This essay moves away from accounts of social realism, which privilege its political aims over its aesthetic innovations. I argue that social realism written under colonialism was part of a larger intellectual project to rethink the desirability and content of nationalism by testing the limitations and plasticity of the realist mode. I look specifically at moments of self-referentiality in social realist writing as well as in the repeated claims by writers themselves about the mimetic purpose of social realism. In this way, I show how literary realism in the colony lived the dual life of representing the material world and taking on a materiality of its own, as language marked by aspiration and potentiality. This “projective realism” is epitomized by Ahmed Ali's 1940 novel Twilight in Delhi. Twilight, by offering an interpretation of history as a performance, a series of snapshots, and gestures definable in synchronic time, provides an idiom from which to rethink the conventional discourse upon which nationalism is founded and raises a profound ambivalence as to which nation this “nationalist” novel in fact references.

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