Amitav Ghosh: An Ethnographer of the Other

Amitabh Ghosh, Indian Writing in English, Postmodernist Novel

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Ghosh, as an anthropologist, realizes the incongruity between westernization and modernization as tools of social analysis of the lives of the ‘other’. The occidental values and beliefs are but one part, and not necessarily superior to the oriental ones, of the human experience. Is the western model of development sustainable? Isn’t it dependent upon exploitation of the resources of the east in one mode or another? The West intrudes into the East surreptitiously for the disposal of waste – both industrial as well as cultural. In The Circle of Reason, the traditional village life is ruined by the western influx in the name of modernization. It is the story of disarticulation of natives by imperialistic forces. The brute suppression and massacre of East Pakistanis forms the core of The Hungry Tide. They run away from Dandakaranya to Marichjhampi. We learn of transportation of labourers and convicts to Mauritius on the ship Ibis in Sea of Poppies. Thus, postmodernist novels rewrite regional histories.

Irony is the tool of postmodernist literature. Let’s read The Glass Palace. Queen Supayalat is captured by the British. Still she won’t lose her pomp throughout the novel. Arjun epitomizes a typical Indian under the British Empire. Overawed by the western life and ideology, he lives life Brit-size, blissfully oblivious of his position just as a pawn in the design of the Empire. We know that at no time in the history of British India, there were enough British here to rule such a vast and diverse country. The Empire used the natives to inflict pain on the natives. What an irony! The British conquered and ruled not just by force but by treachery. They managed the support of a tiny but not an insignificant portion of the indigenous people.

Like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and much before him, R.K. Narayan’s Guide, Amitav Ghosh uses nonlinear story-telling in The Glass Palace. Following the technique of temporal distortion, the narrative jumps forwards or backwards in time. The different strands of story are linked together by narrator’s memory creating thereby a magical effect. However, it should be noted that whereas Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh are expert practitioners of magic realism, R.K. Narayan’s name is by no means related to this literary trend. Further, Guide is not a tale of the other. In The Hungry Tide Ghosh creates a convolution of sub-topics and plots by shuttling between the stories of Nirmal, Piya Roy, Kanai and Fokir. The story jumps between not only time-frames rather places, characters, (historical) facts and fiction as well. The magic lies in smoothness of the flow.

Post-colonial novelists acknowledge the significance of the relation between cultures, language and literature. “In An Antique Land” is a postcolonial anthropologist’s historiography in the guise of a traveller’s tale. It traverses the shadow lines, read boundaries, of several traditional disciplines and genres. It describes the ridiculousness of translating the nuances of the ‘other’ cultures into languages of our own. This novel raises question about the role of the ethnographer as translator. The problem is that the ethnographer is nothing if not an apt translator. The problem with the process of translating words is that words embody certain concepts, and two different cultures may not share concepts or at least the nuances. Linguistic translation is a process fraught with complications and unwitting violence to the originality of a concept. Ghosh cites, for instance, the bland word “uncircumcised” which has acquired quite a religious overtone among the Arabs where it has acquired connotations of impurity and irreligiousness.

Ghosh follows the dialogic[i] model of ethnographic textualization. This conversational structure is new to ethnography but indeed quite age-old in the pursuit of knowledge. Plato had written The Republic in this very mode. This format, however, undermines the author’s narratorial authority. Imam says that Ghosh doesn’t have the authority to explain Egyptian culture when “[h]e doesn’t even write in Arabic” (234), and condemns India’s death rites and religious beliefs as “primitive and backward” (235).

Ghosh writes a ‘Prologue’ and an ‘Epilogue’. The prologue is written in an academic way giving out all the details and includes footnotes. The epilogue is simpler and personal. Unlike a conventional ethnographer, Ghosh doesn’t dwell in detail upon kinship or rituals. Obviously, in the Antique Ghosh’s dialogic representation is more direct but less authorial than the third-person narrative. In a direct speech recording, the author is not imbued with the full freedom of drawing definitive generalizations or conclusions.

Ghosh is reasonably successful in bringing out the class tensions in the village. However, his treatment of gender is arguably somewhat less perceptive. Few women appear in the narrative in any depth. The female sex becomes an ‘Other’.  The different structures of power – colonialism, caste-based structures of labour, communalism – silence the subaltern. Women are doubly silenced due to gender discrimination. To quote Spivak,[ii]

… both as object of colonial historiography and as subject of insurgency, the ideological construction of gender keeps the male dominant. If, in the context of colonial production, the subaltern has no history and cannot speak, the subaltern as female is even more deeply in shadow…

To which genre does The Glass Palace belong – romance or adventure or a historical novel? Hard to say! Postmodernist narrative technique blurs genres out of choice.  One novel doesn’t equate to one story or just more than one stories but a matrix of spiraling and seemingly disparate plots espousing even contrasting points of view. Does such a choice on the part of the author create unity or diversity leading to fragmentation? Again, hard to opine! Nevertheless, the output is immensely readable. The Palace is a fictionalized documentary portrait of colonial Burma as well as present Myanmar by the third person narrator. One mission of Ghosh is to blur all the artificial “shadow lines” that have been erected by the human civilization to demarcate nations from nations, fact from fiction, and knowledge from knowledge in the compartments called history, fiction, science, etc. His literature is hybridized. Not to forget, Ghosh wrote a medical/science thriller in The Calcutta Chromosome.

Ghosh’s narration also encompasses elements of literary-cultural tradition of the Bangla bhadralok. Professor Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi argues that Ghosh is situated between V. S. Naipaul, whose influence he readily acknowledges, and Salman Rushdie. However, a direct line of descent may be traced from Rabindranath Tagore, whose famous story “Kshudit Pashaan” Ghosh has re-translated, and Satyajit Ray.  He further argues that romanticized versions of a crisis in private-public domain are present in Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, The Calcutta Chromosome, and The Hungry Tide. Anjali Gera Roy, IIT Kharagpur, accepting the definition by Ulf Hannerz of locals as those who remain at home and cosmopolitans as those who move, makes the point that the fiction of Ghosh are narratives of subaltern cosmopolitanism.[iii]

In a way, like Rushdie, Ghosh, an author of postcolonial alternate histories, is also engaged in unraveling the dichotomy between national identity and individual identity. State is constituted of individuals. Nation is also constituted of individuals. State is characterized by territory. Nation is characterized by emotional bonding. States are demarcated by boundaries. Borders may be arbitrary, drawn by political exigencies. They are curved lines constructed like a school boy does in geography. But lines are important in geography. If there were no lines, there were no geography. If there were no lines, there were no states. So, we have McMahon Line, Radcliff Line, etc. States create myths to ‘naturalize’ lines. Essentially, borders are shadows. In The Shadow Lines, house is a metaphor. Contemporary Indian writers have taken a fancy for house as a metaphor for the Hindu-Muslim relations. There is Dhaka house in The Shadow Lines. There is Khodadad House in Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey (1991).The later novel depicts the ongoing birth of Bangladesh. Manju Kapoor’s Difficult Daughters has the Amritsar House. As Benedict Andersen[iv] points out, the nation is more ‘imagined’ than real. States are real. Or, are they so? Men have stories, States have history. No history, no State. Stories are fiction, history truth. No truth, no history. But do the histories hold ground on parameters of truth and objectivity? Seldom. Water, one the fundamental elements in Hindu mythology, is another recurrent motif in some of his novels. He uses the words ‘tide’ and ‘sea’ in title of two of his novels.

Amitav Ghosh wrote his first novel, Circle of Reason (1986) in Salman Rushdie‘s magical realist mode. Here he experimented with the techniques of Midnight’s Children viz. magical realism, satire, wordplay, mythology, elaborate allegories, rich use of metaphors and layers of interconnected stories. Reason is a critique of reason, the brainchild of European Enlightenment and Renaissance. The successful technological advancement of Euro-America has made ‘reason’ the hallowed philosophy in Western consciousness, relegating irrationality as the undesired ‘Other’. East and the West are differentiated simplistically on the parameter of having or not having reason. The same world-view lies in the East also vis-à-vis the world of the tribes and the aborigines. Thus, each societal upper layer in the technological hierarchy looks upon the lower one as the ‘Other’. To the West, the East is the ‘Other’. Through the character of Balaram, the falsity of this untenable proposition is established.

Sea of Poppies, the first in Ibis trilogy, is set in India in 1838 at the outset of the three-year Opium War between Britain and China. The novel treads where the historian-angels fear to walk. It exposes the British shrewdness and inhumanity. It treacherously divested India of its riches and forcibly poisoned the Chinese with opium. It demonstrates that the motive of the East India Company in China as elsewhere was not just trade, commerce and profit-making. The Company was an expansion of the imperial foreign policy of Britain. The Empire’s modus operandi was to first attain monopoly on the economic policies and subsequently establish themselves as the rulers. Throughout the novel, journey in the form of incessant movements is used metaphorically. By the way, journey has been meticulously used as a metaphor in some of the Bollywood productions. Two titles come to our mind easily: Bunty Aur Babli and Jab We Met.  In both the movies there is recurring image of the moving train – in fact missing trains as well in later of the films. Weaving is used as a metaphor in The Circle of Reason and In An Antique Land. Ghosh says, “Weaving is hope because it has no country, no continent.”

Anyway, the novel also proposes a point as to why the colonial rulers ushered a serious study of the scriptures, institutions and law-books of the natives: to enable themselves to interpret and manipulate the same for their colonial designs. There was hardly anything humanitarian in the British colonialism and authoritarianism. The British rule was hardly British.

To Conclude in Part – 3


[i] Ghosh was motivated to adopt this mode of intrusive textualisation by James Boswell’s The Life of Johnson.

[ii] Spivak, G.C. 1995. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” The Post-colonial Studies Reader. Eds. B. Ashcroft, G. Griffiths and H. Tiffin. London: Routledge. Page 28.

[iii] Abstracts of Papers Presented in Two Day National Seminar on Amitav Ghosh : A Writer Extra-Ordinary 25th & 26th March 2011 Sponsored by University Grants Commission Organised by Department of English Tarakeswar Degree College Tarakeswar, Hooghly, W.B., PIN-712410

[iv] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised and extended edition, London and New York: Verso, 1991).

3 thoughts on “Amitav Ghosh: An Ethnographer of the Other”

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