Languages of the Nation in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy. - Ariel
The publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children in 1981 marked the explosion of Indian-English fiction onto the international literary scene. One can find several similarities between many of the Indian novels written in English and published in the 1980s and 1990s, namely a renewed focus on national history, a self-conscious transformation of English into an "Indian" language, and a distinctly postcolonial translation of postmodernism and canonical realism into a variety of "nativized" literary styles. The years between the 1970s and the 1990s were a momentous period marked by India's post-Independence status, which coincided with a temporary rupture in the democratic process, and culminated with the rise of the Hindu right in politics. Two novels in particular engage in a dialogue with the eventful changes of the post-Nehru era, a period characterized by the gradual erosion of the hitherto hegemonic discourse of secularism in the Indian public sphere. In this article, focused on Midnight's Children and Vikram Seth's 1993 novel, A Suitable Boy, I will compare Rushdie's and Seth's use of language, specifically their hybridization of English with Indian vernacular languages, their translatability into Hindi, and their politicization of English. By contextualizing these two canonically "postcolonial" texts within a South Asian linguistic, historical, and political habitus, this paper will counter-act the critical tendency to view Midnight's Children in particular, and Indian English fiction more generally, as cosmopolitan and "elitist." (1) I will argue that, on the contrary, it is important to focus on the novels' location as being against a "defeatist surrender of the putatively elite text to the politics of metropolitan reception" (Bahri 3). The famously megalomaniac narrator of Midnight's Children, Saleem Sinai, presents his story as an autobiographical narrative that draws self-conscious parallels between events in his own life and those of the Indian nation. Born of hybridized Hindu, Muslim, and Christian parentage, Saleem gives us his own version of subcontinental history as seen from the point of view of he and his diasporic Muslim family during their frequent changes in location between Kashmir, Delhi, Bombay, the Sundarbans, Dhaka, and Karachi. The novel can and should be read as a satire of the mid-1970s state of Emergency. In 1975, the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, availing herself of a constitutional clause, proclaimed a state of National Emergency, in which all civil liberties were suspended, censorship was imposed on the press, thousands of oppositional elements were jailed and all executive powers were concentrated in her hands: effectively, the Emergency was a dictatorship that lasted almost two years.