«The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh The Ethics of Representation in the Fiction of Amitav Ghosh by Tuomas Huttunen Anglicana ...»
Most of Ghosh‘s novels contain this theme of searching and finding/discovering something. But the most important and prominent theme in the writing of Ghosh is the transcending of the discursively constructed cultural differences, lines and borders for the good of common humanity and interaction. These differences may be conceived spatially, temporally or culturally, and they may be related to class, race or ethnicity, but the ongoing mission of Ghosh seems to be to indicate their constructedness and to bring to our awareness other ways of constructing the world based on ethically informed connections.
II.2. The Shadow Lines
Ghosh‘s second novel, The Shadow Lines (1988), has received more critical attention than his other, by no means unnoticed, novels.
New editions of the novel designed for literary scholars and common readers alike are constantly released, especially in the Indian subcontinent. The Shadow Lines is listed in the curricula of several universities around the world. This novel has the most prominent position also in this dissertation, as it has in my other output, too. I have published three articles on The Shadow Lines, and the following introductory examination of the novel (II.2.1.) draws heavily on my earlier work (see Huttunen 2004).
The Shadow Lines is strongly aware of the ideology of nationalism and its shortcomings in the subcontinent.1 In the background of the novel lies the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the violence and unrest that followed. The miraculous, close to magic-realist features and incidents typical of Ghosh‘s first novel are here replaced by tight plot structure and realist narration. In The Shadow Lines, Ghosh weaves temporal and spatial dimensions into a personal texture on which the anonymous narrator builds his identity. The novel narrates the
Literature on Partition and nationalism on the Subcontinent, both fictive and
academic, forms an immensely large body of intellectual reflection far exceeding the scope of this dissertation. I shall therefore not dwell on this subject in any detail, except when Ghosh‘s writing absolutely demands it. For an ethically tinged examination of The Shadow Lines in connection with Indian nationalism and its religious and secular undertones, see Kumar (2008).
history of an Indian family that lives in Calcutta, but has its roots in Dhaka on the Pakistan side of the border. The experience of Partition and of living in the nation-state of India in the 1960s is presented through the symbolism of lines, be they political, communal or geographical, or lines dividing consciousness or identity. The intersecting histories of the family and their British acquaintances, the Price family, are narrated as stories that come into existence through the unnamed narrator of the book. Most of these stories are told by the narrator‘s grandmother; his Uncle Tridib; his cousins, Robi and Ila; and the family friend, May Price.
The stories interweave life in Dhaka before Partition, life in London during the war, and the life the narrator leads in Calcutta during the 1960s and London of the 1970s. Through his narration of several stories representing differing worldviews and sociocultural discourses, the narrator attempts a kind of self-produced unity very much like the one Mahatma Gandhi had in mind for the diverse population of India. In addition, his critique of lines that produce divisions can be seen as directed at the discourse of secular nationalism that the prime-minister, Jawaharlar Nehru, stood for.
From a narrative point of view, The Shadow Lines concentrates on the various ways of narrating/giving meaning to the world. It brings together fictive reconstructions of the past based on memory and official history based on ostensibly neutral facts. Ghosh highlights imagination as a way of transcending hegemonic official representations and challenging their neutrality. In this novel, Ghosh seems to concentrate more on the political and power-related aspects of language and narration.
There is also a growing awareness of the relativity of the discursive realities that language constructs. Consequently, Ghosh appears to have moved on from his first, experimental, novel, which highlighted the power of narration as the creator of worlds and realities. In The Shadow Lines, it is more the shadowing, or muting and eclipsing, nature of these realities that is examined.
The novel offers the reader several ways of experiencing/narrating the world. The narrator regards his imaginary reconstructions of the past as being more truthful than the actual present. He lives through other people‘s stories. For him, the actual (as opposed to imaginary) present only serves as the impulse for the narrative reconstruction of memories. For his cousin Ila, the actual present is ‗the real.‘ Ila cannot see any reason for dwelling in the past or in the imagination. For her "words had nothing to do with an excitement stored in her senses" (The Shadow Lines 30). Then there is the way that official discourses, like the newspapers, narrate the world. When the narrator tries to write about the riots that killed Tridib, he finds himself struggling with silence. For him, this silence is equivalent to a lack of meaning. This reflects the inadequacies of official narratives, or descriptive and allegedly objective narration in general. Ghosh‘s message here is that we can only know the world through words. But words carry meanings, they carry power relationships and ideological overtones. For instance, the national discourse of the official reports in newspapers creates gaps, because the words and the world they are meant to describe do not always meet. The newspapers do not take the riots into the national narrative they support because this would mean giving them meaning. The communal and religious riots are left outside the national secularist narrative because this serves the interests of the national discourse. At the end of the novel, the narrator is finally able to give voice to this silence, when May Price relates the story of her own personal experiences of the circumstances surrounding Tridib‘s death. Here narration and imagination seem to function as tools for weaving together different worldviews and ideologies, as well as voicing the silences created by the nationalist discourse. The symbol for the encounter with the other, be that a person or the other half of the divided Indian identity on the other side of the border, is the mirror. These mirrors form into ‗mirror-windows‘ allowing the narrator to see out to other selves in addition to seeing his own image reflected.
The way these mirror-windows, or ―looking-glass borders,‖ (The Shadow Lines 233) function in the novel, is explicated in the article (IV.2.) in the sub-section that examines the ethically represented transcendence of discourse through the use of the symbolism of mirrors and desire. The article as a whole addresses the theme of the shadowy lines and over-lappings between the world of experience and the language of meaning. In the article, I argue that imagination has a vital function in creating ethically informed connections between these two ‗realities‘. The same topic is approached below through the concepts of space and location as they become narrated in the novel. Ghosh‘s views on the dislocation required from the writer narrating his/her immediate environment and on the place-centeredness of the Western novel versus the story-based narration of Eastern epics are also relevant here (see section II.1.).
II.2.1. 'Knowledges' of London -- narrating space
In his discussion of the "stage of imperialism," Fredric Jameson detects ―a growing contradiction between lived experience and structure, or between a phenomenological description of the life of an individual and a more properly structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience‖ (1991, 410). The levels of ―the immediate and limited experience of individuals‖ and the socio-cultural background governing that experience have drifted away from each other to the extent that they begin to ―constitute themselves into that opposition the classical dialectic describes as […] essence and appearance, structure and lived experience‖ (1991, 410-411). In other words, the spheres of the actual reality of sense-perception, ―the immediate experience,‖ and of the sociocultural influences affecting the way in which this experience is realized, ―the structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience,‖ do not coincide.
Serendipitously using London as his example, Jameson states: "the truth of [the] experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place. The truth of that limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong" (411). Although the original position and the direction of movement of the colonial and postcolonial migrant characters in the novel is opposite to those of the Western modernist writers of the colonial period to whom Jameson is referring, obvious parallels can be found between the two cases: they are both "bound up with the whole colonial system of the British Empire that determines the very quality of the individual‘s subjective life" (Jameson 1991, 411). As indicated, the actual lived experience of the narrator in the novel is originally that of Calcutta of the early 1960s and later that of the London of the late 1970s. But, due to the early influence of stories told mainly by his cousin, Tridib, the form governing these actual experiences is mainly that of an imaginary London of 1939, or that of images of various far-away places which have come to him in the form of these stories. As concerns the imaginary past London and its frame of reference, the present perception, there is a cultural and temporal, as well as a geographical, gap between these dimensions to begin with, as the narrator lives in Calcutta and these influences come from a London of the past. Later on, the geographical difference is eliminated when the narrator moves to London, but the temporal, and consequently also the social, gap remains.
Tridib is an archaeologist, who has spent an important period of his childhood in England, and who is in love with an English girl (or an image of one) whom he last saw as a baby. He prefers to perceive reality through the imagination rather than through his senses and is aware of the relativity of truth.
According to him, everyone lives in a story, ―because stories are all there are to live in‖ (The Shadow Lines 184). It is just a question of which story one chooses. Tridib chooses to invent his own stories, to construct a reality of his own. In his view, a place does not merely exist, it has to be invented. And people have to invent their own realities and places, otherwise we will never be free of other people‘s inventions (The Shadow Lines 37).
As a contrast to Tridib‘s influence in the novel, there is that exercised by another cousin, Ila. For Ila, who is the cosmopolitan daughter of a diplomat, places appear somewhat differently than they do to Tridib and the narrator, who has created detailed image-maps of these places he has never visited, and to whom they appear as both exciting and slightly romanticized. This emerges quite clearly in a conversation during one of Ila‘s visits to Calcutta.
I began to tell her how I longed to visit Cairo, to see the world‘s first pointed arch in the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and touch the stones of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. I had been talking for a while when I noticed that she wasn‘t listening to me; she was following a train of thought in her mind, frowning with concentration. I watched her, waiting eagerly to hear what she would have to say. Suddenly she clicked her fingers, gave herself a satisfied nod, and said aloud, inadvertently: Oh yes, Cairo, the ladies is way on the other side of the departure lounge. (The Shadow Lines 26) As the narrator puts it, for Ila ―Cairo was a place to piss in‖ (The Shadow Lines 27). This is an instance of migrant experience, surely, but very different from the kind the narrator dwells in.
His experience is travelling in the mind, the imagination, while hers is travelling actually in person. The migrant subject does not have to move physically or geographically as Ila does, but he/she may be migrant on the social and cultural level like the narrator.
He is migrant in his imagination, clinging to influences coming from outside (Dhaka, London, foreign places on maps) and reducing the actual reality to a minimum.
If, for Tridib, present reality is of no consequence in itself, but appears merely as the stimulus for imaginary constructions, for Ila the actual is the real. One day in London Ila takes the narrator around the city to see used-clothes stalls and the vegetable market (The Shadow Lines 36). The narrator is bored, but gets excited when he recognizes the old location of the Left Book Club, where according to Tridib a member of the Price family had worked before the war. He drags Ila into the office and asks for confirmation, but the woman inside the store knows nothing of the days before the war. Ila is indignant and surprised at the narrator. For her, the building now looks like any musty old office. She is not in the least interested in the narrator‘s stories of the Price family or pre-war London. Ila‘s time dimension is the present, her world is the actual one and her way of travelling is physical: for her the current is real. She experiences the world through her senses, not through her imagination. For her, in consequence, a story is just ―a string of words that she would remember while they sounded funny and then forget‖ (The Shadow Lines 35). In contrast, Tridib experiences the world as concretely in his imagination as Ila does through her senses, and for him words and stories form into experiences that are permanently available in his memory. The narrator, who is drawn to Tridib‘s way of handling reality, has problems of communication with Ila due to these very differences of