«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 military regime in the modern state of Myanmar comes under scrutiny towards the end of the novel, when Jaya goes to Myanmar to search for Dinu, who has opened a photo studio there. The limited scope of the discursive reach of the regime is nicely illustrated in the scene where Daw Thin Thin Aye goes to meet the government censor who has read a story written by her.
The officer tells her that she does not know how to write Burmese. He complains that he has spent a lot of time correcting the manuscript, which is now full of red pencil marks. After pronouncing that it is not his job to teach people how to write, he tells Daw Thin Thin Aye to take her paper and leave. In the bus, the perplexed writer takes a look at the manuscript: ―His vocabulary, she realized, was that of a child; he was barely literate. He had run his pencil over everything he hadn‘t understood – puns, allusions, archaisms‖ (The Glass Palace 536).
The implication here is, of course, that in addition to occupying a very narrow discursive-ideological space, the representatives of the government discourse are not interested in finding out about things that are beyond them: they clearly presume that the way they see things is the only correct way. There is nothing else to understand: everything else is banality.
In a manner reminiscent of the silent group in The Calcutta Chromosome, the people at the meetings Dinu arranges in his studio communicate outside the discursive world of the regime and therefore the spies sent to the meetings cannot understand what is going on. In both cases, then, subaltern agency exists, and can only exist, in an ethical dimension outside the discursive reality of the hegemonic group. But there are obvious situational differences between these groups. Whereas the silent group in the earlier novel is trying to escape the ideology of western modernity and its imperialistic-scientific discourse, the people gathering at the photo studio are trying to avoid a brutal military regime which has turned everything into politics. As a consequence of this superficial view of reality, the regime cannot react to things beyond political conspiracies and organizational matters. These, on the other hand, it sees everywhere, which has led to a preposterously extensive system of control.
Consequently, the ideology of western modernity with its inherent scientific and colonialist discourses seems to be a far more complex construction to resist or overcome than the oppressive politics of the totalitarian regime in Myanmar, although modernity does not have ostensible control over people in the manner of the regime. The discourses of modernity shape subjects and identities without them noticing it, as was the case with Arjun. This ideological system actually destroys Arjun who cannot escape its grip and forces Mangala‘s group to act in silence and secrecy. Despite its show of military power and extreme control over both public and personal sectors, the regime does not have the ideological and epistemological depth and power of the British colonialism. With its superficial political notion of reality it cannot have the kind of ideological machinery that enabled the British colonial system to take hold of all meaning and produce subjects who were heavily dependent upon it (cf. Arjun in the novel).
Consequently, the people at Dinu‘s studio are not forced to withdraw into complete silence, but they are able to remain in the realm of discourse, albeit a different discourse from that of the regime. Dinu uses the language of photography and of the image as a representative system into which the spies sent by the
regime have no access:
Today for example, I was talking about Edward Weston‘s theory of pre-visualisation … that you must see the truth of your subject in your mind … after that the camera is incidental, unimportant … If you know the truth of what you see, the rest is mere execution. Nothing can come between you and your imagined desire … no camera, no lens …‘ He shrugged, smiling. ‗To that list I could have added: No band of criminals like this regime … But I did not have to tell them that in so many words … They understood what I was saying … they knew … you saw how they laughed and clapped … Here in the Glass Palace photography too is a secret language.‘ (The Glass Palace 509The concept of ―imagined desire‖ as an example of the ethical approach towards the alterity of the other shall be examined in the article on The Shadow Lines. In this instant, Dinu‘s ethical call for personal truths of the mind, achieved through imaginary constructions and not filtered through the censorship system and narrow political epistemology of the regime must be of importance for the citizens of Myanmar. For people living inside closed borders with practically no access to foreign media or any other outside influences, the desire to know the otherness beyond the border is presented as a burning issue.
Unlike totalitarian military regimes, novels are not closed systems, but exist in a relationship with other texts, be they fictional or non-fictional. So far, I have paid little attention to Ghosh‘s use of intertexts, although these are hinted at in many of his novels. An obvious intertext for The Glass Palace would be At Large in Burma, the non-fiction piece by Ghosh himself, which comprises one of the three texts in Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma (1998). This text relates the three times the narrator (a Ghosh-persona) has met Aung San Suu Kyi. As intertexts by other writers go, The Shadow Lines forms an obvious connection with the novella, The Shadow-Line (1917), by Joseph Conrad. The relationship between these two shall be looked at in the article on the novel in section V.2. In the following section, I shall introduce Ghosh‘s sixth novel, The Hungry Tide (2004), through its central theme of human alienation from nature. I shall do this in a relationship with its intertexts.
II.6. The Hungry Tide
The Hungry Tide (2004), features a triangular relationship between the Americanized cetologist Piya, the professional translator Kanai and the illiterate fisherman Fokir. The setting is the Sundarbans, a labyrinthine area of mangrove islands on the Bay of Bengal. Also referred to as the tide country, it forms the delta of the Irrawaddy river. The mixing of river water with sea water and the ecological niches this creates provide Ghosh with elaborate metaphors for inter-cultural connections, replacing the metaphors of weaving or the World Wide Web and railroads as the symbol of connections and the dissolving of binaries. Nature and animals (notably dolphins and tigers) are presented as the others of human beings, and their way of being and communicating is compared to those of humans, who are largely presented as inhibited by linguistic totalities that tie them to the self without ‗real‘ access to other humans or to nature and animals.
Kanai and Piya arrive in the area where Fokir lives for different reasons. Piya comes there to search for river dolphins which have previously received little attention within the science of cetology. Kanai comes to collect a parcel his late uncle, Nirmal, has left him. The parcel appears to contain a diary, excerpts from which are sprinkled through the novel. Piya asks Fokir to accompany her as a guide in the canals of the area, and Kanai goes along to act as a translator between the two.
All in all, this sixth novel by Ghosh contains most of the motifs, themes and narrative strategies to be found in his earlier writings. At the level of narrative strategy, the overall construction is close to the previous novel, The Glass Palace. The text is straightforward realist narration, albeit with much shorter chapters than in the previous, more historically oriented novel.
The narrative also contains several overtly scientific passages, going through the history and methods of cetology or explaining the structure and functioning of the equipment needed. This feature is to be found in every novel by Ghosh and has, in addition to offering necessary information, the function of placing the factual knowledge production strategy of sciences against the imaginary components of the narrative and creating connections between the two. The novel also contains oral tales referring to mystic features, exemplified by the story of Bon Bibi, the protecting Goddess of the tide country. And there is even the mixture of science and myth, exemplified by the lesson Nirmal plans for the children of the tide country, explaining the formation of the sub-continent through an amalgamation of geology and religion. The Hungry Tide also uses the construction of multiple views that may be antagonistic but are nonetheless given equal status in the narrative. This strategy was used especially in The Glass Palace and is in this later novel adopted particularly in connection with Kanai‘s late uncle, Nirmal, who is described by at least three characters. Concerning the use of languages other than English, where Ghosh previously used nonEnglish words to fill in gaps in the English vocabulary, we now find longer phrases or sayings immediately followed by a translation into English.
At the thematic level, Ghosh returns to his fascination with what he refers to as ―patterns of work.‖ In his view, ―even the most mundane forms of labour can embody an entire metaphysic‖ (Ghosh 2002, x). This is most readily observable in the characters of Piya and Kanai, but comes through in other characters as well as one of the components of their identity. As Ghosh has acknowledged, in his earlier works this thematic is most prominent in The Circle of Reason and The Glass Palace. In the following scene, Kanai compares his desire to understand worldviews constructed by foreign languages with his desire for Piya, who is standing nearby examining the river through her
He too had peered into the unknown as if through an eyeglass – but the vistas he had been looking at lay deep within the interior of other languages. Those horizons had filled him with the desire to learn of the ways in which other realities were conjugated. And he remembered too the obstacles, the frustration, the sense that he would never be able to bend his mouth around those words, produce those sounds, put sentences together in the required way, a way that seemed to call for the recasting of the usual order of things. It was pure desire that had quickened his mind then and he could feel the thrill of it even now – except that now that desire was incarnated in the woman who was standing before him, in the bow, a language made flesh.
(The Hungry Tide 269) Kanai‘s ―pattern of work‖, his metaphysics, is strongly tied with language and discursive realities to begin with. In his view, everything is constructed by language, one just has to try and unravel the logics of the different worldviews of the targets of interpretation, be they other languages or other people. But the problem seems to be that he cannot fully satisfy his desire for the other human being through language. This neatly paves the way for the ethical ‗experiences‘ transcending language that are staged in the novel and examined in detail in the article later (V.6.).
To continue with themes familiar from Ghosh‘s earlier novels, The Hungry Tide also includes a scene in which there is an attacking mob, although in this novel the mob attacks a tiger instead of people of a different religion or nationality (The Hungry Tide 290). There is also the scene with the shrine on the island of Garjontola representing the hybrid religion of the tide country (246), which recalls the equally hybrid shrine and religion the narrator of In an Antique Land finds in Mangalore on the west coast of India. Also the interest in etymology professed in this previous novel is present here. And there is the presence of a socialist enterprise in the Sundarban area, first conceived by Sir Daniel Hamilton in the 19th century and recreated in the 1970s on one of the islands by a group of refugees. There have been references to quasi-socialist phenomena in Ghosh‘s novels previously, most notably in The Circle of Reason, in which a group of people attempt to live without the use of money.
In The Hungry Tide, this typical ideal utopia sketched by Ghosh in all of his novels in different ways is present in the form of the recurring socialist movement in the tide country. The first occurrence was conceived by the rich Scotsman, Hamilton, who himself was a capitalist from head to toe. He buys land in the area from the British officials and welcomes anyone willing to work on it. Nirmal describes the idea of the enterprise to the
They could not bring all their petty little divisions and differences. Here there would be no Brahmins or Untouchables, no Bengalis and no Oriyas. Everyone would have to live and work together. […] What he wanted was to build a new society, a new kind of country. It would be a country run by co-operatives, he said. Here people wouldn‘t exploit each other and everyone would have a share in the land. (The Hungry Tide 51-52) In this society the value of money would be based on actual work, not on value abstracted (or alienated, to use the term of Marx) from actual results of work. The project got a good start, with the blessings of eminent nationalist figures like Gandhi and Thakur, but after Hamilton‘s death it gradually withered away.