian politics, and literature. Since that time, I have read a great deal of scholarly commentary on Sahgal's writing, and Joseph's book stands out as the most serious and sustained examination of the literary, cultural, and political significance of Sahgal's work to date.
Joseph's discussion of Sahgal's writing revolves around a central tension in Sahgal's approach to storytelling; while Sahgal's novels emphasize their constructedness as fictional works (foregrounding such things as the unreliability of the narrator, how history and memory are shaped by perspective and political interest, and the instability of subjectivity), they also, paradoxically, represent marginalized characters who prove capable of exercising agency despite their difficult social and political circumstances. While Joseph describes herself as 'a devout student of post-structuralism' when she first embarked on this project, she explains that it was this element of Sahgal's writing that pushed her to re-examine theories of agency in Althusser's and Macherey's work. While I would quibble with Joseph's sidelining of critics like Foucault, Derrida, and Spivak as sources of insight into how resistance in postmodern culture is possible, her recourse to the Marxist-influenced theories of agency in Althusser, Macherey, and Ricoeur to explain this element of Sahgal's work is largely successful in this book.
The introduction to The Agent in the Margin focuses on Althusser's notion of 'overdetermination' as means for making sense of how Sahgal's work depicts spaces for her fictional characters to exercise agency, despite the overwhelming social and cultural discourses that seek to erase or marginalize their influence. As Joseph explains, Althusser stresses that ideology is neither false consciousness nor the imaginary. He calls it 'a new reality' (128). Such theory can allude to illusion while emphasizing the materiality of ideology; the consequence of ideology is definitely empirical. The thesis acknowledges a distance between life and lived life in terms of the '(overdetermined) unity of the real relation and the imaginary relation' (5).
Following Ricoeur, Joseph rereads Althusser's theory of overdetermination and the concepts of superstructure and infrastructure 'in terms of motives and motivation' that 'admit contradictions and plurality, the possibility of ideologies in the theory of ideology,' and open up to an understanding of the subject as an agent (9). The emphasis in Sahgal's fiction and autobiographical writing on marginality in terms of caste, class, ethnicity, gender, and religion, Joseph argues, indicates an [End Page 375] awareness of how ideology produces and subordinates subjects, but also how resistance and transformation of ideology is possible through literature. 'Recognizing the necessity of ideology and becoming aware of this unconscious nature,' writes Joseph, 'is the way to resist or transform that ideology' (8). 'Sahgal's fictional works' Joseph explains, 'emphasize that resistance is a vital proof of agency in the marginalized character and, even more, that the resisting marginalized character (whether successful in resistance or not) is perhaps the best proof of the inherent worth of the human person' (8).
The agency of the marginalized figure in Sahgal's writing is a recurring pattern that also reveals extensive dialogue between her fiction, autobiographical work, and Gandhian thought. As Joseph elaborates, much of Gandhi's writings 'privilege marginality (as, for example, in the preference for suffering in one's own person rather...