Ayelet Ben-Yishai

Emergency Fictions

Imposed by India’s “Greatest Prime Minister,” from June 1975 to January 1977, the State of Emergency is usually presented as an anomaly in the annals of the world’s largest democracy. As anthropologist Emma Tarlo has noted (2010), while historians, political scientists and sociologists have been reluctant to examine the period, “Press censorship, arrests, torture, the demolition of slums and tales of forcible sterilization have all made the Emergency fertile food for fiction.” Reading this fiction, one recognizes narrative forms that describe excesses and anomalies, but do so in ways that paradoxically stress historical continuity and cohesion, rather than disruption and dispersion. Focus-ing on fiction and non-fiction by Indira Gandhi’s cousin and critic, Nayantara Sahgal, I highlight the tension between continuity and crisis that structures these narratives, and their political, historical and cultural implications. The Emergency emerges as an important interpretative site: an exceptionally violent episode, marked as a one-off crisis; but at the same time a continuous re-negotiation, iterative and intricate, of a modern Indian polity.

Ayelet Ben-Yishai teaches Victorian and Postcolonial Literature at the English Department of the University of Haifa, Israel, and is an IRH Honorary Fellow at UW Madison for 2013-2014. With degrees in both Law (LL.B. Hebrew University 1996) and Literature (PhD, Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley 2005) she has published in both fields and on their intersections. Her book, Common Precedents: The Presentness of the Past in Victorian Fiction and Law was published by the Oxford University Press in 2013. She is the recipient of a three-year Israel Science Foundation grant for her research on realism in the Indian Novel in English.