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The Mahatma Misunderstood: the politics and forms of South Asian literary nationalism

  • Author(s): Shingavi, Snehal Ashok
  • Advisor(s): Jan Mohamed, Abdul
  • et al.


The Mahatma Misunderstood: the politics and forms of South Asian literary nationalism


Snehal Ashok Shingavi

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Abdul JanMohamed, Chair

South Asian nationalism has been dismissed as a Eurocentric derivative, as elite, as unwilling to solve the problems that it finds in colonialism, and as politically incapable of warding off the problems posed by newer transnational circuits of power and exchange. This dissertation contends that in the novels of the 1930s and 1940s middle-class nationalists developed different notions of the nation and nationalism than their elite counterparts, and that even as they stood behind the banner of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress Party, they marched for more radical interpretations of and independent interventions into the nationalist project. Despite Gandhi's heavy presence as the dominant figure in, influence on, and themes of the novels of the period, late-colonial, Anglophone novelists both critically engaged with and strategically appropriated the ideas of Gandhi and the Congress Party in order to deal with the more durable problems that official nationalism either refused to confront or was unable to solve: caste-based chauvinism, sexism, religious orthodoxy and Brahminical privilege, concentration of wealth and land, and communalism.

In fact, rather than being the natural heirs to Gandhian thought, these members of the English-educated middle class were in many ways the least likely candidates to be spokespeople for the Mahatma, as their modern, secular, and progressive ideas came into direct conflict with Gandhi's valorization of the peasant past, his deployment of religious idioms, and his unwillingness to challenge Hindu orthodoxy at its core. This conscious misreading of the texts of the 1930s and 1940s was the product of the language debates of the 1960s and 1970s, when the Indian constitution mandated a shift away from English as the official state language. Rereading the novels of Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, and Ahmed Ali, this dissertation demonstrates that nationalism was also comprised of a series of gestures (ethical humanist, primitivist, progressive, anti-chauvinist, cosmopolitan, feminist, traditionalist) which not only enabled different kinds of solidarity between the middle-class and its others (peasants, women, untouchables) but also made the project of a unitary nation more difficult to establish.

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