«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
He saw the adoption of the Western philosophy of development as the only way to create unity in India and make it an inherent part of world economics and politics. According to Khilnani, Nehru‘s idea was that a distinct Indian identity was possible only ―within the territorial and institutional frame of a state […]: a model committed to protecting cultural and religious difference rather than imposing a uniform ‗Indianness‘‖ (1997, 167). In general, Gandhi can be seen as representing the ethical means for creating connections between people of the Subcontinent, while Nehru clearly operated within the hegemonic discourse of nationalism he wanted to modify to Indian circumstances.
With independence and nationalism, then, the new political entity of India adopted the Western ideology of a common history leading to the unification of a people as a nation. With a population comprising such manifold differences, this history had to be an extremely forced and premeditated invention. On the surface, Partition seemed to be a clear division between the Hindu and Muslim religions. In reality, as we know, there are people of both religions on either side of the border, not to mention all the other religions that have been brutally divided by it. Furthermore, the secularist nationalist separation of the religious component from all the other components contributing to communal identity was an extremely violent process. It disregarded all the other cultural affiliations that people necessarily possess, such as ties to place of origin, ethnic group, language etc.
In a sense, the political decolonization was not enough to create a stable state and a healthy nation. Independence, the Partition and the federalism and the secularism of the new state were political ideals functioning within the political discourse that only recognized citizens: it had no established way of affecting the development of national, communal and religious identities of actual people. These political measures, together with the charismatic figure of the Prime Minister, Nehru, were enough to bring things to a standstill for some time, but eventually the regional and religious communalism managed to surface with an alarming force. After the periodical communal trouble of the 1950s, the situation gradually worsened. The central government exerted military force in the areas of Goa and Kashmir. Political decisions had to be increasingly circulated through the central administration, which created regional frustration. The apparent lack of power and autonomy also triggered secessionist movements in Assam, Punjab, Nagaland and Kashmir. These encouraged the central authorities to use even more power by dispatching the army into these regions. The increased authoritarianism of the state was now clearly visible and resulted in Indira Gandhi declaring a state of emergency (Mondal 2007, 23-24).
After the end of the state of emergency, Mrs Gandhi‘s undertakings led to the centre—region problematic becoming increasingly mixed with religious communalism, which had always represented the other side of the Indian national identity (at the same instant India became an independent nation it was also divided on religious and communal grounds). This tension between the state and the various communalisms is depicted by Ghosh in The Shadow Lines, for instance in the scene where the narrator contemplates the fact that riots, which are communal trouble, do not make it to the newspapers, which only report acts of war which have to do with the nation-states and governments.
I shall come back to this issue of nationalism and violence in the following section III.3.
To bring things to a standstill, Mrs Gandhi tried to increase her popularity within the Hindu community, which could help her thwart the appeal of the regional secessionists. With the support of Hindu majoritarianism, the centre tightened its grip over the regions, and matters resulted in Mrs Gandhi being assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984. This happened following an attack by the army on a Sikh shrine to arrest the leader of a Punjabi secessionist movement. After this, the religious/communal dimension of Indian national imagination took over with militant and chauvinistic Hindu nationalism in the lead.
These developments had a tremendous impact on the Indian cultural and political self-image. Modern Indian history and identity had to be reconsidered due to the fact that the grand narrative of nationalist freedom-fight against colonial rule had lost its relevance and credibility with the destruction of national ideals. This Nehruvian idea of a secularist and democratic national unity had slowly died with the deepening crisis of the Indian nation. Only empty words now remained of this once functional rhetoric. National unity had dispersed into various regional, linguistic, religious, caste and class identities.
Secularism had been wrecked by using religious denominators for political manoeuvrings, which had planted communalism as an inherent part of political logic. Finally, democracy had deteriorated into a smoke screen covering the corruption of a disproportionately large bureaucracy (Mondal 2007, 25).
All this resulted in a serious crisis of representation, both politically and in a more fundamental sense. The Enlightenmentbased idea of a secular nation and the adjacent representational structures had collapsed and destroyed India‘s emergent idea of itself. With the ideology of nationalism went its political manifestation, the concept of a modern sovereign and selfrepresentative state, which had stood for progress, modernity, liberty and freedom. The state now stood for coercion, repression and oligarchy. This sinister depiction of a not atypical postcolonial state would frequently connect with the period of emergency when the state had assumed its most authoritarian guise. In Indian fiction of the 1980s, it is quite common to encounter the state as a threatening and all-invading presence. In the fiction of Ghosh the state comes through ―variously as a menace, a threat, a distant and peremptory presence, or is ironically mocked as a perversion of ‗rationality‘‖ (Mondal 2007, 26). In general, the history of twentieth century India is represented as a fight for national freedom over the colonial rule, followed by the fight of multiple religious and regional communities against the repressive nation-state.
In her Limiting Secularism: The Ethics of Coexistence in Indian Literature and Film (2008), Priya Kumar provides an extensive treatment of the entanglements between religious co-existence and secularist nationalism in India after Partition. She proposes an ethically conceived alternative to the Nehruvian discourse of liberal secularist tolerance which, as we have seen, has degenerated into coercion and oppression of other religious groups by the Hindu majority. Her idea of ‖revising the related and entangled notions of tolerance and secularism‖ through the examination an ―ethics of coexistence‖ is based on an ―imaginative response to particular to particular historical moments marked by rising religious violence in the Indian subcontinent‖ (Kumar 2008, xv). This comes very close to the way in which Ghosh depicts the religious-communal rioting in The Shadow Lines, where imagination is highly emphasized as the basis for ethically wrought versions of the national past of India. I shall examine Ghosh‘s narrative representation of violence in the next section.
The need to criticise and revise the discourses of colonialism, Indian nationalism and Indian colonial and national identity is apparent in all of Ghosh‘s writing. He is also opposed to the authoritarian and coercive actions of the state. But at the same time there also seem to be signs of a longing for certain aspects of the Nehruvian utopia of a secularist, democratic national unity within a nation-state that would contain India‘s diversity in a syncretic whole. Based on ethically conceived solidarity, this would provide an ideal alternative to religious and ethnic chauvinism as well as political dispersal and religious/ethnic violence that are rampant in contemporary Hindu nationalism. Postmodern ideas offered a useful method for tackling the social and political situation in India in the 1980s and 1990s.
To deconstruct the descriptions of the colonies by various colonial discourses it was necessary to deconstruct the philosophical basis on which they stood. Similarly, the various modernist genres and scientific discourses need to be dismantled or changed to suit the purposes of the postcolonial world.
Accordingly, Ghosh has been commended for his generic versatility and inventiveness. His experimentation with literary and scientific genres and disciplines are the most apparent testimony to his affiliation with postmodernism. He mixes historiography, ethnography and scientific discourses with various literary genres in his search for authentic representations that are cognizant of both the heterogeneity and the unity of cultural groups. This is most readily evident in In an Antique Land, which, as stated in the introductory section (II.3.) is the most postmodern of Ghosh‘s works in terms of its narrative technique.
Obviously, writers of fiction adopted postmodern ideas to varying extent. It is commonly agreed among critics that the impact of Rushdie‘s Midnight’s Children in 1981 on the narrative strategy of Indian fiction in English was tremendous. Ghosh does not embrace postmodernism as whole-heartedly as Rushdie, but they both use postmodern literary techniques to examine the birth, development and crisis of the Indian nation. The way postmodernism advocates diversity and difference as outcomes of the dispersal of modernist entities and totalities was embraced by writers trying to make sense of the Indian nation, which was about to disintegrate due to religious and communal trouble. The tensions caused by the double axis of centralism and regionalism plus nationalism and religious communalisms, which had caused pressure already during the days of the Raj, had come to the surface again after Nehru‘s death in 1964. The unrest reached its peak during the 70s and 80s with the state of emergency (1975-77) and the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, the influence of which can be detected in the background of The Shadow Lines.
Ghosh‘s attitude towards the past and the possible future of India and nationalism in general provides obvious ground for what Mondal describes as ―an acute political and ethical dilemma‖ that tends to lead to ―ambivalent meditation‖ in his writing (Mondal 2007, 28). This clearly resonates with problems of contemporary India, where the tension between the state and the numerous ethnicities is evident. The state uses its power to keep the nation together at least as a political concept, while the various religious communities are attempting to tear it apart. In The Shadow Lines, the concept of freedom in relationship to nation appears differently for different generations: for T‘hamma freedom lies with the state and nationality. It is freedom from the colonial rule. But for the cosmopolitan Ila freedom means freedom from both the restrictive and oppressive state and the customs and rituals of the ethnic/religious communities. She abandons both dimensions of the failed Indian nationalism for a certain kind of cosmopolitanism.
What, then, could freedom mean in the future and how should the history of the Indian nation be represented for it to become meaningful for the needs of the present? This is where the political and ethical dilemma Mondal is referring to becomes a burning issue. Criticism of the contemporary concept of nationhood is necessary so that the original goal of freedom for the people promised at independence is not totally forgotten.
However, the destabilizing and dismantling of the current nationalist structures in representation might easily lead to even greater disintegration and the total dispersal of the nation. The huge national whole of India should be protected, while the current discourse and ideology of the only thing keeping this whole together, the state, should be deconstructed and rebuilt in a manner that makes possible the peaceful co-existence of the various heterogeneous elements it contains. The politics of difference and instability and the ethics of unifying connections are pitted against each other, just as they are in the fiction of Ghosh.
Mondal claims that Ghosh is ideologically attached to the syncretic nationalism of Nehru (Mondal 2007, 29). It is true that Ghosh‘s writing tends to promote syncretism and humanism, which as Enlightenment-originated ideas on the surface seem to create a certain tension with his postmodernist preoccupations.
For Ghosh, the common humanity and the accompanying similarity of human experience across different spaces and times has been divided and fractured by the ideology of modernity and its various avatars like Western geographical and ideological expansion, modernist knowledge production strategies (mainly of sciences) and nationalism. And it is concerning nationalism where I would disagree with Mondal. Although the Nehruvian model of nationalism would perhaps be regarded by Ghosh as a lesser evil than the current situation, I would say that Ghosh conceives nationalism in general as an undesirable Western formation. Nationalism is based on binary divisions and necessarily demands the invention of a certain kind of ‗false‘ history on which to stand. Where the idea of nation is concerned,
Ghosh seems to be closer to Mahatma Gandhi than Nehru:
Gandhi opposed the Partition, the Western form of nationalism, and the discourse of history that came with it. The idea of constructing a feasible future out of a selected past did not appeal to him. Gandhi wanted to count on pre-existing local identities and traditions to create a larger Indian whole. For this purpose, he developed the concept of Swadeshi, a patriotism based on a respect for the everyday material world inhabited by most on the subcontinent. His adoption of cloth as a symbol of interconnection exemplified this esteem of the everyday. By spinning and weaving their own cloth, through literal self-production, Indians would regain the economic control and cultural respect that colonialism had usurped and battered. (Khilnani 1997, 165) Gandhi‘s idea of nation as a self-producing community was clearly incommensurable with the traditional Western territorially conceived political nation-state.