India's Imagined Worlds

To be haunted by nostalgia is probably to be writing. Seventy years after Partition, India becomes, in our sentimental imaginations, both sweepingly general and intensely personal.

August 9, 2017

Rudrapriya Rathore's writing has appeared in Joyland, Minola Review, Carousel, The Winnipeg Review, and The Walrus. She lives in Toronto.

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Seventy years ago, just before midnight on August 15, 1947, thousands crowded the streets of major cities across India. They stood for hours, crammed shoulder to shoulder in front of the Viceroy’s Palace in Delhi, some hanging off trees for a better view, waiting for the precise moment that the nation, after three centuries of British rule, would be free. The official footage from that day shows Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru shaking hand after hand, posing beside the once-Viceroy, now governor general, Mountbatten, waving to the masses from a cavalcade of vehicles, Nehru's streamlined features smiling.

To an outsider, these bear the familiar markers of national grandeur and celebration. But to the countless millions with a connection to the region, they’re chilling images, not only because the pomp and ceremony now appears, in the wake of history, so hollow, but because it was empty even then. Even as the cameras were flashing, the fires and looting had begun at the borders of the world’s largest democracy. Punjab, the site of the faultline that separated two states by religious majority, was burning. Ten of the estimated total of 17 million people displaced during Partition crossed this border; the Muslim population westward to Pakistan, the Hindus and Sikhs east to India. One million died. Seventy-five thousand women were raped. Independence, the most anticipated and calculated shift of power in national history, became synonymous with the type of brutality and carnage that still reverberates through the world’s understanding of the South Asian continent’s politics and culture.


Everyone misses an imagined India of the past—but none more than the British.

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Partition in 1997, Granta magazine published a “Golden Jubilee” issue, showcasing essays, fiction, photography, and memoirs from the region. By then, the originally Cambridge-born, student-run magazine’s 1970s revival by Bill Buford and Peter de Bolla had already cemented its place at the center of the English-speaking literary world. Ian Jack writes in his introduction, “I saw myself sentimentally connected to India. My grandmother had been born there…We had Indian mementoes in the house: pictures of soldiers…a small stuffed crocodile, a book in Urdu.” He goes on to speak of the class divide he observed during his 1976 visit: “Words which in Britain sounded quaint and dead—‘the elite, the common man, the masses, feudals, lumpens’—were used in India unselfconsciously; they applied to the living in their white cotton shrouds.” This seems odd considering that England is a place so starkly divided by class and feudalism that you can still tell how poor someone is by how they speak. And it bears a mark of particular colonial irony that the precise populations who brought modern structures of class and capital to India should find themselves privileged enough to see the living consequences as “quaint.”

His is just one example of how we use our sentimental attachments to form deeply embedded worldviews, as though our feelings, rather than historical fact, were enough to authorize our claims.

Then there is Mark Tully, who remembers that as children in colonial Calcutta, he and his sister had a nanny hired solely “to see that we did not get too close to the Indian servants…Once I got a sharp slap from her when she found our driver teaching me to count to ten in Hindustani.” It seems clear that they enjoyed a more high-class lifestyle in Calcutta than his father, part of the lower end of English middle class, would have been able to afford back home. But Tully then explains that his “zeal” for India “began as a reaction to my father’s insistence that England was my home, the place I belonged, the country that made me…I owe the one enthusiasm in my life, which became a passion, to him.” He sounds entirely unaware of the idea that he might be passionate about India because it felt practically more British to him than England.


When Granta’s Jubilee issue arrived, a canon of Indian writing in English was already well-established—Rushdie had won the 1981 Man Booker for Midnight’s Children, V.S. Naipaul for a short story a decade earlier. Anita Desai had been shortlisted twice. R.K. Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Rohinton Minstry, and Bharati Mukherjee were internationally recognized as literary novelists. The special issue, focussed on national and cultural identities, introduced Arundhati Roy as a promising new novelist and featured an excerpt from The God of Small Things as the endpiece to the collection—famously, it went on later that same year to win the Booker, too. (That her literary achievements, with the publication of The Ministry of Utmost Happiness in this past June, seem to mirror the symbolic milestones of the Indian nation-state is an interesting coincidence.)

Granta always deliberately walked the line between magazine and anthology; at almost 300 pages, it’s hefty for a quarterly. A reader in the late ‘90s, I imagine, would flip through and see how earnestly its editors had tried to lean towards diversity: an essay on the Kashmir conflict follows a personal memoir of working with captive tigers, which follows a photo essay on the Independence Day memories of everyday citizens. Gandhi’s influence, the caste wars, and the chaos of Mumbai’s Hindu right-wing Shiv Sena are all separately explored. The life story of Viramma, an agricultural worker and village midwife, lies sandwiched among stories by Naipaul, Narayan, and Desai. Among these pages, middle-class India is meant to mingle with the impoverished, the low-caste with the British expatriates of the Raj, and the foreign political correspondents with the literary elite in ways that they didn’t often mingle in real life.

The effect is less “jubilant” than it is unsettling. For one, while the fiction and poetry included is by Indians and Pakistanis, the majority of the nonfiction is by British writers. The political and historical analyses of regional conflicts and the brief memoir on CIA and Soviet propaganda in Mumbai are all penned by white expats who spent time in India. I mention this without malice—these are incisive, uncanny, often funny pieces that unmoor readers from their blindly patriotic or sentimental lenses. They provide valuable information about the aftermath of Partition from lived experience and are especially interesting because they reveal the shifts in attitudes towards figures like Nehru, Bal Thackeray and Laloo Prasad Yadav over the decades. With the exceptions of two condescending pieces of memoir about the glory of the Raj—including a nauseating imperialist appreciation of the bejeweled “Orientalist curios” found in English and Welsh castles—the nonfiction enriches the issue.

It also, however, makes clear what is missing. The anthologizing of creative work in a geographical region—which Granta still practices today—invariably presents the illusion that every piece of that place that matters is included within the covers. Added to the emotional baggage between Britain and India, this creates the strange and haloed effect that every piece is framed by (and for) Granta’s largely Western, English-speaking audience.

The violence of Indian rioting, railway banditry, massacres, fires, shootings, and armed conflict is described in detail in the issue. But there isn’t a single piece dedicated to the tactics employed by the British during their centuries of colonization. In a region where Muslims, Parsis, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and Buddhists lived relatively harmoniously within competing kingdoms for almost nine centuries—since Moghuls conquered Delhi in the 11th century—how did religious strife uproot millions in the span of a few years? And how, when the British left, did they make their exit with so few of their own casualties, leaving Punjab and Bengal, their main sources of wealth and power, fractured and divided?

The colonial rhetoric and fretting around the future of “the jewel in the Crown” suggests that violence and religious hatred somehow exploded from a mess of internal, exclusively Indian problems, too opaque and culturally complex for the rest of the world to understand—but the opposite is true. Many historians argue that the British colonized India not only by attaining control over central resources and trade routes but by gaining the trust and affections of high-caste landowners, whom they then gave increasing amounts of ruling power, creating a rift between the “maharajas” and their citizens. They also attached political representation to religious identity, creating a fraught environment in which the likes of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, and Hindu Congress Party leaders Nehru and Gandhi, grew frustrated and embittered. James Cameron, travel writer and journalist, reporting on the Simla conference of 1945, writes in his memoir An Indian Summer that, by the end, these three men and the Viceroy “were trying, by now in a sort of anguish, to find a future for the luckless millions of India [while] shut up in the most inaccessible room in all Asia.” They didn’t succeed. In fact, as William Dalrymple notes in the New Yorker, the issue was resolved only in March 1947, when “Mountbatten deployed his considerable charm to persuade all the parties to agree to Partition as the only remaining option.” They gave Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, forty days to draw the boundaries that would remake all of South Asia. He did so without visiting a single spot along his pencil-lines.


When I landed in New Delhi in the spring of 2014, I hadn’t been to India in seven years. I was 21, we’d emigrated when I was seven—was I only one-third Indian, then?—my jet-lagged brain muddled through the numbers as my parents and I climbed into a cab. Headed to the Gymkhana Club, a still-standing colonial relic where my mother spent the weekends of her youth playing tennis, we drove past government buildings enthroned on lush gardens. It was three in the morning, the grounds were empty except for stray dogs, and the floodlights lit up the flagpole. It still makes me a little nauseous to say it: I cried. Three expats prone to tri-colour sentiment climbed into the Gymkhana’s beds that night.

The flag’s central image is a chakra or wheel, meant to symbolize the Hindu-Buddhist cycle of rebirth—and its violence lies in the way it clothes India’s population in a religious uniform. In Granta’s “Gallery of Memories,” a washerwoman from Aligarh reflects, “In my village there were a few poor Muslims, and they were very frightened. They thought that people were coming to kill them, so they ran away. But there was no rioting…so things went back to normal. The Muslims never came back though. And then one day someone gave us flags and we waved them around.” The most bizarre aspect of nationalism’s efficacy is found here, in the shamelessness of its artifice. What’s emptier than the image of small children waving a flag for which millions, unbeknownst to them, have needlessly died? And how is it that the universal feeling of “home” or “reunion” can be married to a sectarian agenda manufactured by desperate governments and propaganda?

When Saleem Sinai, the verbose protagonist and storyteller of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, mythologizes his birth at the midnight hour on that fateful day, he says, “Thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history, my destinies indissolubly chained to those of my country…I was left entirely without a say in the matter.” And later, in Rushdie’s nonfiction book Imaginary Homelands, while asking whether India, never once united by language, race, religion, or culture in thousands of years, can really exist, he writes: “That midnight, the thing that had never existed was suddenly ‘free’. But what on earth was it?”

The problem, of course, is that “it” is different for everyone. India becomes, in our sentimental imaginations, both sweepingly general and intensely personal. My longing for Udaipur’s courtyards of bougainvillea trees or the noisy stalls of Bombay’s Chor Bazaar finds its fuel in the belief that while thousands may have seen those places, only I know their true value. Only I know their beauty, because it has changed me. This narcissistic possessiveness, in a country that belongs to a billion people who are not me, is part of the same raw material that has become the seed of so many brutal movements to homogenize, unify, and cleanse parts of India.

Nostalgia, especially when it becomes a weapon, operates through language and rhetoric. It’s formed like a narrative, slotted into place using value systems that position its author at the top of a hierarchy. The expatriate or emigrant’s nostalgia for a previous India—like the Englishman’s—is not damaging simply because it’s sentimental. It’s damaging because it must flatten the diversity of a population living within teeming, conflicting histories in order to make one feel something akin to belonging. When you imagine a past India, you imagine one that fueled your emotions rather than a multifarious system of which you knew only a tiny part. This leaves little room for the other versions—the everyday, the mundane—the stories that don’t feel as simple or beautiful or redemptive as Your India felt. And in short—that nostalgia leaves its bearers lacking real knowledge and thinking of India as a symbolic shell, empty except for their own experiences.


To be haunted by nostalgia is probably—as the wealth of Indian literature on homeland (“azadi” for Kashmiris, “watan” for Punjabis, “desh” for others) suggests—to be writing. There is no shortage of immigrant literature, especially bad literature, on the subject. In part, this is due to the expectations of Western publishing markets, where the more tragic and exotic a story is, the better it’s expected to fare commercially. This creates a feedback loop in which writers are taught to value their sentiments more than the quality of the stories they’re trying to tell. Thankfully, the tides are turning in South Asian writing—today, more interesting and unexpected work is being created than ever.

Vivek Shanbhag’s short novel Ghachar Ghochar, Akhil Sharma’s collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Githa Hariharan’s nonfiction travel essays, Almost Home, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s foray into Italian, In Other Words, come to mind. Granta’s 130th issue, "India," published in 2015, was dedicated to and includes a host of new writing. In a nation that veers more forcefully towards the Hindu right under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who continues to actively marginalize the Muslim minority within its borders, this literature’s diversity and capacity to be critical of the state is necessary.

Far from flattening the complexities of the subcontinent, I hope reading more of it will remind me that the only thing I share with those crowds on the streets the night before Independence—though our experiences and circumstances couldn’t be more different—is a desire to be proud of our collective past, and the necessary pain of knowing that such an unambiguous sentiment will remain impossible.

Rudrapriya Rathore's writing has appeared in Joyland, Minola Review, Carousel, The Winnipeg Review, and The Walrus. She lives in Toronto.

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