Imagining India

November 21, 1997

Novelist Nayantara Sahgal reflects on the power of the word in creating India as a nation, 50 years after her uncle Jawaharlal Nehru's celebrated 'tryst with destiny'

One cannot talk about India 50 years after independence without going back to the national movement that brought it about, and further back to the state of mind and feeling that gave birth to the movement. That state of mind developed over a period of time out of feelings of humiliation, injustice and injury in a status quo that routinely divided the world's people into the rulers and the ruled. It was not simply a matter of one's politics and economics being remote-controlled. It was the European philosophy behind this arrangement, which exalted western man as God's great creation and reduced others to lesser creatures with no destiny of their own to fulfil, that gave rise to Asian nationalism.

When I was a child, there was no escape from this attitude except by will and imagination, so imagination was the path it took, the only path by which one could disassociate oneself from the awe-inspiring and seemingly unshakeable structures of power around one, and to imagine quite another reality into being. Like any creative process, the struggle for freedom starts in the mind. Chekhov performed the same sort of mental exercise when he wrote that as the grandson of a serf, he had had to squeeze the slave out of himself drop by drop. But unlike the artist's creative experience, a struggle for freedom becomes a joint venture in creativity as it gathers momentum. The energy it generates seems to bind people together in a sustained effort of unearthly dedication which they would certainly not be capable of making otherwise, and to bring out impossible heroics in them.

The urge for liberation, in life or in art, is no mere flood of emotion. Vital to both processes is the balance between vision and pragmatism that makes for results. In our case this combination served us well through nearly two decades of independence. It was idealists who opted for universal suffrage and government by consent in the most daunting conditions. But it was the same robust realists who gave it a supporting institutional framework and the supporting guarantee of their own allegiance.

The first Indian government absorbed and successfully settled the biggest refugee migration in history and began reforms in Hindu law. The first two decades laid the foundations of the green revolution that made India self-sufficient in food grains and set up the research centres that launched India's space programmes. Government kept control of key sectors of the economy in a situation where private industry was in its infancy and not equal to the task. An industrial infrastructure was built from scratch. No fancy consumer goods but everything we needed for daily use, plus pride in our self-reliance. With all this to their credit the first generation of leaders failed to educate the masses or to control population growth - failures that still bedevil us.

The balance sheet of success and failure is being much debated by Indians this jubilee year when the euphoria of the past has evaporated long since and history seems to have come full circle, from the loot and plunder of the East India Company nabobs to the unabashed loot of our own home-grown plunderers. I doubt if the disillusionment with politicians is as complete anywhere as in India where they were once the heroes of the people. The law is taking its course with corruption cases, but the acid test of a democracy is that no one is above the law, and there will be no cause for rejoicing until we see this demonstrated.

Meanwhile it is the worst possible time to find ourselves catapulted into yet another western version of reality, this time one that sees the world as a marketplace and believes we are on earth to go shopping. The globalisation of markets, like colonisation, moves us into an economic agenda that is not of our making and requires us to fit into it. Blood and commerce have always gone together, but empires did not pretend otherwise, and they did not have the apparatus of modern technology at their disposal.Opposition to empire even made for cultural resistance and resurgence. Today, by contrast, cultural vitality and creativity may be the main casualty as the market version of westernisation cuts cultures off from their sources of origin and inspiration. Much will depend on how the culture we think of as "Indian'' will cope with this new form of hegemony.

Literature, fortunately, creates its own environment, though it still must reckon with the ideas that rule the day. Before independence, writers coped with an environment that took western interpretations of Asia for granted, and this was a canvas that included the "half devil and half child'' images of Kipling's imagination, as also the stereotypes that became firmly fixed in films and fiction, and even served as the material of sober theses, which in turn became the rationale for colonial policy. These were not wilful inventions by people who did not know Asia, but assessments by authors who were considered experts on their subjects. For example, a book was published in 1894 by an American missionary, an authority on China, who said the Chinese did not need fresh air or wholesome living conditions because overcrowding was their normal condition. Nor did they have the well-organised nervous system of the white man, so drink and drugs did them no great harm. Similar distortions abounded about India.

Not until the political battle was won and national sovereignty achieved could one hope to be heard, but whether one was interpreting foreign policy, the economy or music and dance, one came up against a mindset which, however interested, had long taken its own position as the standard by which all things must be judged. It took time to achieve a breakthrough, and for Asia to be recognised as a world in its own right and not merely a fascinating or irritating contrast to the western mainstream. The policy of non-alignment, for example, which refused to take sides in the cold war,was met with suspicion or hostility. President Truman is said to have called Nehru a "raving Communist", so incapable was the American president of conceiving freedom and democracy on any terms but his own. And Indian writers needed certificates of approval from well-known writers abroad before they could make headway. The possibility that Indians might have their own imaginative axes to grind has surfaced very gradually, and even now Orientalism - seeing Asia as a remoteness enlivened by picturesque or monstrous images - lives on in response to what sells, in variations of burning ghats, myths and maharanis. Less harmlessly, an Orientalist approach invades non-fiction, in accounts of Indian politics, religion and society. Though they may be written by Indians these accounts do not always sound Made in India, maybe because they are made in London, Paris or New York, and some essential connection between the writer and the scene is missing.

I do not conclude from this that writing about India can only come from India, but that it is a fact of nature that any organism must adapt and succumb to its environment over a long period, and expatriate writers are no exception. Even a diplomat, usually a less sensitive creature than a writer, is not kept in one post too long for fear of developing too close an identification with it. Infinitesimal, unnoticed changes take place in perception. The very centre of one's world changes, becoming - quite naturally - the place where one lives. The effect on writing can be that flora, fauna, landscape and local colour flourish on the page, but not in the heart's intimacy nor in the soul's identification. Perhaps as texts become more coded in language, more packed with fashionable symbol and metaphor, more acrobatic in the telling, it will not matter where they came from. A no-man's land will substitute for real lands and people. But until that becomes the order of the day, roots and unfractured perceptions matter. The literatures in India's older languages (other than English) have not attracted attention abroad, maybe because they relentlessly occupy their own space, set their own pace, and relate to their own frame of mind, and therefore do not meet critical standards or market specifications abroad. Yet this may be their strength as mirrors of their own society, and as a consciousness not only of their own time but of ages past that draws on a collective historical experience.

Whatever the post-modernists might say, it is much too soon to dispense with roots. Post-modern is, after all, just another term which, like "the Middle East" or "the cold war", has no meaning outside its own hemisphere. Or, more accurately, its meaning varies according to a people's history, geography and psychology.

In his midnight speech ushering in independence in 1947, Nehru said: "The soul of a nation, long suppressed, will find utterance." In literature this can only happen when the words that are written produce an impact on their society. This happened during the great spillover of words in every Indian language during the struggle for freedom. If literature and society are to continue to interweave and interact as they did during those years, and to electrify the scene around them with their bonding, then they must be part of each other. It is then that - wrung from the heart and the depths of a collective being - every word on paper becomes literature, and a country's history speaks through an individual voice. So there have to be alternative literatures, derived from alternative sources and alternative well-springs of thought and emotion, abiding by their own rules and regulations. It is a mistake to assume that as the western world once saw itself as The World, literature everywhere is what the West makes of it. And that, of course, is true of politics, economics, and every other department of human life, which is why the mantra of globalisation as the one exclusive truth is an absurd idea.

Anniversaries are supposed to be celebrated and there are good reasons to celebrate this 50th anniversary. We are proud that democracy has grown tough through its trials and will not give an inch to any political usurper. In fact, every politician must pay at least lip service to it to survive. We congratulate ourselves on building a nation that has refused to equate religion with nationhood, and on our armed forces whose members are faithful servants of the republic and not its masters. Above all, we feel the world is a better place because India has had the courage to take risks that no nation before it has taken, chiefly the risk of trusting the people to govern themselves. This is the grand frame within which misgovernance and crisis and inefficiency persist, but because the frame, and the ideals it serves, endure, we can be hopeful of peaceful transitions and solutions.

I live in India, and have never wanted to make my home anywhere else, so I have to find ways and means of dealing with the sometimes traumatic business of living in India and being an Indian. And I find it useful to compare India with a piece of writing. It resembles a novel rather than journalism. A novel is something that is organised, but it is organised around anything but logic. It does not come out of an imposed pattern, but out of an emotion felt and acted out. It sprawls. It contradicts itself. It can be full of confusion and does not allow for neat categories. Believing in it does not depend on plausibility. Unlike journalism the time element in it does not affect its value. What it says today will matter as much tomorrow. And unlike journalism again, it does not have to provide clear answers. Its very materials are suspense, the mysterious and the insoluble. It occupies its own and no other space. That space has a longer, more enduring identity than one's own because it is where the past has collected. If you stay with it, and keep faith with it, it may surprise you with its powers of renewal.

There are two characteristically Indian reactions that I hope will not decay with time and technology. The first is a reaction to a singer's superlative performance. The highest praise his listeners can bestow on him is to say: "Today you have reminded us of the master who taught you." The second reaction is from Satyajit Ray's 1970 film Pratidwandi (The Adversary). The hero is asked in a job interview what he thinks is "the most significant event" of the previous decade. He replies that it is the courage of the Vietnamese people. One of the interviewers asks: "Why not the moon landing?" The young man says that is a triumph of technology, whereas Vietnam demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit.

Nayantara Sahgal is a prize-winning novelist and journalist. This is an abridged version of a lecture to be delivered at Gresham College at 5.30pm on December 1.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments