This essay purports to present a general companion to the reading of the novels of Amitav Ghosh as postcolonial[i] postmodern[ii] constructs. This is not to chart a critique – I don’t find myself competent enough to assess the merits or lacunae of a gifted author of the stature of Amitav Ghosh – but just to aid an informed reading of his novels. There would be an effort to underscore the underpinning themes of the writings of different authors since Salman Rushdie – unarguably one of the most important signatures in Indian Writing in English.
As it would turn out, identity politics, otherness, history and the individual, multiculturalism, indigenization, nativism, social and political agenda of criticism, social conditions of alienation[iii], dispossession, cultural fragmentation, etc are some of the issues Ghosh deals with. The encounter between the western rationality and the Indian myth and hollowness of national identity and national boundaries are major preoccupations with the author. Midnight’s Children and post-MC novels foreground and celebrate a historical ‘weightlessness’ resulting out of cultural transplantation. They revel in marginality, self-reflexivity and confessionality. In a word, Amitav Ghosh is a chronicler of the ‘other’ in their native languages with English being the overall connector of ideas and expressions.
My humble hope out of such a study is to let the general readers have an iota of comprehension of Ghosh’s underlying philosophy of the progression of human society and assorted cultures. Four of his works, viz. In An Antique Land, The Shadow Lines, Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke will be in the focus of our study.
Article Part – 1
Novels as literary narrative have ceased to have simplicity of the olden days. Since the dusk of colonialism, novels are preoccupied with the times and themes of colonialism. To live under colonialism was not easy. To write about lives in the times of colonialism is still more complicated. Contemporary Indian writing in English evinces a great mixing up of tradition and modernity in the style and content of story-telling. India’s heritage, tradition, cultural past, nationalism and moral values formed the backdrop in the novels of the proverbial good old days. Characterization and narrative mostly tended to be linear and less convoluted. Today’s novels are no longer structurally monolithic.
Human thought-patterns are characterized by stereotyping. We hardly can think beyond the obvious, the mainstream. We fail to associate with Irome Sharmila as we bonded with Anna Hazare. This results in creating the ‘other’. Nonetheless, this itself is the outcome of ourselves nurturing a feeling of otherness towards the people living at the peripherals of the nation and the state. ‘Othering’ results, in turn, in social unrest and communal violence. Sex, race, caste and sheer number can be the bases of ‘othering’. It can be colonial, political, national, as well. Amitav Ghosh’s essay The Imam and the Indian, presents a discourse upon the instinct of othering. Going by historiography, the subalterns[iv] constitute the ‘other’. They have ubiquitously been left out of the official or typical history texts. Capturing the voices of the subalterns, Ghosh rewrites the colonial and nationalist history. Ghosh’s novels are histories of the marginalized and the suppressed. Postmodernism has brought the ‘other’ back into the centre of the narrative. Ghosh creates innumerable transnational families as a technique. His characters are able to defy the blitz of the agents of nation and he is able to save the ‘other’ from getting engulfed by the hegemonic narrative of the nation. What he writes is marginal micro-history. The postmodern literature rediscovers the capacity of the ‘other’ for struggle for survival.
A remarkable change began to surface on the horizon of most academic disciplines just after World War I. The Inter-War literature was characterized by modernism. Post-World War II, the literary trends both advanced further and deviated as well from modernism. These and the novels being written contemporarily are considered postmodern novels. Along with Salman Rushdie and Vikaram Seth, Amitav Ghosh belongs to the club of novelists with post-modern thoughts and emotions. Post-Rushdie, Ghosh is the most promising star.
The post-modernist authors are not all professionally trained in story-writing. Amitav Ghosh is a Ph.D in anthropology from Oxford University. In the course of training, he has had the opportunity of visiting alien lands. Tools and themes of cultural anthropology such as socio-cultural fragmentation, colonialism and neo-colonialism including cultural colonialism, cultural degeneration, dichotomy between culture and civilization, little and great traditions, sanskritisation and westernization, modernization and tribalization, the concept of dominant caste, dysfunctional family, blending of facts and fantasy, and inter-play of history and the individual[v] recur in his writings. His novels like The Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace may be misconstrued by a layman as immaculate research papers both in history and ethnography. Well, with a tinge of imagination! Still, they are not dreary academic exercises rather engrossing novelistic entertainers. His third book, In an Antique Land (1992), is anthropological ethnographic fieldwork report, fiction, autobiography, history, anthropology, and travelogue all rolled into one. We may note that as an anthropologist, Ghosh has been to Egyptian villages of Lataifa and Nashawy during the early 1980’s.
Just as Salman Rushdie has questioned the very authenticity of history as a discipline of knowledge, Amitav Ghosh raises through the Antique Land doubts about the very basis of ethnography, if not anthropology as a whole. In Midnight’s Children we learnt that oriental traditions of oral history are as much significant as the western model of written history. Thanks to Ghosh, now we know that the endeavour of the scholars of the world-class centres of learning to establish anthropology as monolithic Western Anthropology does have no locus standi. Apart from other well-acknowledged problems, anthropological fieldwork reports are plagued by the subjectivity of the ethnographer who tries to don the robe of the participant-observer. Ghosh’s stand is apparently in sync with the so-called School of New Anthropologists—including James Clifford, Talal Asad, and Mary Louise Pratt. Thus, Ghosh’s novels tell the day-to-day histories of the populations out of the national mainstreams i.e. the other.
Postmodernist novels have political undertones out of necessity. Considering territorialism an impediment to human communication and tracing wars to crass nationalism, Ghosh speaks the language of a cosmopolitan. The East and the West meet on a pedestal of equal footing in The Shadow Lines. Tridib, May, Nice Prince etc. are world citizens. The Glass Palace is the story of half-bred Rajkumar revolving around Burma, Myanmar and India. He again is a global citizen like the author himself.
Like Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Amitav Ghosh is a master craftsman of ‘magical realism’. Magic realism, historicity, emigrational dislocation, insecurities, disorientation and fragmentation are constant post-modernist themes. Non-Western form of humanism cutting across race, caste, gender, class and culture is an omnipresent theme in Ghosh. The theme in The Shadow Lines is borderless nation-state giving due significance to genealogy. That is, the family is the strategic tool through which the narrative transcends national boundaries. The national-global dichotomy is blurred. Controlling the multitudes forms the core of the theme of Sea of Poppies. In The Glass Palace, Japanese invade Burma resulting in so much human tragedy. It tells the story of three generations with a geographical spread of 20th century Burma, Malaya and India under the Empire. In The Shadow Lines, the Dhaka communal riots of 1963-64 are dealt with. Rescuing May from Muslim mobs, Tridib sacrifices his life. The novel covers the period from 1938 to 1979 with 1964 being a very important year. Narrative goes to flash-back every now and then. The characters seem to live more in the past than in the present.
[i] Challenging of binaries; championing of hybridity, border-crossing of human identities, and the post-colonial influx of formerly colonized peoples into the one-time colonial metropolitan centers (out-migration) are some of the characteristics of postcolonial literature. Sarah Brouillette, course materials for 21L.488 Contemporary Literature: British Novels Now, Spring 2007. MIT OpenCourseWare (http://ocw.mit.edu/), Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Downloaded on 20.06.2007.
[ii] Postmodernism is a growth out of modernism but it rejects the universalisation claims of modernism. Non-western societies need not always trace the western route to modernity. Postcolonialism is a counterdiscourse to postmodernism. K. Kiran, Inter-play of History and Individual in Salman Rushdie’s Novels. Ph.D Thesis, 2010, Page 193
[iii] Is it because the Indian expatriate authors themselves feel alienated? To quote Amit Shankar Saha, Calcutta University, “Alienation is a part of the experience of the Indian diaspora and even if people are at home in any part of the world it does not mean that they will not become victims of the sense of alienation. Increasing acceptance into the host society does not indicate that that the diasporic characters can feel at home. Social alienation is replaced by metaphysical alienation.” Exile Literature and the Diasporic Indian Writer. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities (ISSN 0975–2935)Volume I, Number 2, Autumn 2009. PDF URL of the article:
[iv] Peter Gran argues that in India, Subaltern Studies is read against liberalism, Marxism, and “religious fascism,” whereas in the US, its “principal novelty” is its ability to represent India by being read into ideologies of difference and otherness. David Ludden, A Brief History of Subalternity in South Asia: Introduction, Page 2. In this regard I especially recall from my college days Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India, 1885-1947, Oxford University Press, Delhi 1983. The book presented a new approach to nation’s history keeping people’s movements at centre stage. The official website of Subaltern Studies is http://www.lib.virginia.edu/area-studies/subaltern/ssallau.htm
[v] Here I am using the title of my wife’s Ph.D thesis: Inter-play of History and Individual in Salman Rushdie’s Novels. K. Kiran, 2010, Veer Kunwar Singh University (VKSU), Ara, Bihar