Her book is a lucid entry point for those unfamiliar with the Hindi novel in the past 150 odd years and offers a sharp analysis of tradition, nationalism, and modernity.
I happened to mention Vasudha Dalmia’s new book, Fiction as History, to a friend at the university whose research is much closer to urban spaces, gender and modernity, and the city in North India, than mine ever was. She was quick to point out that I should not make the mistake of reading Dalmia’s work as literary criticism.
Instead, the eight Hindi novels that Dalmia reads at length in the book serve the purpose of tunnels into the national imaginary as it transformed between the late nineteenth century and the Nehruvian period of the 1960s.
It is no surprise then that Benedict Anderson is the point of departure for her observations on these collectivities as they took shape in cities like Delhi, Banaras, Agra, Lucknow, and Lahore.
Dalmia’s chronology stretches from Lala Shrinivasdas and Premchand, through Yashpal, Agyeya, and Dharamvir Bharati, coming to a close with Rajendra Yadav and Mohan Rakesh. The eight chapters of the book focalize a pivotal novel from each of the authors, with the exception of Premchand whose Sevasadan (1918) and Karmabhumi (1932) are both discussed in separate chapters. Other than the texts themselves, a barrage of metatextual details, including other novels written around the same time and archival information supplement Dalmia’s close-reading technique.
The ineluctable triumph of Dalmia’s is the text blooming outwards in her analyses, opening up to sketch out a topography of ideas which complements the topography of the city. Her cartography works like a sweeping tour with a firm grip on your hand, pulling you across the walled and peripheral parts of the transitioning city.
It moves from Civil Lines and Kashmiri Gate to the academic quarters of Lahore and the Dal-ki-mandi of Kashi where its famed sirens used to reside. The Sanskritic and the Indo-Persian modes of cultural life are understood as the novel form subsumes them and makes its defined linguistic choices, like Lala Shrinivasdas with his emphasis on dilli agare ki boli for his novel, Pariksha Guru (1882).
What is the relationship between fiction and history that Dalmia negotiates? It is far from fiction as a transparent, mimetic door that opens into an exact portrayal of life as it was lived. Any idea of reading history directly into the novel is shunned more so because Dalmia’s is a genealogical historical critique. She looks at a breadth of multiple narratives of history inscribed on the fabric of modernity. Merchants, courtesans, reformers, academics, and artists, among others, inhabit the city on the same plane with widely different experiences of, and desires from, the liberating nation.
Literature becomes a field of reflection, capable of articulating both optimism and pain, uncovering stories often withheld in the grand narrative through which we come to read the formative histories of a nation like ours.
When Dalmia reads Yashpal’s Jhutha Sach (1958, 1960) for instance, she combines biographical insights on the author along with his ideas of the relationship between fiction and reality. The line between the two blurs often in his writing that lies at the confluence of actual historical events, accurate topographical details, and the imagined lives of its characters. Thus, Dalmia notes, the characters live in “the fictive Bhola Pandhe ki Gali” inside the actual “Shah Alami, one of the thirteen gates of the walled city of Lahore.”
The female protagonist Tara’s plight, as she runs from an abusive husband into the clutches of her rapist amid the ruckus of partition, undercuts the supposed euphoria of independence in Yashpal’s narrative. Dalmia observes that Tara’s lack of choice in a novel where nationalism is more or less absent as a driving force gives voice to a sadness that would otherwise be unspeakable. It tells the story of the hundred thousand women who were abducted and raped and often forced into marriages during the actual violence of 1947.
Two of Dalmia’s preoccupations deserve mention here: her insistence on the narrative and plot of the novels and her focalisation of women characters. Her chapters are largely structured around the succession of events in the texts she is dealing with, and they are explained at length.
This, however, does not translate into a lack of analytical sharpness as Dalmia’s synopses become analyses in themselves, such as her description of Binti, who “tilts her head when she talks and pulls at the corner of her sari when embarrassed,” from Dharamvir Bharati’s Gunahom ka Devata (1949). This also makes her book a lucid entry point for those unfamiliar with the oeuvre of the novel in Hindi in the past 150 odd years.
Her work on allied themes such as tradition, the private-public realms of social life, nationalism and modernity, all flow into a neat narrative of women characters across the eight novels that Dalmia ties together in her epilogue.
Again, more than as a preoccupation with gender theory per se, this must be read as a thematic concern with women, going towards a sociology of gender in the Hindi novel. Fiction as History, part of a remarkable body of sociological work on Hindi writing, successfully passes through the novel form to stake a claim in the study of how a nation saw itself, struggled with itself, and emerged in spite of (and perhaps because of) the mesh of contradictions its modernity was riddled with.
(A word of thanks to Kanupriya Dhingra for her well-informed inputs.)
Shantam Goyal is a Writing Tutor at Ashoka University, while also doing his M.Phil from the Department of English, University of Delhi. The book ‘Fiction as History: The Novel and the City in Modern North India by Vasudha Dalmia’ has been published by Permanent Black.