Nationalism revisited
Pankaj K. Singh

Myths of the Nation: National Identity and Literary Representation.
Rumina Sethi. Oxford, New Delhi. Pages 221. Rs 375.

Myths of the Nation: National Identity and Literary Representation.Literature invariably bears the imprint of its time, which may become explicit during certain phases of history marked by intense political thinking and activism. Cutting across languages and genres, Indian literature written during the freedom struggle clearly represents the nationalist consciousness of the time. While the constructions of cultural nationalism through romantic revival of the past, foregrounding of motherhood, and emphasis on reform etc. have been critically studied in regional literatures for quite some time, Myths of the Nation is probably the first sustained and comprehensive study of the representation of the nationalism in Indian writing in English of the period, focusing on Raja Rao’s famous historical novel Kanthapura (1938).

Illustrating from the novel and frequently delving into "real" history, Rumina Sethi explores how "a national intelligentsia grounded in the study of English language and literature", who were at the helm of the freedom movement, strove to construct a unified nationalist discourse for immediate political ends. To emotionally unite the masses of the country, the historians and the creative writers alike formulated a unified national identity—largely an upper-class, brahminical Hindu identity—by a selective revival of a "pure" mythical past and glorification of rural India on the one hand, and by suppressing dissent and diversity on the other.

Howsoever riddled with ambivalence and paradox in its mingling of "myth" and "reality", the construction of a unified Indian identity was so essential to fan the cultural nationalism central to the nationalist consciousness during colonial times. In examining the "myths" of national identity in Kanthapura, Sethi also analyses the subtle strategies of creating a homogenous nationalist discourse: of conflating fact and fiction, myth and modernity, politics and religion, and so on.

With rare intellectual vigour, Rumina Sethi subjects the unified ideological discourse of nationalism to scrutiny and foregrounds the ambivalences and contradictions at every level: language, caste, class, gender and even in the paradox that Gandhi was. A full chapter, The Ideology of Gandhi: A Mass Fantasy is devoted to the philosophy and activism of Gandhi. Examining Gandhi’s veneration of village life, his fasts, the Salt March etc., Sethi not only demonstrates Gandhi’s ambivalences, but also points out Rao’s implicit bias towards a brahminical Hindu nationalism in his creative adaptation of Gandhi in Kanthapura.

It is interesting how Gandhi (and like him, Rao) did not challenge patriarchy, even as he devised space for women’s participation in the nationalist movement "just as he did not question caste hierarchy in India while denouncing untouchability". As Sethi observes: "Perhaps the involvement of women in the national struggle was a strategic tactic, one not intended to empower them at all."

Examining "textual inconsistencies", she argues how the essentialist representations of nationalist discourse constructed a woman ideologically useful to it, and despite her selective association with political activism and despite the rhetoric of Vande Matram, it reaffirmed the exploitative and restrictive role for women as prescribed by patriarchy.

Equally incisive and engaging is the analysis of Raja Rao’s indigenisation of English in the service of the nationalist cause. Viewing English as "the language of the intellectual make-up", Rao fills it with "emotional", "indigenous" content in terms of mythology and culture and an oral style of narration.

For the major part analysing Kahthapura, Sethi also briefly looks at Rao’s later fiction from his diasporic locations in Europe and America to argue "the persistence of a fundamental Hindu tradition" even in his opposition to the West and neo-colonialism.

Nationalism is deconstructed both at the textual and the contextual levels in a gripping study marked by rigorous scholarship that never becomes heavy or jargonistic. Though her focus is mainly on nationalism during the colonial phase, the range of the issues raised is sweeping and firmly contextualized in the multiplicity of contemporary critical discourse.

Rooted in history, literary theory and literary criticism, it is a valuable addition to postcolonial studies, even though its insistence on fiction’s engagement with "reality" is rather overstressed at times. The work is also remarkable for its deep and committed engagement with the literary text, often neglected in the contemporary western critical discourse.

With the increasing ambivalence of "nation" or "nation-state" consequent upon the growing influence of economic power and technology and greater dispersal of people across national boundaries, and with the renewed rhetoric of "Hindutva", the issues of identity and cultural nationalism examined here gain a new significance in the era of globalisation, multiculturalism and neo-colonialism.