«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Like Gandhi, Ghosh is opposed to the political discourse, as well as the haphazard division of land and human communities required to form a nation. It is noteworthy that, in The Circle of Reason, he uses precisely cloth and weaving as the metaphors for creating the world and its history. The protagonist of the novel, Alu, is reminiscent of the imprisoned Gandhi, who fasted and took vows of silence while sitting at his spinning wheel for a week at a stretch. He considered the spinning wheel in his cell to be the only connector capable of making all Indians using it feel that they are the children of the same land (Wolpert 2001, 115). In Ghosh‘s novel, Alu is equally silent, until he gains a unifying voice through the activity of weaving and creates connections between the individuals in the diverse crowd. Ghosh further connects weaving with writing, i.e. the production of discursive representations. Both weaving and writing, then, are thematised as self-productive activity which disrupts the discourse and history of Western modernity. And this activity is in the novel linked with ancient trade and the routes used to convey selfproduced commodities to distant places. Unlike Gandhi, Ghosh extends the connections implied by cloth trade and weaving far beyond the Indian predicament to other times and places. In a sense, Ghosh by-passes nationalism as though it were a mere whim of modernity while reaching beyond its sphere both geographically and temporally.
Although Ghosh adopts syncretism and humanism in his project of seeking ways of representing connections between cultures, and although he probably would agree with the view of nationalism in India as a colonial/postcolonial failure, I would connect his humanist tendency and his concept of nationalism more with Gandhi than with Nehru. Further, there seem to be signs of a separation between the state and society within nationalism in Ghosh‘s writing. Ghosh, who usually appears quite positive about the possibilities of various discursive mergers, is surprisingly adamant in his delineation of nationalism: in his view, the nationalist political and ‗official‘ discourse is incommensurable with human affairs and constitutes a gap between the words and the world. The state, unfortunately the only connecting force in the Indian nation, comes through as a faceless and violent machinery totally detached from the actual lives of the people, whom it only recognizes and addresses as ‗citizens‘. This is reminiscent of their separation by Rabindranath Tagore, who characterized nation as a state of being which people assumed when being organized as a mechanical unit. In Tagore‘s view, this kind of attitude destroys personal humanity.
Further, the state, which represents the mechanical political machinery, uses science for perpetrating violence and oppressing people.
Consequently, Ghosh‘s endorsement of syncretism and humanism that alleviate cultural differences through enabling the establishment of connections, as well as his antipathy towards nationalism and its dividing epistemology, seem to have their distinguished predecessors in Mathatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Nehru, who was also greatly influenced by these two, did not, however, share their antipathy towards traditional Western political nationalism. I shall not chart the possible reasons for the failure of his national model here. Suffice it to say that it was a failure that cast a long shadow that still hangs over the social and cultural intelligentsia in India. Through Tagore, among others, Ghosh also became implicated in the tradition of the Bengal Renaissance, which is the best known of the vernacular ‗renaissances‘ that emerged in India around the mid-nineteenth century. This movement represented the attempt of the colonised India to come to terms with the ideology of modernism and to produce a specifically Indian modernity out of the encounter between the ‗indigenous‘ cultures and this Western model.
The modernism that came into existence through the Bengali Renaissance was by no means a straightforward replica of the Western version. Modernist concepts had to be interrogated in relation to the existing social and cultural traditions and to India‘s position as a colonised area. For instance, the abstract and universal nature of humanism in Western modernity was not palatable as such. This form of humanism had its basis in the Enlightenment political discourse on ‗rights‘.
These rights became actualised in the French and American revolutions and they followed the logic of the essential and universal humanity as the defining characteristic of all human beings. They were shared by everyone irrespective of time and place. It is no surprise that the reception of this discourse based on universal rights was not unproblematic in a colony where these rights were denied. Further, the generally optimistic spirit of the European humanism was in India mixed with insecurity, even pessimism. It became symptomatic of the frustrating battle for cultural equality with the Western nations—a goal never to be reached according to the criteria of the same nations, despite obvious merits (e.g. Tagore‘s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913).
Consequently, in India universal humanism was intertwined with local particularism which would then colour every discourse forming within the parameters of Indian modernity (this was the case for instance with the Bengali Renaissance). As we have seen, Indian nationalism would be one obvious example. The idea of individualism, of singular individual identities, is another case in point: it was continuously under pressure by the various religious, linguistic and other collective identities that represented considerable power. The idea of distinct subjectivities was therefore not easily assimilated into the discourses of the Subcontinent. I have already looked at Ghosh‘s way of constructing subjects with both modernist and postmodernist features in sub-section II.3.1., and shall briefly return to this issue from the point of view of ethics in the article on The Calcutta Chromosome (IV.4.).
On a more positive note, much could be assimilated from Western modernity and used for specifically Indian purposes.
The introduction of print culture paved the way for new literary genres like the novel, the short story and biography. With them also came new concepts of identity and subjectivity. The ‗neutral‘ (as opposed to sacred) time of the empty, linear causal logic of modernist historiography seemed to be just waiting for emplotment in the interests of creating a history that would answer the need for cultural parity with Western nations.
Rationalism stemming from the Enlightenment-based positivism and empiricism came to India in the form of scientific rationality advocated by the colonial state. It was therefore taken as a sign of power. Science became the equivalent of reason and progress.
The ambivalent form in which these discourses were assimilated by the Bengali Renaissance reflects the position of colonial subjugation. For instance, while scientific positivism and empiricism were welcomed enthusiastically, their secular nature was discarded. There were quests for analogies and equivalents in ancient (mainly Hindu) religious texts and philosophies. In a slightly contradictory vein, the same religious and philosophical traditions were also used in attempts to humanise science (Balaram in The Circle of Reason is one tragicomic fictional representative of both these tendencies). Either way, rationalism appears as mediated by religion. The science versus religion problematic is central throughout The Circle of Reason, and I examine the blending of these two poles in the article on the novel (sub-section IV.1.).
In an interview, Ghosh has spoken of the influence that Tagore and the writer and film maker, Satyajit Ray, have had on his writing and on his way of conceptualizing the world (Silva and Tickell 1997, 172). Most idiosyncrasies of Indian modernity can be traced back to Tagore. Consequently, all of the above mentioned features of the Indian modernity are represented in Ghosh‘s writing. Tagore‘s attitude towards nationalism has already been touched on. His relationship with Western modernity in general was complex and changed during his life.
In its project of constructing an Indian modernity, the Bengali Renaissance was no longer interested in the rural folk culture, which these representatives of upper and middle classes had previously shared with the peasants. This neglect of the culture produced by the subaltern people of India was later a cause for great regret for Tagore. This is also a point where Ghosh diverges from the Bengali tradition: he has always been interested in popular culture and oral folk stories, the representation of which in English forms a significant dimension of his writing. But Tagore‘s knowledge of the fact that the formation of people into colonial subjects has caused and required forms of self-alienation both on individual and larger cultural levels is something Ghosh endorses quite eagerly. The most touching depiction of this predicament comes probably in The Glass Palace, in the character of Arjun (see sub-section II.5.1. and the article in IV.5.). Mondal represents Tagore as ―the figure that looms over Ghosh‘s troubled and ambivalent relationship to modernity and humanism‖ (Mondal 2007, 36). This is quite evident in the shared negative attitude of the two towards the modernist discourses of nationalism, science, colonialism and their alienative effects.
The writer and film-maker Satyajit Ray is featured by Mondal as representing a more straightforward and positive attitude towards modernity, especially the discourse of humanism based on the Enlightenment. Ray‘s films and stories almost invariably either address children or depict the world through them. This ―register of innocence‖ (Mondal 2007, 36) has points of convergence with several of Ghosh‘s main protagonists, notably Alu in The Circle of Reason and the narrators in The Shadow Lines and In an Antique Land. There is an aura of, if not innocence, at least openness about these characters. This ‗liberality‘ at the face of the world backs up Ghosh‘s promotion of unprejudiced attitude towards everything new and especially towards other people and the world they inhabit. This works well as an epistemological principle for Ghosh, whose work is directed towards the humanist creation of ethically formed connections between differing cultures and often antagonistic discourses. It seems that for Ray, too, open-mindedness worked as a metaphor for humanism. It comes through as a part of his project of confirming the human, which basically stood for the invigorating of the humanist appeal within the tradition of the Bengali Renaissance. As far as the narrative techniques and themes in fiction writing are concerned, Ray‘s delineation of multidimensional individuated characters and his way of writing highly intricate plots and themes into deceptively simple narrative structures are also apparent in Ghosh‘s writing.
The tensions created by the clash and merging of Western ideologies with those of the Subcontinent resulted in a discursive whirlwind, which reached its peak in the 1980s with the introduction of postmodernist ideas (see II.3.1.). This seems to have resulted in the appearance of ethical tenets in Ghosh‘s narratives. The clash between ideologies has clearly resulted in a heightened awareness of the relativity of all discursive constructions. Ghosh‘s ability to move in-between discourses, to mould them, as well as to interweave and undo them, can be seen
as resulting in a kind of frustration with language and discourse:
although narration carries with it powerful political overtones and has the power to mould the world (even to make things corporeal, as Zindi‘s narration does in The Circle of Reason), it does do not seem to offer access to any ultimate and unchanging truth concerning human existence or the encounter with the other human being. The power of language seems to lie in its ability to change its object of description and create realities. The ethical awareness of the distorting nature of narration begins to show more clearly in The Shadow Lines, where, as shall be shown below as well as in the article IV.2., the narration seems to be urgently aware of its own powers and the need to wield those powers cautiously.
Consequently, while continuing to discuss the difficult relationship of nationalism and communalism in the Subcontinent in a closer relationship to Ghosh‘s narration, the following sub-section also reacts to Ghosh‘s endeavour to transcend the ‗aesthetic of indifference‘ mentioned in the introduction. The representation of violence, which, as has been noted, is a recurrent theme in Ghosh in the form of the attacking mob, offers excellent ground for examining Ghosh‘s narrative strategy of refusing to turn violence into an overtly dramatized aesthetic spectacle. This strategy of not defining matters too obviously from any one angle is characteristic of Ghosh and is one of the defining features of his writing. As the presence of collective violence is most readily available in The Shadow Lines, I shall once again turn to this novel as the main focus of my examination.
III.3. National and communal struggle – representation of violence
Although each of his novels contains some measure of mob action, The Shadow Lines represents the most thorough examination of collective violence in Ghosh‘s oeuvre. The novel narrates rioting in post-partition India and Pakistan in close relationship with nationalism and communalism. In another context, Ghosh has expressed his concern about the descriptions
of violence in general:
When I now read descriptions of troubled parts of the world, in which violence appears primordial and inevitable, a fate to which masses of people are largely resigned, I find myself asking, Is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of these descriptions failed to find a form—or a style or a voice or a plot—that could accommodate both violence and the civilized willed response to it? (Ghosh 2002, 62) I shall next look at how violence and unrest are represented in Ghosh‘s own descriptions of violence.