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  • Rajeswari Sunder RajanAfter Midnight's Ciiiidren:Some Notes on the NewIndian Novel in English

    Walking to the sea I carryA village, a cify, the countryFor the momentOn my back.Gieve Patel, "Nargol"

    THE PREOCCUPATION WITH THE NATION THAT MARKS MUCH

    postcolonial writing, especially the Anglophone novel in India follow-ing the appearance of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981), hasbeen widely remarked. In this essay I am interested in tracing how thispreoccupation with the nation-thematic has persisted intoor changedin the course ofthe first decade of the new century in the fiction (andprose nonfiction) that has appeared since the 1980s, in response toboth sociopolitical developments (local and global) as well as changingliterary trends.

    Midnight's Children and its successor novels over the next quar-ter-century ostentatiously bore the burden of nation. "Burden" is thecontent of a work, its defining preoccupation. It carries as well themeaning of responsibilify or obligation.^ The intimate connection thatis forged by the consciousness of "burden" between author and subject,and between individual and destiny, generates, as we might expect, arange of attitudes, ideologies, postures, questions, and claims. It speaksvariously of elitism, power, authorify, noblesse oblige, possessiveness.

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  • and the custodianship of tradition assumed by self-conscious modern-izers. As a mling class, the writers internalize a subtle sense of entitle-ment that is often accompanied, as in Gieve Patel's poem above, by theweight of an exacerbated consciousness of responsibility. All are ines-capably aware of their centrality to the nation, as intellectual leaders,prophets of modernity and pedagogues of the people. The nation-novelis wa-itten from a recognizably mling class perspective, wdth all that thedescription implies in its effects as ideology, politics, style, and affect.

    The generation of midnight's children among the bourgeoisintelligentsia that inherited the Nehruvian mantle has had to cometo terms nevertheless with inevitable realignments of power in thepolity. The rise of new regional and caste elites, and the political domi-nance of Hindu religious fundamentalist groups, have made a dent inthe traditional secular, Anglicized ruling class formation that shapedthese writers. The consequences of electoral vote-bank collectiviza-tion, lower-caste mobilization, competition for scarce resources, urbanmigration, women's changing roles, and the recent privatization ofresources have combined to make inroads into traditional enclaves ofprivilege.^ The old center no longer holds, weakening the inheritors'political and social claims on the nation. The Nawab Sahib of Baitar, acharacter in Vikram Seth's Suitable Boy (1993), responds to the passageof the Zamindari Abolition Act that forms the novel's 1950s backdropwath the stoic diagnosis: "history is against our class" (758). And it isthese generational changes that Kiran Desai conveys through theelegiac phrase "the inheritance of loss," in the title of her Booker prize-winning novel (The Inheritance of Loss, 2005). A character in SagarikaGhose's GinDrinkers (2000) mocks her owai Oxford-educated class as the"Irrelevant Indians" (Ghose 2000:256). The writing on the wall says thatthey must yield to the new, and newly relevant, Indians who are nowthe upwardly mobile Dalit intellectuals and the vulgar entrepreneurs.Both pique and pragmatism, such a way of thinkingin terms of one'sloss of relevance in and to the nationis itself revealing.

    We must be cautious, however, of overstating the loss of powerand influence of the English-educated "ruling" class, and of overesti-

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  • mating its extent. Though Sagarika Ghose's ironic refiections at themillennium record an awareness of changes in status, the novel refusesto indulge in lament for the passing of this class. In the central dramaof the novel (the succession to the directorship of the elite GandhiFoundation), not only is power ceded gracefullyand with more thana modicum of political correctnessit is also made clear that themembers of this versatile educated class can re-invent themselves asthe allies of the new meritocracy and find new uses for their seem-ingly anachronistic English education. The protagonist Uma's Oxford(English) boyfriend is quick vwth reassurance when she expresses deso-lation: "But that's far too harsh, sweetheart. There's so much for you todo here. If I were in your place, hey, I wouldn't have a minute to spare(256)." The changing fortunes of the nation may have made redun-dant the nation-building task assumed by this class in the immediatepostindependence years, but there has been no necessary diminutionof its importance in the era of globalization. Satish Deshpande drawsattention to the smooth transition the middle class and particularly its"upper (managerial-professional) segment" has made to the changedconditions of a liberalized economy marked by consumption. Its claimswith regard to the nation, Deshpande suggests, have become evenmore grandiose: "From its position as a 'proxy' for the nation, this classhas now graduated to thinking of itself as a 'portrait' of the nation." Inother words, he adds, it no longer merely represents the people but isitself the nation (Deshpande 2003; 150).

    An exhaustion with nationalist sentiments was in any case to beexpected as the first exaltation of freedom subsided and the postcolo-nial nation settled into the bad habits of nationhood. When the nationwas newly decolonized and still "developing," a member in good stand-ing of the Third World communify of nations, it could legitimatelycall forth high-minded patriotic commitment. But the nation that hasbegun to perceive itself as transforming into a military and economicsuperpower is a very different entify. It is now a big as well as badnation. In contemporary India moreover, nationalism has been takenover by the Hindu right majorify claiming it as its birthright, to the

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  • exclusion of all other claimants. Opposing this nationor opposing thisnationis the new patriotism, even if it is expressed as secession as inAmndhati Roy's famous declaration: "I secede. I hereby declare myselfan independent, mobile republic" (Roy 2001: 21). Amitava Kumar readsthis as an instance of the "narrowly individualistic, even selfish" atti-tude that he diagnoses as characteristic of the tribe, because it leavesthe people behind (Kumar 2006). But he misreads the rhetoric of theperformative. Roy is guilfy if anything of what we might call a hyper-identification vdth the nation rather than disidentification or abandon-ment. Coming as it does at the heart of her long argument opposingthe nuclear bomb tests carried out in 1998, Roy's threat expresses her"desolation" at the passing of a world that is identifiably a certain India,a S5mibol she had idealized as a "real option" to the ills of the rest of theworld (Roy 2001: 22).

    But Amitava Kumar is correct all the same that the critique ofnationalism tends to be expressed by the Indian-English writer in thelanguage of individualism. And tj^ically it is framed in terms of a refusalor rejection of compulsory national identify. What causes revulsion inthe progressive-minded cosmopolitan young Indian is a new national-ism expressed in the language of "Indianness." Shuddhabrata Sengupta'seloquently articulated position piece, "Identify Card and India Ink," issubtitled "Confessions of an Anti-national." Sickened by the hj^e ofmedia-tized nationalism during the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in1997, Sengupta demystifies national identify. It is, he argues, simply theproduct of "a limited choice, a great deal of coercion, considerable indif-ference and some convenience." His response to this ascriptive identify isescape: "I want out"and the fantasy of liberation:

    Columbus went sailing in search of India and found theNew World instead. Perhaps I need to gather a band of fool-hardy mariners, a bunch of time-passing exiles, refusesand refugees, stateless and rootless illegal immigrants ofthe imagination to continue his journeya quest in theother direction. In losing what he sought we might find

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  • another new world. We could each take our own favouriteIndia with us, not the excess baggage of India that is Bharat,that is Aryavarta multiplied by Dravida Nadu, that is Punya,Pitri, Matri, janma, Mrityu-Bhoomi, but the India that is theink, the India that is the rubber, and the India that is themagazinethese we could still carry vdth us, provided weleft our identity cards behind (Sengupta 1997:13).

    Note his preference for the plain English (secular) "India" to theindigenized versions of the nation's name, several of them sanskritizedand sacralized.

    In English, August (1988), Upamanyu Chatterjee's protagonistdefines an Indian as "one who is born one and doesn't wish tochange his citizenship," a sentiment Chatterjee repeats in a laterarticle written in his own voice, insisting that "it is a valid enoughdefinition to instill in us a lasting sense of identity, to provide for thefuture a sort of harmonyeven better that it is low-key" (Chatterjee2007). We might retort that to stay in one's nation if one chooses (ifit behaves?) or leave it if one doesn't (to go to a place of one's choos-ing elsewhere in the world presumably), is a luxury available only tothe privileged cosmopolitan even in a globalized world (particularlyin a globalized world, where passports are only as strong or weak asone's nationality). When placed alongside Shama Futehally's "Ideaof India""all we thought about India was that we had to live init"we can understand this sentiment as expressing an historicalfact about postcolonial elite citizenship: that it is not an ascriptiveidentity but a chosen on