«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
When the narrator of The Shadow Lines is studying in Delhi, he browses through old newspapers to find something on the riots he remembers from the Calcutta of the early sixties. He learns that the riots of his memory were the off-spring of riots that followed the theft of a relic (the hair of the Prophet Muhammad) from a mosque near Srinagar in the Kashmir area of India in the late 1963. The relic had been very popular among all the communities in Kashmir and over the centuries it had become a symbol of the unique and distinctive culture of Kashmir that transcended the now politicised and nationalised denominator of religion. After the theft, riots erupted both in India and Pakistan, but this time the targets of the rioters were not people of different religion and community, but property identified with the government and the police. The government officials were surprised: the theft of the relic had brought together the communities of Kashmir as never before. After two weeks of rioting in India and both wings of Pakistan, the relic was allegedly ‗recovered‘ by the Indian intelligence authorities.
Regrettably, as the city of Srinagar bursts with joy, a demonstration against the theft of the relic in the town of Khulna in the east wing of Pakistan turns violent. As events accumulate, people of different religions are once again restored as the target of the rioters, and Hindus begin to pour into India over the border. The riots then gradually spread to Calcutta, where, as an inverted ‗mirror image‘ of what happens in Pakistan, Muslims are attacked by Hindus. The common feeling among the Kashmiri communities epitomized through the ancient relic provides an example of the kind of connection that leaves aside nationalist discourse with its religious and other divisions. Both governments are eager to stop the riots, which they regard as subversive action against the hegemonic discourse of nationalism. Eventually, however, the riots develop from a communities vs. nations type of disorder into a nationalities vs.
communalisms kind of struggle, in which the citizens of the Hindu nation attack Muslims within its borders and vice versa.
The beginning of these riots is in line with Gaurav Desai‘s observation that ―any residual syncretism evident today is to Ghosh a privileged site of political resistance itself—and particularly of political resistance to the repressive state‖ (Desai 2004, 128). But as the unrest spreads syncretism against the state is gradually pushed aside as the communal status of violence is restored.
In the case of India and Pakistan, the national border is also a communally constructed border. But while the border is quite valid at the level of official national discourse and clearly separates two nation-states, the communal border actually divides the original Indian Self, which was formed by the plenitude of religious communities, the two largest of which are Hindus and Muslims. Consequently, the divide between the Hindu and the Muslim is clear cut only in the nationalist discourse; in practical reality there are people of both communities on both sides of the border. The national and communal identities mix with one another. In this sense, on the other side of the border is not an other, but rather the divided communal Self.9 Hence the title of the novel, The Shadow Lines, which constitutes a comment on the shadowy nature of the lines and borders separating the intertwined communal and national identities of people.
This two-sided nature of the border is symbolized in the novel among other things by the mirror, which shows not only oneself, but functions also as a window to other selves on the other side of the border constituted by Partition. When writing about the fear of riots he felt as a child in Calcutta, the narrator concludes: ―It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the sub-continent from the rest of the world—not language, not food, not music—it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one‘s image in the mirror‖ (The Shadow Lines 204). The narrator also describes the border between India and Pakistan as a ―looking-glass border‖, referring to the mirrored riots on both sides of the border: ―I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free—our looking-glass border‖ (The Shadow Lines 233). Ironically, then, the line that was supposed to create two free nations with free citizens, actually bound people together more strongly than ever. Of course, the idea of a mirror functions both on the communal and the national spheres: if the riots are mirror images of each other at the communal level, so are the official announcements at the national level: ―As for the two governments, they traded a series of curiously symmetrical accusations‖ (The Shadow Lines 230), first criticizing each other for letting the riots happen, then congratulating each other for quelling them.
All in all, the novel depicts riots at three levels. There are riots between different religious communities within one nationstate, there are simultaneous, mirrored, riots between religious communities in two states and there are riots between different communities (one or more) and the government. Robi, one of the See Anshuman Mondal (2003) for more extensive clarification of the national/communal problematics in relation to the novel.
narrator‘s cousins, describes his experiences from the time he was
acting as a government official:
I‘d have to go out and make speeches to my policemen, saying: You have to be firm, you have to do your duty.
You have to kill whole villages if necessary—we have nothing against the people, it‘s the terrorists we want to get, but we have to be willing to pay a price for our unity and freedom. And when I went back home, I would find an anonymous note waiting for me, saying: We‘re going to get you, nothing personal, we have to kill you for our freedom. It would be like reading my own speech transcribed on a mirror. (The Shadow Lines 246-247) Ironically, both the terrorists and the government troops are acting to secure their freedom, which, as a construction of nationalist ideology, is an illusion. As Robi says: ―the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide a memory? If freedom were possible, surely Tridib‘s death would have set me free‖ (The Shadow Lines 247).
In his article on The Shadow Lines, Jon Mee ties up nicely the
three-fold nature of riots on the subcontinent:
The riots represent one of those blurrings that haunt the novel as they reveal that the imagining of the nation and the state may not be the same thing. Even in their antagonism towards each other, the rioters may be bound together in ways that the state cannot acknowledge. […] The riots are as much a subversion of difference, the difference between India and Pakistan, as they are the product of difference, the difference between Hindu and Muslim, and even the latter asserts a relationship with the image in the mirror. (Mee 2003, 104-105) The blurring Mee refers to is at a general level due to the narrative‘s tendency of dismantling various discursive totalities (here nationalism and communalism) on the one hand and attempting to offer multiple views/versions on the events making these dismantlings evident on the other.
In Ghosh‘s fiction, then, the two-dimensional nature of human connections becomes apparent on many occasions. For instance, the double nature (national and communal) of the divide between India and Pakistan is symbolized through the two-fold function of the mirror. When applied to the divide, or border, it both acknowledges the difference (or national identity) instigated through nationalist discourse (the mirror that blocks out the other and only shows oneself) and recognizes the communal bonds that reach across this official divide (the window through which you can see other selves of the divided Indian whole). As a result of the combined mirror-window effect, the relationship between the two nation-states is presented as a multi- and interhistorical issue in the communal and personal sense and not just as an issue based in the difference inherent in the discourse of nationalism (see the article on the novel in section IV.2. for more thorough examination of the mirrorwindow dyad).
But as the riots caused by the theft of the relic in the novel show us, people in the subcontinent are never safe from violence.
Whether people opt for the inter-communal unity vs. the nationstates, or affiliate themselves with the nationalist imagery, which has divided the Indian communal self according to religious majorities, the double-condition of the subcontinent seems to lead to crowd disorder in the novel. Hence the need to create one‘s own affiliations, one‘s own imaginary identifications, to avoid appropriation by the discourses of others and to stay away from violence. Mee examines the novel as an example of a cultural translation that would by-pass the universals of nationalist or scientific discourse and occur directly between cultural differences. As Mee explains, quite often ―universal values are privileged as a third term through which all differences must pass if they are to relate to one another‖ (2003, 91). Mee sees the strategy of the imaginative invention of one‘s own stories promoted by Tridib as an example of the kind of translation, or connection, that leaves these universals aside. It in a sense reaches across cultures instead of taking a detour into a universal (such as the discourse of nationalism) beyond them. This is very close to how Radhakrishnan views the novel and its treatment of nationalist discourse, which insists that all other a priori imaginary relations and identifications (be they gender or sexuality based or class, religion, ethnicity, or community specific) be mediated and alienated into knowledge by the symbolic authority of nationalism that […] exercises total command precisely because it cannot be had by any one group yet can perform its representative-pedagogical function with seeming neutrality. (2000, 62, orig.
emphasis) The narrative itself backs up this kind of interpretation quite strongly by depicting riots on both sides of the border as a reminder of an ―independent relationship‖ that manifests the ―indivisable sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments.‖ This relationship ―is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic of states that to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relationships between people.‖ (The Shadow Lines 230) To sum up, then, nation-states and communities do not exist on the same plane: a division that creates two nation-states and is quite successful in nationalist discourse, results in violent incisions at communal level. On the other hand, calls for communal divisions are unacceptable within the discourse of a nation-sate. But both nations and communities are in the end inventions. And all these inventions, whether personal or ‗official‘ are equal in the epistemological sense; they are equally imaginary. But, as Radhakrishnan states in his study of the novel, although these inventions are epistemologically equal versions, they may be ―all too ‗real‘ in their political effects, hence the need to have ‗one‘s own‘ version.‖ (2003, 28) Accordingly, the novel offers the possibility of a kind of utopian transcendence of the communal (and at the same time the national) division in the form of the strategy of the imaginative invention of one‘s own stories promoted by the narrator‘s uncle, Tridib.
If we now re-examine the passage in The Shadow Lines where the narrator endeavors to find a way of writing about riots but ends up in a ―struggle with silence,‖ we can see that this
silence is not only produced by the borders of national discourse:
Every word I write about these events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose—have already lost—for even after all these years, I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this silence lies. All I know of it is what it is not. It is not, for example, the silence of an imperfect memory. Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state–nothing like that, no barbed wire, no check-points to tell me where its boundaries lie. I know nothing of this silence except that it lies outside the reach of my intelligence, beyond words—that is why this silence must win, must inevitably defeat me, because it is not a presence at all; it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words. (The Shadow Lines 218) In the strictest sense, then, in the novel the experience of a riot is ―beyond words‖ and consequently also outside the reach of knowing. The experience of riots in the narrative is ethically depicted. Riots enact memories and sensations, but these are very difficult to turn into language because this would create meaning and knowledge, which again would not be able to convey these memories and sensations due to their partial and distorting character. It seems that any representation of a riot is necessarily banal, losing itself in the gap between the world and the words.
Consequently, on another occasion the narrator reflects that the fear caused by riots ―has a texture you can neither forget nor describe‖ (The Shadow Lines 204) and this double impediment affects the narrative representation of riots in the novel to a high degree. This texture that cannot be put into words or forgotten corresponds to the ethical Saying as delineated by Levinas and explicated in the section III.1.2.
Amitav Ghosh has expressed his concern about the literary representation of collective violence in an essay originally published in The New Yorker in 1995 (The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi).
There, for the first time he writes about his experiences of the rioting that followed Indira Gandhi‘s assassination in 1984. He quotes the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan‘s essay Literature and War, where Karahasan establishes ―a connection between modern literary aestheticism and the contemporary world‘s indifference to violence‖ (Ghosh 2002, 60). In Karahasan‘s view, ―the decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon—completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth—is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world‖ (Karahasan in Ghosh 2002, 60).