«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
After the generic inventiveness and technical brilliance of the preceding two novels (In an Antique Land & The Calcutta Chromosome) this fifth novel follows straightforward linear narration in line with the classic realist historical novel. The Glass Palace is epic, like his latest novel, The Sea of Poppies (2008), and it is written in straightforward realist narration, like The Hungry Tide (2004) that followed it. This seems to signal a shift in Ghosh‘s narrative technique. There is a conversion into a strikingly placid style after the linguistic fireworks of The Calcutta Chromosome, which abounds in differing narrative styles and variations that indicate the idiosyncratic features of the parlances of the various characters. This has been commented on by Shameem Black, who sees this new style as an instance of a ―flattened aesthetic‖ meant to make the linguistically diverse characters sound alike. This allows different readers to imagine linguistic difference for themselves without the confusing markers of sociocultural difference in the text (Black 2010, 166). I would say that this change in narrative style corresponds to a change in the emphasis of concern from the narrative appropriation of the target of representation to that of readerly openness.
Black has calculated that the narration of the novel documents the language choices of its characters on over seventyfive occasions (2010, 172). She also observes that these allusions are in many cases compiled in a manner that assures the reader of their possibility in real life. Consequently, in a scene unfolding for instance between a Westernized Bengali and a Malayan Tamil, it is made clear that the conversation proceeds in the lingua franca of either Hindustani or English (Black 2010, 173).
This highlights Ghosh‘s rejection of popular means for representing sociolinguistic amalgamation in novels, such as magic realism and chutneyed English, or mixed argot, used by Salman Rushdie.
The novel presents all the languages filtered through it according to a consisted method that Ghosh and his editor developed together. When a foreign word appears in the text for the first time, it is printed in italics. The subsequent instances of the same word are printed in a typeface similar to the rest of the English prose. In most instances, the first appearance of a foreign word is either explained or is understandable from the context.
The later instances of the same word are free of any explanatory material. As a consequence, the bits and pieces of foreign languages are smoothly incorporated into both visual and narrative registers of the novel after their first appearance. As Black concludes, this method of writing ―refrains from privileging any single foreign language and opens up English equally to all of their claims on expressive power‖ (Black 2010, 175). Through this method Ghosh tries to ethically alleviate the social and political power-relationships between different languages and to make his narrative accessible to as many multiple readers as possible.
The novel proceeds mainly through the examination of various ideas through discussions, in which differing ideologies are pitted against each other in an ethical manner that prioritises or vindicates none of them. Yet such juxtapositioning brings into view the pros and cons of each way of seeing the world more clearly and reaches towards a synthesis of viewpoints where each view is allowed to retain its voice and stance while they are brought into a meaningful relationship with each other. The debates address, among other things, nationalism, which is one of the major concerns in this novel. The discussions are not superfluous to the narrative; they cannot be over-looked in favour of the actual story line. In The Glass Palace, meaning lies not in individual utterances, but in their dialogical negotiations, the emphasis being on the manifold entirety of the plurality of viewpoints. The stances of most of the major figures become gradually modified during the course of the narrative through mutual interaction. Themes like theory and experience, duty and emotion etc., tend to become interwoven to muddle the borders between polemics and praxis.
Between the discussions the reader finds meticulous descriptions of the practical procedures of the teak and rubber trade, and descriptions of the private lives of the various characters. The impact of colonial commerce (the trade in teak, rubber and petroleum) and the spreading of Western consumer goods and technology (anthropological interest in cameras, cars and aeroplanes) come through in meticulous detail, while the narrative charts the vicissitudes of four families over four generations. The intersecting lives of the Burmese Royal family, the family of the business man and timber merchant, Rajkumar, and the families of Saya John and Uma Dey are woven together from previously unaddressed angles on the interconnected histories of India, Malaysia and Burma. The action in the novel is centred in Burma, but it features diasporas to India, the eastern half of the Indian Ocean (South East Asia), Europe and North America.
Among the many debates (e.g. about colonialism and women, Gandhi and the Ghadar party, Congress vs. the antiFascist position on the Second World War etc.) the one that is most resonant relates to the moral dilemma of the Indian officers in the British Army, some of whom later deserted to form the INA ( Indian National Army). The article on the novel (IV.5.) examines more closely the way in which these discussions function, while the existential problem of the Indian officers in the British army is examined in the following sub-section. This problematic situation was largely created by the disabling discursive self-alienation brought about by the colonial discourses.
II.5.1. Self-alienation and totalitarianism – colonial and totalitarian discourses One of the central themes in The Glass Palace is the way colonial discourses (primarily the military discourse) have moulded the subaltern identity and resulted in severe alienation. Selfalienation is apparent in the characters of the soldier, Arjun, who has been moulded into a war-machine in the hands of British military discourse and in the character of the Collector, a Britaintrained colonial administrator. Both these characters are destroyed: they end up in a dead end in their existential moorings and kill themselves. Arjun, the more prominent of these figures, can initially express himself only within the discourse of the military culture. As he finally realizes his condition as a puppet of this colonial discourse and manages to create some distance from it, he is left with nothing. He has nowhere to place his allegiances, so to speak, no language that would help him build a new self with other affiliations. This is consistent with Radhakrishnan‘s statement, introduced in the section on In an Antique Land, that in the colonial context, the subjectivity problematic is both urgent and morbid: people have to adopt an alien epistemology to develop a self-understanding.
Further, the discursively colonized people are alienated from their prerogative to make truth claims: their truth claims inevitably come ―from the Self of the dominant West‖ in the discourse of the West (Radhakrishnan 2003, 14). Arjun becomes the victim of the discursive and political component of his subjectivity, which in the colonial context is often strong enough to annihilate the imaginary ethical side of human existence that is neede to balance the forces that mould us.
Arjun does finally recognizes this self-alienation, but his acts of self-assertion result in failure. Arjun‘s self-understanding, his image of himself, is radically altered through a discussion with his batman, Kishan Singh. Kishan Singh talks about the fear
that makes the two of them hide as they do at that very moment:
is it the fear of the Japanese or the British? Or is it the fear of themselves, the fear of the shadow of the gun instead of the gun itself. The allusion here is to the British military forces and the British Indian Army as the ‗shadow‘ of these. Like the characters in The Calcutta Chromosome, Arjun is almost delirious with fever, and ends up having hallucinatory visions that sadly reveal to him a reality he did not know existed.
For a moment, it seemed to Arjun that Kishan Singh was talking about something very exotic, a creature of fantasy: a terror that made you remould yourself, that made you change your idea of your place in the world—to the point where you lost your awareness of the fear that had formed you. The idea of such a magnitude of terror seemed absurd—like reports of the finding of creatures that were known to be extinct. (The Glass Palace 430) Arjun then concludes that the difference between officers and other ranks was that the common soldiers had no way of reaching and comprehending the instincts that made them act.
They had no linguistic means of shaping their self-awareness, no access to the ethical. Therefore their fate was to remain strangers to themselves, always at the mercy of the directions of others. But in the same instant he arrives at this conclusion, the topsy-turvy way he has conceived of himself and his servant suddenly dawns
on him. The ―delirium of his pain‖ transforms his thinking:
He had a sudden, hallucinatory vision. Both he and Kishan Singh were in it, but transfigured: they were both lumps of clay, whirling on potters‘ wheels. He, Arjun, was the first to have been touched by the unseen potter; a hand had come down on him, touched him, passed over to another; he had been formed, shaped—he had become a thing unto itself— no longer aware of the pressure of the potter‘s hand, unconscious even that it had come his way. Elsewhere, Kishan Singh was still turning on the wheel, still unformed, damp, malleable mud. It was this formlessness that was the core of his defence against the potter and his shaping touch.
(The Glass Palace 430-31) Here the decidedly discursive power-mechanisms of British colonialism in identity formation are represented through the metaphor of image or vision. The image of the potter‘s thumb (the colonial discourse) and the clay (the colonial subject) is recurrent in Ghosh‘s novels, but nowhere else is it applied to the effect it orchestrates in this passage. Arjun begins to realize that it is in fact he, not his servant, who has ingeniously and inconspicuously been formed (or, as he later reflects, de-formed) by the British military and other discourses without him noticing the process, which Kishan Singh has actually been capable of
resisting. Arjun finds himself at a loss:
He had never thought of his life as different from any other;
he had never experienced the slightest doubt about his personal sovereignty; never imagined himself to be dealing with anything other than the full range of human choice.
But if it were true that his life had somehow been moulded by acts of power of which he was unaware—then it would follow that he had never acted of his own volition; never had a moment of true self-consciousness. Eveything he had ever assumed about himself was a lie, an illusion. And if this were so, how was he to find himself now? (The Glass palace 431) Arjun finally decides to place his loyalties not with the Japanese like his friend Hardy, but with India, and joins the Indian National Army. After the Allied forces win the decisive victory over the Japanese, the last remnants of INA continue fighting in the jungles of Burma. Arjun is with these last remaining soldiers when Dinu meets him in a deserted village. When Dinu wonders why the INA is still fighting although the Allied forces have beaten the Japanese, Arjun answers that he did not join the Japanese, but the Indian army, which still has a cause for fighting the Allied forces.
When Dinu observes that they have no hope, Arjun‘s
answer is desperate:
‗Did we ever have a hope?‘ he said. ‗We rebelled against an Empire that has shaped everything in our lives; coloured everything in the world as we know it. It is a huge, indelible stain which has tainted all of us. We cannot destroy it without destroying ourselves. And that, I suppose, is where I am…‘ (The Glass Palace 518) This scene, implying that the monster of the Empire will live on inside its creations which therefore have to be destroyed is one of the most hopeless in Ghosh‘s whole oeuvre. Arjun feels that he and the likes of him must die in order to completely destroy the Empire. For Dinu, Arjun‘s way of thinking represents ―the greatest danger.‖ In his view, Arjun chooses the stand where ―in resisting the powers that form us, we allow them to gain control of all meaning; this is their moment of victory: it is in this way that they inflict their final and most terrible defeat‖ (The Glass Palace 518-19). This reflects Ghosh‘s view on language and discourse as dangerous at large: they define their objects in certain ways, and their ingenuous processes of definition and knowledge production are very difficult to escape from. This is why the transcending of cultural and ideological definitions, or even the whole dimension of discursively constructed knowledge, through ethically formed personal imaginary identifications is so important in his narratives. As Ghosh has observed, Indians have to cope with ―the absolute fact of defeat and the absolute fact of trying to articulate defeat to yourself and trying to build a culture around the centrality of defeat‖ (Ghosh in Aldama 89). Ghosh is here referring to the tremendous power of the discourses of modernity on identity formation in the colonial context. This could be extended to cover the failure of India as a whole under the modernist discourse of nationalism.
This can, then, be seen as an instance of the pessimistic mood that tends to haunt the literatures stemming from the tradition of the Bengali Renaissance.
The novel also reacts to the existence of totalitarian regimes.