«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
The scene that most apparently features the existence and overlapping of parallel realities is the story relating Phulboni‘s experiences in the Renupur station. The story itself, although thematically an essential part of the novel as a whole, appears somewhat separate from it on the narrative level. The varied influences behind the story include the Indian tradition of ‗railway stories,‘ examined by Leer with specific reference to The Calcutta Chromosome (Leer 2001); a story by Rabindranath Tagore, translated by Ghosh as ―The Hunger of Stones‖ (in Ghosh 2002);
The Signalman, a story by Charles Dickens; and the stories by Paneshwarnath Renu.6 In Phulboni‘s story the mysterious Laakhan, who functions as the intermediary between alternative realities, appears in the station where Phulboni is sleeping. He has come to signal in a train from another reality with his lamp.
Phulboni, like Grigson before him, follows the signal lamp and is almost killed by the train that suddenly appears from the dark on the rusty and overgrown siding. As Leer points out, railroads in India have not obliterated regional differences, but they have created new ways of passage that enable a ‗Laakhan‘ to board a train at a certain station and appear as ‗Lutchman‘ at another station when leaving the train. This makes the person in question harder to pin down for the authorities (Leer 2001, 58). But clearly here railroads and stations also provide a passage, or mode of connection, between parallel dimensions of reality.
The overlapping of these realities is apparent on at least two more occasions, which both happen to people who have had See Chambers (2009) for clarification of the complex intertextual relationships behind this ‗story inside a story‘.
malaria, and which have to do with sleeping and/or feverish hallucinations: when he receives a phone call from Tara/Mrs Aratounian/Mangala (responding to the future, 1990s and 1890s embodiments respectively), Antar has the feeling that she is actually in the same space with him (The Calcutta Chromosome 223-4). On another occasion, Murugan has a strange dream in which a test tube is broken when it falls onto the floor. He wakes up and finds on the floor ―an inch-long shard of thin glass, probably from some kind of tube‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 158).
In a similar vein, John Thieme sees the novel‘s ―near-repetition of variant forms of the same situation‖ (eg. Phulboni and Grigson both following the lantern and almost getting killed by the train, or the versions of Phulboni‘s story (The Calcutta Chromosome 228)) as destroying the idea of essentialist discursive versions of events (Thieme 2004, 265). Leer sees this as an instance of a chronotopological switch in the narrative that allows for ―stories to coexist on different levels as each others‘ ghosts – as happens both in genetic processes and in cyberspace‖ (Leer 2001, 59).
Consequently, this delineation of parallel realities/spaces in The Calcutta Chromosome is also evident at the level of narrative strategy, which is in this respect reminiscent of the narration of The Shadow Lines (especially the scene in the cellar examined in section II.2.1.).
As Suchitra Mathur points out, the congregation of silence performs its rituals and other actions in what could be described as intermediate spaces: ―the outhouses, anterooms, ramshackle houses under construction, and private apartments, where the actual work of ―interpersonal transference‖ takes place, are neither completely outside the dominant socio-political structure, nor completely controlled by it‖ (Mathur 2004, 133). A neat depiction of the paradoxical closeness of the public/dominant/visible and secret/ethical/invisible spaces is evident in the scene where Murugan finds the clay figurine in the refuse area behind the memorial arch of Ross. The figurine occupies the same space as the arch: it is actually hidden inside the memorial arch, albeit at its back, in a small hole which is practically imperceptible. Again, this seems to imply that these ‗images,‘ the vast memorial arch denoting visible political discourse and the tiny figurine referring to invisible ethical reality, represent synchronous dimensions of reality that exist in the same space, as was the case with the Renupur siding and the main railway line.
The novel also thematizes aspects of space other than the parallel existence of dimensions of reality and their crossing points. Khair has commented on the "shrinkage" of space in Indian literatures in English that goes for both social and
geographical meanings of the word:
The shrinkage of space lies not only in Babu fictions‘ selfconfinement to middle-class areas of experience and the privileging of bourgeois and/or cosmopolitan – especially Babu-cosmopolitan – realities […]. On a higher level of abstraction, it marks the coalition of India and even Indian realities abroad into a homogeneus space of narration which, partly with the help of a stylized (and staged) language, denies the distances between these forcibly coalesced spaces. (2001, 324) I have already examined Ghosh‘s representation of space in the context of The Shadow Lines. In The Calcutta Chromosome, his narration is also acutely aware of problems of representing space, geographically as in his second novel, but, as noted above, primarily socially. Geographically, the novel covers a wide area of space. Countries as diverse as the USA, India, Egypt and Sudan (Africa), Hungary, Sweden and Finland (Europe), and the Soviet Union and Armenia are mentioned. The novel also features characters coming from these areas, one of the most exotic of these being Madame Salminen, who appears to be a Finn. The way the specific discursive, or linguistic, features in the characters‘ prosodies are depicted in the text has been examined by Khair (2001), whose chapter on the novel is a substantial contribution to the research on Ghosh in general. Suffice it to note here that each character is given their own discursive space in the narrative, transcended by the use of English as the connecting language of narration.
The diversity of social space in the novel is evident in its description of the domestic surroundings of characters belonging to various social classes. The apartments of Antar (pp. 14-17), Sonali (pp. 95-99), and Urmila (pp. 129-134), as well as the guest house of Mrs. Aratounian (pp. 79-81) and the estate of Romen Haldar (pp. 185-188) are all described in detail, while even a glimpse of a British bungalow from early twentieth century India is provided. It is perhaps significant that much of the narrative happens in the private spaces of peoples‘ homes, in addition to the ‗intermediary‘ spaces occupied by Mangala‘s group (outhouse, construction site, etc.). One of the few decidedly public places in the novel, besides railway stations, is the Rabindra Sadan auditorium, where Murugan meets Urmila and Sonali and where Phulboni is voicing his desperate plea to become included in the congregation of Silence and in the approaching ‗crossing‘.
Antar, who lives alone and works from home, lives in a future suburban area of New York. The building he lives in has previously been lively, full of rented private apartments, but is now being increasingly taken over by various businesses that use it for storage space. Antar is glad to get out after his day of work, ―to step out of that bleak, cold building, encaged in its scaffolding of rusty steel fire escapes; to get away from the metallic echo of its stairways and corridors‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 14). Sonali is a well-to-do film star and reporter, who obviously would not have to work for money. She lives alone in a new expensive, upper-class neighbourhood, but, although clearly a representative of upper classes, she shares her private space with a boy from the ‗coolie‘ classes. The gap-toothed boy (the future embodiment of Laakhan/Haldar) is not strictly speaking a servant, but does some cleaning and cooking in compensation for rent. Sonali‘s apartment is expensive but without taste: it is characterized as ―grotesque‖ with its ―marble floors, the ornate gilt mirrors on the walls, the tall palms in the corners, in their polished brass planters. It wasn‘t like anything you expected to see in Calcutta, except in a five-star hotel.‖ (The Clacutta Chromosome 95) Urmila, who is a young and ambitious reporter, lives with her extended family in a relatively poor, lower middleclass conditions. There is not enough space in the apartment, and Urmila‘s mother keeps pressing her to get married and stay at home, instead of acting like a modern single working woman.
Urmila is supposed to be the one taking care of all the daily household tasks, in addition to her work as a reporter. She sleeps on a campbed in the corridor outside the cockroach-infested kitchen. And Haldar, who has a relationship with Sonali, is a rich developer, who owns a mansion with a pillared portico. Finally, there is the 1990s embodiment of Mangala, the old Mrs.
Aratounian, who has turned her nursery into a guest-house. The guest-house is on Robinson Street, which is ―lined with large modern blocks of flats and a few old-fashioned colonial mansions.‖ Aratounian‘s guest-house is ―a massive four-story edifice, studded with graceful columned balconies‖ (The Calcutta Chromosome 80).
In the novel the scale of ‗houses‘, which range from derelict outhouses and ramshackle construction sites via colonial mansions to modern estates and apartments, reflects the wide social scale and diversity of its characters and the Calcuttan society as a whole. This disrupts the dominant method of depicting social life as pertaining to middle-class circumstances in Indian English fiction (see Khair 2001). The connections the narrative forms between these characters from widely different backgrounds would be unusual in real life. But behind these connections functions the chromosome, which in this context implies the ethical reaching across differences of class and other qualifiers of social position. Whatever the real-life credibility of the relationships established in the novel, it clearly does not belong to the brand of Indian fiction in English that concentrates on the description of the social spaces and ideologies of the middle-classes, or of the cosmopolitan ‗babu‘ experience, delineated by Khair.
At the level of narrative technique, the novel is a mixture, which forms connections between literary genres. The most obvious elements deployed in it come from the genre of science fiction. Chambers characterizes the novel as falling within the general definition of science fiction on account of its mixture of fantastic and real. There are also theories borrowed from current scientific thinking, such as genetics and cloning technologies, and these are used to support the main impossible premise of the narrative: the idea of interpersonal transference (Chambers 2003, 59). But there are also elements of cyberpunk, and of the Victorian and Edwardian variants of detective stories, as well as features of what Khair describes as ―a central genre of babu adolescence.‖ According to Khair, this is ―the tradition of the three Hs: Holmes, Hitchcock and the Hardy Boys‖ (see Khair 2001, 327) that has been common among the babu classes of India. However, in the novel these narrative techniques are put to a use that differs from that of their original context and function.
As an example of this, Khair has listed some of the differences between The Calcutta Chromosome and cyberpunk as a genre. I
shall briefly repeat some these differences here:
For one, Ghosh‘s vision of the future, unlike that of cyberpunk, is not that of a dystopia. Second, Ghosh‘s cyberspace is an appendage of lived life, not its substitute.
[…] Third, cyberspace is not central to Ghosh‘s narration:
humans are. Technology is not a fetish for the lack of humanity. The contacts established through computers are human contacts, not disembodied data. […] Ghosh‘s narration of subaltern subversion, in its physical enactment and strong social consciousness, also saves his novel from becoming the sort of ‗consumer-oriented, technologically dependent libertarianism‘ that cyberpunk often seems to be.
(Khair 2001, 331-332) The future in the narrative certainly represents an ethical utopia in the Levinasian sense of reaching the ethical interpersonality, rather than any kind of dystopia. Indeed, it seems that Ghosh uses the cyberpunk elements in his narrative to create a society based on establishing agency and connections where they have not traditionally been discerned. The purpose of the article on this novel is to show that these elements (the chromosome and the way it works and is transmitted) serve to transform the power-relationships among social classes and genders ethically, and eventually even to transcend the limits of the discursively constructed totality of the self into a silent society based on ethical relationships.
Leaving the intense introspections evident in The Shadow Lines for the sweeping horizons of historical epic, The Glass Palace (2000) describes the histories of the teak and the rubber trade, the Burmese royal family, the British Indian Army, the Indian National Army and the overall joined history of India, Burma and Malaysia from 1880s to 1990s. As is customary of Ghosh, these histories are conveyed by characters stemming from varying social backgrounds. This time, the characters in general come through as caricatures of the ideologies they represent. The stock of characters includes among others the rapacious and opportunistic businessman Rajkumar; Uma, the housewife who turns into an idealist activist; the Western-trained middle-class bureaucrat The Collector; the inward-turned humanist photographer Dinu and the happy-go-lucky (to begin with) soldier, Arjun. The physical characteristics of these characters conform to the ideologies they represent.