There was nothing inherently unified about the diverse cultures, religions and languages that comprised the Indian subcontinent under colonialism. The European model of nationalism, which took for granted the existence of one religion, one language or one ethnicity was doomed to failure. It was for this impossibility that the British argued that India was not fit to rule itself. It was on behalf of this sense of identity that, beginning in the nineteenth century, Indian writers of literature began to imagine cultural unity through their fictional and poetic works.
By the 1920s and 1930s, literature had come to occupy a central role in the Indian nationalist movement. Yet literary texts not only reflected the politics of Indias leaders (increasingly represented by the Indian National Congress,) but questioned some of their assumptions about the path India's future should take. For instance, the Hindi novelist Premchand set his stories primarily in rural India and satirized the machinations of the urban elite, emphasizing the rural-urban divide that was increasingly visible in mainstream nationalist politics. Likewise, the English-language author Mulk Raj Anand located his stories among the urban poor, disempowered not only by colonialism, but also by the kind of heavy industrialization supported by congress.
Authors affected by partition, such as Saadat Hasan Manto, painted a poignant picture of the injustices perpetrated on displaced families on both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Attention to the details and artistry of these and other fictional writings can add to our understanding of these hugely significant decades in sub-continental history.
Ulka Anjaria is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program of Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. Her dissertation, entitled "Novel Forms: Literary Realism and the Politics of Modernity in India, 1920-1947," discusses the works of Premchand, Mulk Raj Anand, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Raja Rao, Manik Bandopadhyay and Ahmed Ali, relating innovations these authors make on the novel form to larger political developments of the pre-Independence period. She has published articles in Sarai Reader and Economic and Political Weekly.
Ms. Anjaria's talk is the third seminar of the winter quarter South Asia Colloquium Series.