Emergency in India is a rosy, reforming, revolutionary experience and an enriching experiment in democracy under the existing circumstances; and its flowering success is full justification of the seed planted by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the lightest moment in history.1
A blanket of repression was cast over India by the emergency. About 110,000 people were arrested and imprisoned without trial. The emergency period was the most substantial assault on the liberal democratic nature of India since independence.2
Diametrically opposed judgments on Indira Gandhi's emergency mle (1975-77) by the two political analysts J.S. Bright and Ramesh Thakur set the frame for a discussion of literary treatments of this phase in Indian history. While the three novels examined in this essay differ considerably in style and creative approach, they agree in their criticism of Gandhi's use of dictatorial powers. As works of fiction, historical novels are subject to the paradox that their non-fictional subject-matter is the very opposite of the literary genre to which they belong. The boundaries between 'documenting' historical facts, forming 'history' into a conclusive narrative, and adding a particular interpretation, political bias or artistic appeal to it have always been blurred; previous centuries have all but disregarded the difference between 'reporting' and 'creating' a literary past. There are, in this respect, striking similarities between medieval English historiography (Arthurian legend) and the ancient Indian epics (the Mahabharata).
Contemporary historiographical fiction, however, openly admits the creative component of its narrative; still, it may cause controversy or even violent reactions, as was the case with Rushdie's Satanic Verses or Mistry's Such a Long Journey.3 The relationship between fiction and reality is far from easy to understand: can literature help us understand history or will novels written on historical subjects nurture half-knowledge and prejudice as they freely mingle fact with fiction? How can a novel reconcile its claim to historical accuracy despite its creative treatment of the subject? Before discussing representations of Indira Gandhi's emergency rule in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Shashi Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, and Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, a brief look at the events in question will be helpful.
Defending Democracy or Descending into Dictatorship?
On 25 June 1975, India's President Fakhrudin Ali Ahmed declared a state of National Emergency on account of the threat to security, which opened the way to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's running the country for two years with die use of dictatorial powers. P.N. Dhar, who wrote a book-length account of Gandhi's premiership, was her principal secretary during the Emergency and therefore himself part of her government.4 Calling the Emergency "a severe setback in the political evolution of India" and a "tragedy,"5 he voices straightforward criticism. But it is wrong, he argues, to explain Indira Gandhi's dictatorial rule simply in terms of her supposed greed for power; Indira Gandhi has been subject to both exaggerated praise in the wake of her successful leadership during the war against Pakistan and criticism during and after her time as Indian PM. The causes of national politics need to be sought in the system of the young republic as it evolved, in the gap between the form and the substance of democracy in India.6 One of the problems with the country's newly created democracy was that the British parliamentary system had been adopted in a single step, whereas in Britain this system had evolved over centuries. Democratic systems, he argues, can be imported, but a political culture, which consists of inherited attitudes and behaviour, needs time to grow. Indian society, deeply rooted in religious traditions, was strained when secularism and a libertarian philosophy were adopted as its state policy.7
Another burden on the democratic institutions was the immediate past, the struggle against the colonial authorities. …