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SOURCE: “Threads and Shards,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4465, October 28, 1988, p. 1212.
[In the following excerpt, Couto praises Ghosh's characterization and storytelling abilities in The Shadow Lines.]
In his first novel, Circle of Reason, Amitav Ghosh wove a complex pattern of histories connecting lives in rural Bengal and remote Al Ghazira with a linguistic verve and technique clearly influenced by Midnight's Children yet without that book's power and impetus. In Shadow Lines, Ghosh has found his own distinctive voice—polished and profound. A narrative of three generations—the narrator's Bengali family in pre-Partition Dhaka and Calcutta, and their English friends, the Prices, whose histories encompass both world wars, the Left Book Club and shades of contemporary London—The Shadow Lines does not tell yet one more tale of the Raj but sets out to illuminate the absurdities of borders and frontiers, the lines of disillusion and tragedy that intersect with private lives and public events.
As in Circle of Reason, Ghosh's narrator is a spectator. Here, engagingly introspective, he has many different faces: a wide-eyed boy in suburban Calcutta for whom the world is revealed in snatches of overheard conversation; a poor relation who awaits the intermittent visits of sophisticated relatives with their accounts of a charmed life in foreign capitals; a devoted follower of cousin Tridib, a Bohemian archaeologist who reconstructs with authentic detail his one visit to London during the Second World War, when aged nine, in order to shape his invented persona, lest he be forced to live with the inventions of others. Finally there is the shaping consciousness of the boy who, as a student in Delhi and Oxford, tries to piece together the fragments of the many lives and times which comprise him. The novel weaves many stories into a seamless texture, threading apparently disconnected detail into a coherent and compassionate whole.
Ghosh's characterization is lively and well-observed. Cousin Ila, a product of international schooling, is serenely confident in “the centrality and eloquence of her experience, in her quiet pity for the pettiness of lives like mine, lived out in the silence of voiceless events in a backward world.” Her colourful, imperious grandmother, Mayadebi, and her husband, the grand “Shaheb” with “the beautiful Calcutta voice, rich with pipe smoke and whisky,” are objects of affectionate satire.
The emotional centre of the novel is occupied both by the narrator's grandmother and by Tridib, who gives the boy eyes to see the world with imaginative precision. In different ways they reveal traditional and distant worlds. Ghosh reflects on the history of the grandmother, from her awed admiration of a terrorist leader during the National Movement to her early widowhood, an unforeseen career and the loss of her beloved Dhaka with Partition. Given form in two sections entitled “Going Away” and “Coming Home,” these refractions from shards of a remembered life reveal that home is the memory we carry within us. The Shadow Lines is a compelling novel, wistful in its tone, assured in its achieved vision.
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SOURCE: A review of The Shadow Lines, in World Literature Today, Vol. 65, No. 2, Spring, 1991, p. 365.
[In the following review, Taneja offers a positive assessment of The Shadow Lines, complimenting Ghosh's ability to create a non-chronological yet cohesive story.]
The new Indian English fiction of the eighties is free from the self-consciousness, shallow idealism, and sentimentalism that characterized the work of the older generation of novelists such as Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, or Mulk Raj Anand, who started writing in the thirties. The fiction of the eighties takes a maturer view of Indian reality. There is freshness and vitality, and the writers betray remarkable confidence in tackling new themes and experiment with new techniques and approaches to handle those themes. Amitav Ghosh, whose first novel The Circle of Reason appeared in 1986, has strengthened the new English novel in more than one way.
The Shadow Lines takes us into the mnemonic fund of a young narrator who as a wide-eyed adolescent worshiped Tridib, an uncle who fed him on his memories of his one visit to London during the war, and his grandmother, who shared with him her nostalgic memories of East Bengal, where she was born and spent her childhood. Then there is Ila (his cousin, for whom he nurtures a secret passion), who travels all over the world with her globe-trotting diplomat parents and occasionally comes home to tell a wonderstruck boy accounts of her peregrinations abroad. Their memories “form a part of my secret map of the world, a map of which only I know the keys and coordinates, but which was not for that reason any more imaginary that the code of a safe to a banker.” From the three whose memories form his own consciousness, he learns to see in different ways. Ila sees much but experiences little; with her superficial response to life, she only remembers how one airport differed from another by its less or more conveniently located ladies' rooms. Tridib teaches him to see with precision because he teaches the boy to see with imagination (“we could not see without inventing what we saw”). He evokes for the young boy “the worlds to travel in and … eyes to see them with.” The grandmother establishes in him the oneness of memory, for according to her neither space nor time can divide it.
The novel spans three generations of the narrator's family, spread over East Bengal and Calcutta, and of the family's English friends, the Prices, whose histories include the two wars and contemporary London. The web of life in The Shadow Lines, which encompasses many countries and many religions, is a collage of memories—the narrator's own and others—dusty photographs, and yellowing newspaper clippings, but it is nurtured above all by imagination. Although nations, religions, war, violence, and partition divide people, memory does not. Imagination creates a world that cannot be cleft, any more than nations break and float away when geographic boundaries are arbitrarily recreated. Life in The Shadow Lines loses its chronological logic. The past invades the present and enriches and transforms it, in the process strengthening the narrator's ability to encounter and even reshape his own future when it invades his present at a later date. The very structure of the novel—coil within coil, opening up vistas of new worlds and new experiences—reflects this giddying whirl of life, memory, and imagination. Ghosh's remarkably brilliant handling of his linguistic medium is one of his major achievements. He writes fluently, and his narrative moves with grace, ease, and understatement.
The author's evocation of the city of his birth and adolescent years, Calcutta, depicted in remarkably vivid detail, is comparable only with Anita Desai's re-creation of Bombay in Baumgartner's Bombay (1988). His experience as a social anthropologist at the Universities of Delhi and Oxford shows in his handling of the characters and the context in which they exist. He reveals a sense of history and a firm grasp of sociocultural and historical material that underlies his narrative. One of his earliest memories of Calcutta is that of a mob surrounding his house, a memory that he decided to “exhume” and confront after he witnessed the 1984 riots (the most traumatic event in contemporary Indian history) that spread through the country after Indira Gandhi's assassination. The Shadow Lines takes in war-devastated London, civil strife in postpartition East Bengal, and riot-hit Calcutta and projects a major critique of the psychological makeup of the contemporary man who thrives on violence.
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SOURCE: “Sea Changes,” in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 5, No. 222, October 2, 1992, pp. 48–49.
[In the following review, Howe offers a positive assessment of In an Antique Land.]
For most of recorded history, cultures, civilisations, and economies are better defined by oceans than by land masses. Until very recently the sea connected where mountains and deserts divided.
Historians learned from Fernand Braudel in the 1950s to think of the Mediterranean world as a unity. Soon after wards, the notion of an Atlantic world took hold: first an Atlantic “from above”; but increasingly, in the reconstructions of Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Gilroy and others, one criss-crossed by sailors, pirates, migrants, adventurers, religious and political rebels and visionaries, many of them of African descent. Ideas about what is “European,” what “American” and what “African” get dramatically shaken up in these perspectives.
Now the world of the Indian Ocean is being brought into focus. Before the coming of European domination, which constructed the ideas of “Europe” and “Asia” themselves, the lands bordering that ocean were bound together by networks of trade, migration and cultural interchange. Its world, magnificently mapped by the Indian historian K. N. Chaudhuri, was a predominantly Islamic one; but religions mingled and interacted across it as did languages and peoples.
Among its typically cosmopolitan citizens was a 12th-century merchant called Abraham Ben Yiju: Jewish by religion, mostly Arabic by culture, but travelling, trading and at various times living everywhere from Sicily to south India. Ben Yiju had a “slave” from India: in reality more like a senior, trusted and apparently even beloved company executive. Historians have known him only as “The Slave of MS.H.6”—the index number of the letter in which he first appears. In an Antique Land is, partly, a detective story: the tale of how the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh went in search of this ghostly figure, his name, his birthplace, the vanished world in which he and his master lived.
In parallel with them is the story of Ghosh's own 1980s residence in a minute Egyptian village, his relations with its people, and of his and their migratory fates. Many of its young men made their way to Baghdad in search of work, some only to be trapped there by the cataclysm of the 1991 war. And interweaving both stories is a multilayered allegory about cultural identity and cross-cultural translation, about individuality and historical meaning.
We know about Ben Yiju and his Indian servant—his name, probably, was Bomma, his birthplace Tulunad on the south Indian coast; he was excessively fond of a drink, quarrelsome about money and most likely died in Cairo—from a near-miraculous historical survival. Medieval Jews thought it sacrilegious to destroy any written paper, in case the name of God might accidentally be effaced. So for centuries documents of all kinds, from business letters to Talmudic texts, were thrown into a pit by the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. There, during the last century, they were gradually uncovered; including the correspondence of Ben Yiju, his family and associates.
The world these papers reveal was a more integrated, tolerant and peaceful one than ours, or so Ghosh believes. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians and others exchanged goods, ideas and beliefs across it in apparent disregard for later national or confessional barriers. Ben Yiju's wife, Ashu, was also almost certainly Indian; and his business partners were of numerous races and faiths.
Only with the coming of the Europeans did peaceable interchange give way to slaughter and conquest. First were the Crusaders who violently disrupted this world in Bomma's lifetime; then the Portuguese interlopers and later British conquerors who smashed it altogether. In reaction the former victims have constructed national identities and histories on the same exclusionary model. Thus Egypt's dominant sense of its own past became a narrowly Islamic one, writing out Ben Yiju, Ashu and Bomma.
Maybe there's more than a touch of “third worldist” romanticism in Ghosh's account here. The 12th-century Indian world was surely not so idyllic as he implies; nor perhaps is the modern world, including Egypt, quite so bad.
Some things endure; some even improve. The Ben Ezra Synagogue, whose derelict state Ghosh laments, is this year being restored, superbly. Its caretaker, Amm Shahata, one of Cairo's elderly handful of remaining Jews, is still there, even more decrepit than in Ghosh's description but alive and well—or he was when I saw him this July. And Cairo itself, that impossible, stinking, overburdened, amazingly tolerant city, has survived the buffeting sidewinds of Desert Storm, the monstrous pressures of mass poverty and the religious bigotries that feed off it. Long may it do so.
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SOURCE: “Intimately Egyptian,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4685, January 15, 1993, p. 7.
[In the following mixed review, Soueif argues that, although In an Antique Land is an admirable attempt at recreating the past, the book seems incomplete.]
It is a habit of certain traditional Jewish (and indeed Islamic) communities to preserve everything they have ever written. Special chambers are used for this, and the aim is to protect any written form of the name of God from inadvertent mistreatment. Such a chamber (a “Geniza”) was attached to the Synagogue of Ben Ezra in old Cairo; members of the city's Jewish community from well before the tenth century until the end of the nineteenth deposited all their writings there. The story of how the Geniza Collection came into the possession of Cambridge University Library is, sadly, the story of so much of the heritage of our so-called Third World: a fragment finds its way into the hands of a western scholar—in this case Solomon Schechter, reader in Talmudics at Cambridge—who then, armed with embossed letters from the “protecting” country, heads East—or South. Schechter arrived in December 1896 in an Egypt presided over by Sir Evelyn Baring, and soon “the Chief Rabbi of Cairo and Joseph M. Cattaoui Pasha [head of a prominent and wealthy family of Egyptian Jews] came to a decision that seems little less than astonishing in retrospect. They decided to make [him] a present of their community's—and their city's—heritage; they granted him permission to remove everything he wanted from the Geniza, every last paper and parchment without condition or payment.”
In the winter of 1978, Amitav Ghosh, a twenty-two-year-old student with a research scholarship in social anthropology, came across S. D. Goitein's Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders in a library in Oxford. In it he found the English translation of a letter from one Khalaf ibn Ishaq in Aden to his friend Abraham Ben Yiju in Mangalore. The letter is held in the Geniza Collection, is dated 1139 and conveys—among other matters—greetings to Ben Yiju's Indian “slave and business agent, a respected member of his household.” “The reference,” writes Ghosh, “comes to us from a moment in time when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literate and the consequential, the wazirs and the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests. … But the slave of Khalaf's letter was not of that company.” This is not strictly true, for the lives of many slaves from the medieval Middle East have been recorded and imagined: from Bilal, the sweet-voiced black slave who was among the earliest to embrace the new Muslim faith and became its first muezzin, to 'Anan, the poetess who won literary contests for her master, the list goes on. That a slave, from a society in which slaves were often scholars, should be mentioned in a piece of writing is not in itself an extraordinary thing. But willingness to be astonished is part of Mr. Ghosh's stance; he is captivated by this fragment; by the distances (both geographical and cultural) that it implies and travels. In 1980 he set out to learn Arabic by living in a small village in the Nile Delta. In an Antique Land interweaves the story of his Egyptian sojourn with a reconstructed account of the life of Abraham Ben Yiju.
The book invites us to see parallels between the lives of the people in the village (given the name of “Lataifa”) and the life of Ben Yiju in Aden and in Mangalore. Thus, talk of a blood feud in Lataifa leads to speculation about why Ben Yiju left Aden: and might it not have been because of a blood feud? The wedding of 'Ali in Lataifa leads to the (possible) marriage of Ben Yiju to his freed slave Usha. The death of Sheikh Musa's son prefigures the death of Ben Yiju's son, and so on. Both in Egypt and in Mangalore, Ghosh is told the story of a local holy man: how his tomb resisted the spades and bulldozers of developers and eventually forced them to reroute the road they were building. When Ghosh told his driver in Mangalore that he had heard a similar story in Egypt, the man “nodded politely but disbelief was written all over his face.” I am not sure what we are meant to make of this story. Of course, the people who believe in their saint will believe, need to believe, that he is unique. But, of course, we on the outside also know that miracles tend to be repetitive.
Ghosh, though, is ever willing to be astonished; a professional anthropologist, he plays the “innocent abroad” well. Maybe he knew that in the idiom of national characteristics, “Hindi” (Indian) in Egyptian Arabic carries the connotation of “fool”—as “Saudi” means “rich with no need for his money (so to be ripped off),” or “Berberi” means “hot tempered and half-crazy,” etc. In any case, he does his best to let his characters speak for themselves; and the result, in the Egyptian village sequences, is some lively and authentic scenes. Whether they add up to “an intimate biography of the private life of a country, Egypt, from the Crusades to the Gulf War,” as the publicity for the book suggests, is questionable. Ghosh ought also to have got the Egyptian word for nargila or hubble-bubble right, given that it occurs nine times throughout the text. Various odd little red herrings are strewn in our path. For example, describing the matrilineal hierarchy of the society to which Ben Yiju's (presumed) wife (presumably) belongs, we are told that it is the mother's brother who would “play Laius to the Oedipus” of her sons. One, legitimately I think, expects this to be followed up by with some tragic family event—but it never is. Although it is in accord with the book's general theme, that change and “progress” often bring limitations and loss, the evidence offered doesn't quite add up.
For all that its heart is in the right place, its attitudes fair, its spirit generous and its motivation apparently worthy, In an Antique Land leaves behind it a feeling of incompleteness, of not having quite delivered what it promised.
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SOURCE: “Out of the Dustbin of History,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 13, March 28, 1993, p. 6.
[In the following positive review, Irwin compliments Ghosh's technique of comparing and contrasting present-day and twelfth-century Egypt in In an Antique Land.]
About a quarter of the way in to this curious book [In an Antique Land] (a mixture of history, travelogue, social anthropology and personal memoir), Amitav Ghosh has occasion to remark that “it is not easy, after all, to see oneself sitting down to leaf through a collection of eight-hundred-year-old documents, written in a colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic, transcribed in the Hebrew script, and liberally strewn with Hebrew and Aramaic.” But that is what Ghosh did, and his account of the difficulties involved can be appreciated as treasurable understatement.
While still a student, Ghosh, an Indian who studies anthropology in Cambridge, became interested in the Geniza, a body of documents whose existence is hardly known, save to specialists in medieval Middle Eastern studies. The Geniza can be thought of as a kind of sacred wastepaper basket—a very large one. The Geniza that was attached to the Synagogue of the Palestinian Jews in Fustat (the oldest part of Cairo) was two-and-a-half stories high and contained over a quarter-of-a-million leaves of paper. The Jews of the Medieval Fustat had an abhorrence of discarding any scrap of paper on which it was conceivable that the name of God might have been written, lest that paper be trodden underfoot. Consequently a great chamber was set aside in the Synagogue for the storage of writings, and all sorts of papers ended up in it.
The vast accumulation of torn scraps includes prayers, poems, wills, contracts, mystical treatises, laundry lists and merchants' letters, mostly from the 11th to 13th centuries. The survival of this mass of miscellaneous documentation permits the writing of a detailed social history of people who would otherwise have little or no history—quite humble religious scholars, merchants, artisans, laborers and even slaves. S. D. Goitein, almost certainly the greatest scholar to have written on the social and economic history of the Near East, made brilliant use of the Geniza materials in his exhaustively researched, fluently written and magisterial five-volume work, A Mediterranean Society. Ghosh seems to have made it his hobby to follow up certain leads provided by Goitein and trace the history of a small group of Tunisian Jews who had migrated to Egypt and who became involved in the 12th-century trade with India. In particular, Ghosh is fascinated by references to a certain Indian slave, Bomma, who served as their agent in Aden.
However, Ghosh's account of his researches into the fortunes of these medieval traders and their households constitutes only one thread of In an Antique Land. This story is interwoven with Ghosh's account of his sojourn for research purposes in a small agricultural village on the Nile Delta. The fellaheen who scrape a living from the land are friendly, but they are puzzled by what Ghosh is up to. They think that he is like a child. “That's why he's always asking questions.” The aged mother of one of Ghosh's Arab friends wants to know when he is going home. “Isn't your holiday over yet?”
To some extent, I shared their puzzlement. I presume that Ghosh was pursuing some anthropological thesis. However, he is evasive about this and confines himself to a much more personal account of friendships and conversations. There are some delightful cameos. The fellaheen find Hindu ways most curious, and there is nothing that Ghosh can say that will dissuade from concluding that Indians worship cows and that they burn their dead in the hope that they will thereby spare their bodies the pains of hellfire.
When Ghosh first visited his chosen village in 1980, he was delighted to discover a way of life that in many respects had not changed since medieval times. Blood feuds were pursued, the evil eye was feared and sickness was combatted by magic. However, the unchanging appearance of the peasants' way of life proved to be illusory. When Ghosh returned on a nostalgic visit in 1988, he found the village almost unrecognizable. Money sent back by migrant laborers working in Iraq and other parts of the Arab world, as well as the preaching and social-welfare program of Muslim fundamentalists, had wrought massive change in the living standards and the attitudes of the villagers.
Ghosh's slyly mocking yet affectionate account of the lives of these villagers is even more interesting than the reconstruction of the careers of his medieval Jewish traders. Of course, certain themes and issues are common to both the medieval and the modern stories, and Ghosh skillfully draws our attention to parallels and contrasts. Even so, I wondered why he had organized things as he had; and, by the time I reached the end, I concluded that I had read not one but two good books.
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SOURCE: “The Nile of Time,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 11, 1993, pp. 2, 11.
[In the following review, Iyer offers a positive assessment of In an Antique Land, particularly praising Ghosh's descriptions of his experiences in Egypt.]
Modern Egypt is in part a swirl of Mexican restaurants and chador boutiques and guides speaking Japanese. But in its alleyways and souks, and all around the villages in the countryside, Egypt still clops to a surprisingly ancient rhythm: boys wandering through mazes of mud-colored houses, date-palms under washed-out skies as in every other 19th-Century English print, women carrying baskets of vegetables on their heads. In Egypt, as in India, centuries co-exist like artifacts on a museum wall (and sometimes weirdly intermingle too, as in the 3000-year-old treasures kept in 2000-year-old conditions in Cairo's infamous Egyptian Museum).
That sense of agelessness—and the way it translates into placelessness—is the driving engine of Amitav Ghosh's new book, In an Antique Land a book that appealingly excavates a little-known corner of Middle Eastern history (the Jewish traders commuting between the Arab world and India in the 12th Century), and beautifully lights up the laws and losses of a typical Egyptian village today. In 1978, Ghosh, one of the leaders of India's New Wave of younger novelists (his Shadow Lines belongs on the same shelf as the best of Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry), discovered a letter written to a Jewish merchant from Egypt, Abraham Ben Yiju, who was living in India in 1148. Eager to learn more about these unexpected Egypt-Indian ties, Ghosh himself learned Arabic, and went to live in a tiny village two hours—and several centuries—southeast of Alexandria.
Settling down in his community of 400, Ghosh comes across as pretty much a model of the social anthropologist: modest, attentive, driven by openness and affection. He collects ghost stories and rites, records village rumors and feuds, finds his sibylline caretaker racing around his room one day, trying to brain a European bird called the hoopoe (he needs hoopoe blood, the old man explains, in order to cast a spell). And, with disarming simplicity and a plausible warmth, Ghosh makes small parables of his encounters with teen-age hopes, and TVs run on car-batteries, and a fat landlord disappearing on his beloved moped like “a gargantuan lollipop being carried away by its stick.”
Rather like the British anthropologist Nigel Barley, in his similarly friendly tour of modern Indonesia (The Duke of Puddle Dock), Ghosh seems less an observer than a participant, and makes us feel as if we are seeing the village from the inside out. His episodes unfold with the leisurely intimacy of stories told around a family hearth, and one can almost see the smiles—on both sides—as schoolgirls tease him, and boys pester him for stories and mothers warmly remind him that “the people of Egypt and India have been like brothers for centuries.”
For what gives all this an added force is that Ghosh is as much a source of wonder and fascination to his new neighbors as they are to him. “Curious,” after all, has two meanings, and they point in opposite directions. In Ghosh's case, the anthropologist finds himself well and truly anthropologized. No, he is forced to admit to persistent questions, he isn't circumcised, and he doesn't shave his armpits, and he does come from a country where people defer to cows. Before long, in fact, the “Indian from Lataifa” is himself a subject of local folk-lore, and when people buy Indian-made water-pumps, “the doktor al-Hindi” is asked to pronounce judgment on them.
At the same time, however, Ghosh does fit into the village in a way that few Westerners ever could, coming as he does from a land of similar villages, and Muslims, and imperial memories. Egypt and India do have affinities, and they are as recent as the friendship between Nehru and Nassar and India's support of Egypt during the Suez Crisis. (I can attest to this first-hand: Walking through the back-streets of Cairo and Aswan two months ago, I could hardly move for hearty cries of “India! India very good! India-Egypt brothers!” and hosannas to various Hindi movie-stars.)
Beneath this cross-cultural cross-questioning, though, there is an undertow of sadness: for every time Ghosh tells his new friends why people in his country burn their dead, he is reminded that, in India, Hindus are routinely slaughtered by Muslims for doing so, and Muslims by Hindus for not doing so. And beneath this is the deeper sadness, common to many other countries, of seeing a village wisdom fade as the modern-minded young banish what they regard as “superstitions.” When Ghosh returns to the area he loved after eight years, he finds the expected celebration becomes an elegy: the “spindly old moped” is now a “gleaming new Toyota pick-up truck” and the chicken-coop where he had lived is part of a three-story mansion. He catches the heart-breaking sadness of young boys going off to college—or to lucrative jobs in Iraq—only to return, with modern appliances and dreams, to homes where they will never feel at home again.
Interspersed with all this, Ghosh patiently unravels a parallel story of Ben Yiju, commuting between Egypt and India seven centuries before. Drawing upon fragments of letters that he digs up in museums and libraries, he evokes an attractive sense of Aden, a southern Arabian port, in 1130, and a circle of Hebrew traders, poets and travelers as cosmopolitan as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Nonetheless, this part of the book does feel a little like a contrivance—recycled doctoral notes thrown in to give his village stories added heft—and almost everything he says about Ben Yiju's life is, inevitably, the result of guesswork and surmise (at one point there are four “probablys” in four sentences). In the end, his disquisitions on the metaphorical meanings of slavery in the 12th Century—like the 36 pages of exhaustive academic notes at the back—may strike some readers as a little recondite.
Yet if the conversation between centuries doesn't always throw off sparks, the conversation between countries does, and in the heart of his book—his relations with the Egyptians he befriends—Ghosh manages something wonderful: not only a subtle requiem to a whole way of life, but also a quiet resistance to every form of religious division. We see Muslims worshiping at a Jewish mystic's tomb, the son of the great Hebrew scholar Moses Maimonides composing a Sufi text, and 12th-Century documents written in a Hebrew dialect of medieval Arabic known as Judeo-Arabic. In its self-effacing way, In an Antique Land is about any place—every place—that has known memory and death and change. And it shows that the traffic between Egypt and India—between any two such countries, really—continues to this day, though now its partners trade not in spices and in jewels, but in tales.
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SOURCE: “A Passage to India,” in New Republic, Vol. 209, Nos. 8–9, August 23–30, 1993, pp. 38–41.
[In the following review of In an Antique Land, Geertz praises Ghosh's ability to capture the social interactions and dynamics of the people, past and present, of the Persian Gulf.]
The world, by now, is fairly well cut up into distinct pieces, stretches of space with borders around them and inhabitants within them. People move about a good deal, and some may change their residence and become inhabitants of some other piece. Nor are the pieces themselves entirely fixed; they can merge, divide, swallow one another up, or, like the Soviet Union, just disappear. But all of this occurs against the background of the peculiar idea that all individuals, however drifting, belong somewhere, to some bounded territory housing some population, even if they may have to be deported or walled in before they will live there.
One part of the globe where this conception of social and geographical interconnection was never very strong, however, is that great strip of mercantile civilization that, from about the tenth century to the sixteenth century, ran from Fez and Seville in the West, through Cairo and Aden around the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean to Calicut and the Malabar coast. In this mobile, polyglot and virtually borderless region, which no one owned and no one dominated, Arabs, Jews, Iberians, Greeks, Indians, various sorts of Italians and Africans pursued trade and learning, private lives and public fortunes, bumping up against one another and against various sorts of political adventurers, but more or less getting along, or getting by, within broad and general rules for communication, propriety and the conduct of business. It was, we might say, a multicultural bazaar.
Today this part of the world is divided, like the rest of the globe, into singular and separated national states, a number of them at each other's throats. But, in part because the division is so recent, in part because it was to such an extent imported from outside by imperial powers, the echoes of the cosmopolitan past remain perceptible—faint, perhaps, but persistent. The sense of the artificiality of borders, and even of the religious and racial distinctions most emphatically insisted upon by the ideologically inflamed, still lingers in the popular mind. Footloose mobility and multiple connection, the setting aside of cultural differences in streetcorner negotiations, the freedom to truck, barter and exchange with anyone who is up for it, continue to attract, however overridden they may be by immediate passions. An area that has become the very image of parochial conflict retains, almost as a sort of background energy left over from its creation, the traces and the intimations of a much less constricted form of life.
It is into this equivocal world, an “elusive and mysterious antique land,” that Amitav Ghosh, a young novelist and anthropologist, born in Calcutta and trained in New Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria, dropped himself in the early '80s in an attempt to gain some understanding not merely of it, but also, for reasons that never become altogether clear, of his own relationship to it. His way into this region was by means of his discovery, in a collection of commercial letters edited by S. D. Goitein, the great scholar of the period, of the existence of an Indian slave in twelfth-century Egypt.
The slave, about whom virtually nothing is known save his name—it was “Bomma”—and his position—he was his owner's “business agent”—belonged to a Jewish merchant installed for the moment in Mangalore on the Malabar coast. He is mentioned in a letter written by the merchant's patron back in Aden who, somewhat surprisingly, sends the slave his personal greetings. This discovery, made in an Oxford library while thrashing about for a thesis subject, not only determined Ghosh to go to Egypt for his fieldwork, it also necessitated his doing so: it saddled him with a vocation. “The next year … I was in a village … a couple hours to the southeast of Alexandria. I knew nothing then about the slave except he had given me a right to be there, a sense of entitlement.”
The book that Ghosh writes about this experience, [In an Antique Land] or study, or adventure, or quest, weaves back and forth between the immediate realities encountered in his village and in another village down the road to which he later moved, and his search through the documentary record in England, North Africa, Princeton and Philadelphia for, if not the person of Bomma, which proved largely unrecoverable, then for whatever he could discover of the life immediately surrounding him—that of his owner and his owner's relatives, rivals and associates.
The ethnographic side of things, the description of village life (Ghosh was there in 1980–81 and 1988–89, returning briefly in 1990 at the outbreak of the Gulf war), consists in a series of detached vignettes, strung together, as indeed a novelist, or anyway an impressionistic novelist, would string them together, to characterize a mood rather than to analyze a state of affairs. There is his “profoundly unlovable” landlord, fat, miserly, immobile all day on his veranda divan watching everything that passes, elaborating intricate schemes to protect his wealth. There is his dignified, recently widowed neighbor, an upright paterfamilias, proud of his sons and grandsons, just remarried to a girl a fraction of his age. There is a learned scholar, pious and political, and baffled by Hinduism, “this ‘Hinduki’ thing.” There are young blades restive under the constraints of village life, arrogant policemen randomly throwing their weight around, reformist religious teachers hopelessly inveighing against local superstitions, traditionalist mullahs enamored of modern armaments but hostile to everything else in any way strange.
The picture is one of an extremely agitated standing still; of a kinetic society that doesn't much move. But if the society doesn't move, a fair number of its people do—mainly to Iraq, where jobs are available and the money is good. When Ghosh returns for his second stay in 1988, most of those he had known as impatient young men seven years earlier are gone:
There had always been a fair number of people working “outside” … but now it was different; it was as though half the working population had taken leave of the land and surged into Iraq.
The flow had started in the early 1980s, a couple of years after the beginning of the war between Iraq and Iran; by then Iraq's own men were all tied up on one front or another … and it was desperately in need of labor to sustain its economy. For several years around that time it had been very easy for an Egyptian to find a job there; recruiters and contractors had gone from village to village looking for young men who were willing to work “outside.” People had left in truckloads; it was said at one time that there were maybe 2 or 3 million Egyptian workers in Iraq, as much as a sixth of that country's population. It was as if the two nations had dissolved into each other.
Not for very long, of course. After the end of the war with Iran, the Iraqis wanted the jobs back. Instead of encouraging foreigners to come, they began to drive them out. With the Gulf war, the break was complete; the exodus a flood. Most of the migrants drifted back, changing things a bit materially (televisions, refrigerators, washing machines), but more or less returning to what they had left: energy and restlessness locked in place.
Ghosh's pursuit of intelligence about his twelfth-century second self, that offstage slave, is much less straightforward. Interleaved in his narrative with the quick-sketch reports of his village encounters, it is a wandering, parabolical tale, derived from searching for incidental references and uncertain clues in documents difficult to find, difficult to read and even more difficult to interpret. If his modern Egypt is concentrated and brightly lit, his medieval Egypt is scattered and hard to see.
The documents concerned are those recovered from the famous Geniza of old Cairo. A geniza is a storehouse in which the members of a synagogue entomb virtually every scrap of writing so as to avoid desecrating the name of God. The Cairo Geniza was opened up to Western scholarship at the end of the nineteenth-century and its contents progressively removed, colonial style, to Britain, Russia, Palestine and the United States. It contained 800 years of everything from ship invoices and divorce settlements to medical treatises and biblical texts. It is on these materials that Goitein based A Mediterranean Society, his magnificent synthesis of medieval society in the region, one of the most considerable historical works of our time.
It is to these materials that Ghosh looks for traces of his Bomma, for the slave's owner, a certain Abraham Ben Yiju, was (like Maimonides) a member of the congregation to which the Geniza belonged. He doesn't find all that much, and what he does find has more to do with Ben Yiju than with Bomma. Ben Yiju was born in what is now Tunisia to a merchant family engaged in the eastern trade. He moved to Cairo, and thence to Aden, the Red Sea port, in the 1120s. There, “well enough educated to have become a scholar himself and … very well versed in doctrinal matters,” he entered the circle of some of “the most well-traveled men of the Middle Ages, perhaps of any age before the twentieth century … witness to a pattern of movement so fluent and far-ranging that they make the journeys of later medieval travelers, such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, seem unremarkable in comparison.”
Apparently Ben Yiju got into some sort of trouble—Ghosh imagines a blood feud—and fled, after about a decade, to Mangalore, a small port on the Malabar coast. He remained there for eighteen years, amassing a fortune and dispatching Bomma to Aden to prosecute his affairs as the occasion warranted, which seems to have been often. He married another of his slaves, an Indian woman he manumitted and converted to Judaism, and had a number of children by her. Eventually the trouble in Aden was regulated, and he returned with his wife and his family, and with Bomma, to the Red Sea area, where they spent the remainder of their days, moving about and struggling as ever to keep an itinerant life in workable order.
It is this sort of life that Ghosh wishes to place in counterpoint to the different yet reminiscent one that he found in the villages around Alexandria, in order to give the past a continuing reality and the present a resonant depth. (He even journeys to Mangalore, to get a feel for what “it must have been like” for Bomma and Ben Yiju and Ben Yiju's wife to live there amid Yemenis, Persians, Sumatrans and Chinese, all of them surrounded by Malabar fishermen, and also to get a feel for how it now looks—bustling and built-up—to the modern eye.) In this he succeeds well enough. He has produced an original, moving and suggestive work; well researched, carefully constructed and beautifully written.
Yet, perhaps because his natural reticence, his wish to stay apart and self-possessed, prevents him from examining very closely or very deeply his personal investment in the figure of Bomma, what it is, exactly, that draws him with such force to this near invisible presence so far back in time in so distant a setting, his book has a sense of incompletion about it; of something not said about then, and, even more, about now. It tells its stories, it constructs its ironies, and it leaves it at that.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1628
SOURCE: “Cairene Treasures,” in American Scholar, Vol. 63, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 137–40.
[In the following positive review, Elukin argues that aside from Ghosh's occasional political diatribe against Western imperialism, In an Antique Land is an otherwise thought-provoking and well-written undertaking.]
Like the Cairo Geniza, the wellspring of this seductive book, In an Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh's scholarly memoir is a treasure of interconnected historical ironies. The thriving Jewish community of medieval Cairo deposited many of its documents in the Geniza—a kind of cellar in the synagogue—in order to avoid inadvertently desecrating the biblical passages and invocations of God that peppered the writings. Letters, accounts, biblical manuscripts, and printed texts piled up in the Geniza until its discovery at the end of the nineteenth century. One Geniza text happily brought Amitav Ghosh to the Egyptian villages of Nashâwy and Lataîfa.
Ghosh, who comes from a Hindu family, was an anthropology graduate student at Oxford in 1978 when he came upon a collection of Geniza letters translated by the famous scholar S. D. Goitein. In the twelfth century, the Cairene Jewish merchant Khalaf ibn Ishaq wrote a routine letter to his protégé and business partner, Abraham ben Yiju, in Mangalore, on the southwestern coast of India. Amidst business concerns and gossip, Khalaf sent greetings to Ben Yiju's Indian slave. Captivated by this cosmopolitan world that had touched his homeland, Ghosh embarked on the study of Arabic. After several years in Egypt during the early 1980s, he returned to the story of the slave, mastered enough Judeo-Arabic—the language of much of the Geniza documents—and began to trace the history of the slave and his master Ben Yiju.
Ghosh's excellent account of the Geniza's discovery is marred by persistent intrusions of a sweeping anti-imperialist sentiment—reminiscent of Edward Said's Orientalism—that is not worthy of his otherwise profound capacity for empathy. Here is an example: “By the end of the eighteenth century, Egypt had become the scholarly counterpart of those great landmasses that were then being claimed and explored by European settlers: unknown to herself, she was already well on her way to becoming a victim of the Enlightenment's conception of knowledge and discovery.” The true discovery of the Geniza came at the end of the nineteenth century when Solomon Schechter, the reader in Hebrew at Cambridge, succeeded in winning the support of the local Jewish elite. They gave him free access to the Geniza and permission to take to England whatever documents he wanted.
Ghosh feels that England—and the West—was not worthy of the Geniza:
Thus, having come to Fustat from the far corners of the known world, a second history of travel carried the documents even further. The irony is that for the most part they went to countries which would have long since destroyed the Geniza had it been part of their own history. Now it was Masr [Egypt], which had sustained the Geniza for almost a millennium, that was left with no trace of its riches: not a single scrap or shred of paper to remind her of that aspect of her past.
This is unfair. Most Western countries have been largely scrupulous about preserving the documents of their pasts, including the records of disenfranchised peoples. Ghosh is not as severe with Egypt, which had ignored the Geniza: “In its home country however, nobody took the slightest notice of its dispersal. In some profound sense, the Islamic high culture of Masr had never really noticed, never found a place for the parallel history the Geniza represented, and its removal only confirmed a particular vision of the past.”
Ghosh's empathy is more in evidence, fortunately, in his accounts of Egyptian village life and the career of Ben Yiju. Voices of the parochial, religiously intolerant villagers resonate strangely with those of the cosmopolitan and rather pluralistic traders of the Geniza. His readers can laugh with him as he endures the countless and inevitable questions about whether people in India burn their dead or worship cows. He makes us feel the sincere, almost oppressive hospitality of the village, although it was tinged with a kind of morbid curiosity about a stranger whom they saw as an uncircumcised cow worshiper. We come to know many of the villagers. We mourn with Shaikh Musa at the death of his son; we are wary of the machinations of Abu-'Ali, the village mogul; we sympathize with Jabir, a young man who missed his chance for money on the “outside”; and we rejoice with 'Eid, who made a love match despite great odds.
Ghosh is a superb social historian, and the voices of the villagers help to vivify the distant lives of Ben Yiju and his correspondents. From the tiny scraps of information provided by the Geniza, Ghosh tells the dramatic story of Ben Yiju's career in Aden and then in Mangalore. We follow him through his marriage to a local Indian woman, Ashur, and his constant correspondence with his partners in Aden. We know his tastes in sweets and fondness for high-quality paper. Ghosh even squeezes life into the reference to Bomma, the favored Indian slave who went on periodic drinking binges.
The equilibrium of these two societies was soon destroyed. For modern Egypt, the war between Iraq and Iran gave many Egyptians the chance to take civilian jobs in Iraq. The money these young men sent home transformed the villages that Ghosh had known. Once-poor families now received the first miraculous refrigerators and televisions. Traditional social relations foundered as status was no longer dependent on family lineage but on cash. There was no nostalgia among the villagers for that lost world. They had long felt themselves, in Ghosh's words, to be in a situation “that was shamefully anachronistic, a warp upon time.”
The society of the Geniza had suffered, too, under the twin pressures of invasions by Christians from Sicily and Almohad Muslims from western Africa. Both left forced conversions, massacres, and refugees in their wake. Ben Yiju, having returned to Aden from Mangalore, was anxious to secure a marriage for his daughter. He was desperate for news of his family and wrote to friends, confessing he was “sick at heart.” The final blow to this multi-cultural society of the Indian Ocean came, according to Ghosh, at the end of the fifteenth century when the Portuguese tried to expel all Muslim traders from India. Ghosh's anger at the West is heartfelt but again perhaps too sweeping: “Soon, the remains of the civilization that had brought Ben Yiju to Mangalore were devoured by that unquenchable, demonic thirst that has raged ever since, for almost five hundred years, over the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.”
Some passions are homegrown, however, and Ghosh documents their first stirrings in the villages of Egypt. Islamic fundamentalism had begun to touch the people among whom he once lived. Young men began to sport traditional beards and white robes. Perhaps Ghosh should not have been so surprised, since even the tolerance of his friends was based on a seemingly benign incredulity that someone could believe in anything other than Islam.
But Ghosh cannot help blaming the West for corrupting the discourse between a modern Indian and Muslim. While arguing with a local Muslim cleric about the progress of their respective countries, Ghosh accuses the West of saturating their worlds with a technology of violence. Power was now the only viable way the two ancient societies could judge each other: “I could have told him a great deal about it, seen at first hand, its libraries, its museums, its theatres, but it wouldn't have mattered. We would have known, both of us, that all that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions and millions of people on the landmasses around us, the West meant only this—science and tanks and guns and bombs.” Whatever the true cause of its demise, the “centuries of dialogue” that had linked Ben Yiju and his fellow travelers of different nationalities and religions, and that might have linked Ghosh to the cleric, had atrophied.
Despite his anti-Western animus, Ghosh is deeply sensitive to the ironies of history that have survived both medieval and modern crises. On leaving Egypt for the last time, Ghosh found his way to the tomb of the medieval saint Sidi Abu-Hasira, where there was a famous annual festival. It was carefully controlled by the authorities. To his surprise, he discovered that the saint was a Jew who had been venerated by Jews and Muslims alike. Ghosh's difficulty in explaining his interest in the tomb to a suspicious policeman also signaled the end of the legacy of Ben Yiju: “The remains of those small, indistinguishable, intertwined histories, Indian and Egyptian, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Muslim, had been partitioned long ago.”
Still, he felt the tomb was a victory of sorts: “It seemed uncanny that I had never known all those years that in defiance of the enforcers of History, a small remnant of Bomma's world had survived, not far from where I had been living.” Ultimately, Ghosh's book, particularly his resurrection of the story of Ben Yiju—with the help of Western libraries—is a victory as well. We know that Ben Yiju made it back to his family, and his daughter Sitt al-Dar married his nephew, the learned Surur. (“A list recording Sitt al-Dar's wedding trousseau, now preserved in St. Petersburg, is proof that this child of a Nair woman from the Malabar was wedded in 1156 to her Sicilian cousin, in Fustat.”) Thanks to the preservation of the Geniza, and to Ghosh, a Hindu educated at Oxford, Ben Yiju and his world have not died. The author and his work become eloquent testimony as well to the dramatic ironies of history.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3383
SOURCE: “Looking for Bomma,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 6, No. 6, March 24, 1994, pp. 26–27.
[In the following review of In an Antique Land, Clifford explores the differences in religious tolerance, cultural exchange, and political attitudes between the Indian and Arabic societies of the twelfth century and the twentieth century.]
In his novel, The Shadow Lines, Amitav Ghosh writes of an Indian family whose members cross and recross two geopolitical borders. One border joins and divides Calcutta and London, the other Calcutta and Dhaka. Toward the end of the book the narrator's failing grandmother prepares for a return visit to the city she left, years before, when India was partitioned: Dhaka, East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. It is only a short flight from Calcutta. The old woman asks whether she will see the border from the plane. Her son tells her that it won't look like a map, with different colours on either side of a dark line. ‘But surely,’ the old woman persists, ‘there's something—trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of land. Don't they call it no man's land?’ Her son laughs: ‘No you won't be able to see anything except clouds and perhaps, if you're lucky, some green fields.’ She remains puzzled:
But if there aren't trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where's the difference then? And if there's no difference, both sides will be the same; it'll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then—Partition and all the killing and everything—if there isn't something in between?
A moral puzzlement over borders informs all of Ghosh's portrayals of entangled worlds: intricate novels, critical travel writing, and now In an Antique Land—part travel memoir, part archival detective story, and part experiment in multi-locale ethnography. Its title is drawn ironically from Shelley's “Ozymandias,” although the Egyptian past unearthed by Ghosh differs sharply from the sublime antiquities of European Romanticism. In an Antique Land reaches back to a 12th-century cosmopolitan world linking Arabs, Jews and South Asians, a world not yet structured by five hundred years of Western economic and cultural expansion. Ghosh recovers, for use now, a submerged tradition of contacts between South Asia and the Middle East. And this past situates, in a sense authorises, his own late 20th-century ethnography: a series of disturbing encounters with worldly peasants in the Nile Delta. Ghosh's poignant, tragic, sometimes hilarious account connects the time of the Crusaders and Ibn Battuta with current labour migrations and the Gulf War. In the face of brutal geopolitical divisions it rescues a vision of human crossings in the borderlands, shards for a prehistory of post-colonialism.
As a graduate student in social anthropology at Oxford in 1978, Ghosh wrestled with the perennial question of where to do fieldwork. An Indian, contemplating research in another Third World country, he found the traditional reasons for selecting a field site—personal attraction, adventure, relevance to a theoretical problem, an adviser's connections—no longer sufficient. Indeed, he no longer accepted the right of researchers based in metropolitan centres to live and study virtually anywhere. In the wake of anti-colonial movements, this access to the world's cultures, long claimed in the name of disinterested scholarship, seemed a form of Western privilege. In fact, the freedom of scientific fieldworkers—anthropological, archaeological, natural scientific—had always been guaranteed by mundane relations of power. Science seldom travelled independently, but followed established routes, most often those of trade and flag. Whatever exceptions one might find to this general pattern, the path from Oxford to the ‘Middle East’ was particularly well-mapped in imperial terms. Were any other routes available to a Third World anthropologist passing through Britain?
Ghosh came across a collection entitled Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders, edited and translated by S. D. Goitein, the great historian of Mediterranean Jewish societies. The book contains a letter written in 1148, from Aden, to Abraham Ben Yiju, a merchant living in Mangalore on the Malabar Coast of India. The letter contains greetings for Ben Yiju's slave, a trusted commercial agent who travelled more than once to the Middle East on his master's business. “The Slave of MS.H.6,” as Ghosh provisionally calls him, is an elusive presence in an elaborate correspondence linking the Mediterranean, Fustat (Old Cairo) and South India. Closing Goitein's collection, Ghosh felt an obscure permission to do fieldwork in Egypt: ‘I knew nothing then about the Slave of MS.H.6 except that he had given me the right to be there, a sense of entitlement.’ The Third World anthropologist now conceives his research as extending a long history of intercultural relations, contacts not defined by European expansion or the dichotomy of East and West.
During a decade of fieldwork and writing, Ghosh combed the archives for traces of the Indian slave, his distant fellow traveller. The archives—records of everyday life in the 12th century—are a story in themselves. Goitein was the foremost compiler, translator and interpreter of the ‘Geniza Archive,’ a record of medieval Jewish communities dispersed around the Mediterranean, with outposts in the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Ghosh retells the story of this collection, its preservation for nine centuries in the synagogue of Fustat, and its ‘discovery’ by European scholars in the late 19th century. ‘Geniza’ means ‘storeroom,’ a place in medieval synagogues where the faithful deposited documents that might contain the name of God. These included virtually everything written at the time: wills, contracts, inventories, business and personal letters. Normally, such papers were collected for a time and then ritually buried, with due respect for God's written traces. The Cairo Geniza remained miraculously intact from the tenth to the 19th century: a precious jumble including records of business, religion, government, law, travel and family life.
In the 1890s, the Geniza was ‘rescued’ by European scholars—a generous but decidedly imperial appropriation. A community that had preserved its documents for nine hundred years was summarily judged incompetent by the authorities, and the archive dispersed to distant libraries in places like Cambridge, St. Petersburg and Philadelphia. As Ghosh traces ‘the Slave of MS.H.6,’ he follows also the diasporic career of the Cairo Geniza. In his account, these pieces of 12th-century paper, travellers across centuries, oceans and continents, have a marvellous presence—down to the feel of the thick, torn sheets, crowded with script.
The slave—later, after a research trip to his Indian homeland, Ghosh named him ‘Bomma'—barely emerges. Given the nature of the archive, Abraham Ben Yiju's story holds centre-stage. The merchant travels from Ifriqiya (now a town in Tunisia) to Fustat, to Aden, then to Mangalore. There he married a local woman, a slave who bore his children and whose manumission record survives in St. Petersburg. He stayed twenty years on the Malabar Coast, in a tolerant world of Arabs, Indians and Jews, finally returning to Egypt in a desperate attempt to reconnect his dispersed family. As Ghosh searched for his elusive South Asian alter ego, he discovered a network of extraordinary Arab and Jewish travellers, of syncretic cultural forms, of commerce in the fullest sense.
The documents themselves, written in Arabic with Hebrew characters, are an index of currently impossible contacts (Jews habitually invoke the name of God as ‘incha'Allah’), a reminder of the long inter-cultural history of Levantine societies. Strange links to the present emerge. For example, the Judeo-Arabic of the Geniza texts is closer to the contemporary village speech Ghosh used in fieldwork than to a more refined urban Arabic. Laboriously deciphering them, he suddenly ‘hears’ his village friends. In an Antique Land braids together the 12th-century ‘Geniza world’ with late 20th-century village life. The two have in common a tolerance and reciprocity as well as a kind of vernacular ‘cosmopolitanism'—connections to kin and to distant places on terms that transgress the all-or-nothing borders of nation-states and religions. These transgressions are Ghosh's threads of hope in a planet increasingly menaced by sectarian violence.
Ghosh engages the Geniza world and its forgotten travellers from a South Asian perspective, haunted by the experience of Partition and communal bloodshed. Others reclaim it for a ‘Levantine’ counter-history. Amiel Alcalay's recent After Arabs and Jews traces a long history of cultural interpenetrations, centuries of coexistence, when Islam and Judaism profoundly influenced each other and when Jews and Arabs shared urban loyalties; neighbourhoods, trading relations, languages, poetries, clothing and food. Alcalay's Sephardic history, sharply focused as a reproach to the exclusivist Jewish state in Israel, draws extensively on Goitein. (The final volume of A Mediterranean Society, Goitein's massive study in Jewish Diaspora history, is about to be published posthumously by the University of California Press.) In an essay quoted by Alcalay, Goitein writes:
As we know from Geniza documents coming from Fustat, Cairo, Alexandria, al-Mahalla and other places in Egypt, from Kairouan, Jerusalem, Damascus and Aleppo, Jewish houses often bordered on those of Muslims or Christians or both. There was no ghetto, but, on the contrary, much opportunity for daily intercourse. Neither was there an occupational ghetto. I have counted so far about 360 occupations of Jews, of which 240 entailed some type of manual work. There was constant co-operation between the various religious groups to the point of partnerships in business and even in workshops. In order to assess correctly the admissibility of the Geniza records for general sociological research, we have to free ourselves entirely from familiar notions about European Jews.
Goitein's interest in the ‘daily intercourse’ of communal life, nurtured through ethnographic work with the Arab Jews of Yemen, resonates with Ghosh's portrayals of contemporary life in the Nile Delta, and beyond.
In an Antique Land records the forced and voluntary crossings of ordinary people, the inventive mixings of popular cultures, the human attachments made and maintained across frontiers. One of the revelations of the Gulf War was the existence of a massive anonymous labour force in the region, drawn from all over the Middle East and Asia. Ghosh provides personalities for a few of these workers, village friends who abruptly leave home for Baghdad. We see the logic of their departures and returns, their stunning successes and sad failures. In an Antique Land gives agency and a long history to the travels of people who do not usually appear in the historical limelight—but did so for a brief moment late in 1990, pathetically stranded at the Jordanian border.
In weaving together his modern and medieval stories, Ghosh crosses the borders of ethnographic writing, particularly those shared with the novel and with travel literature. The villagers he portrays are not so much informants as characters. As a formal experiment, the book's spatial and temporal overlays complicate the notion of a ‘field’ (and thus, ‘fieldwork’) almost beyond recognition. In an Antique Land recasts the conventional village study as a multiply-centred account of transnational relations.
The making and unmaking of ‘cultural’ difference is a central theme. Ghosh describes encounters between a more or less secular Indian intellectual and more or less pious Muslims. In exchanges that run the gamut from surreal comedy to chilling rage, a constant theme is the scandal of Hindu customs: reverence for cows, cremation of the dead, and non-circumcision. Ghosh, never permitted to take refuge in social-scientific neutrality, often finds himself cast as reluctant specimen of Hindu culture. His friend, the sardonic Khamees, baits him on the subject of cremation:
‘You mean that you put them on heaps of firewood and just light them up?’
‘Yes,’ I said quickly, hoping he would tire of the subject. It was not to be.
‘Why?’ he persisted. ‘Is there a shortage of kindling in your country?’
When Ghosh tries to explain the rites and rituals, Khamees, joined now by his sister, Busnia, persists:
‘Even little children?’ said Khamees. ‘Do you burn little children?’
Busnia spoke now, for the first time. ‘Of course not,’ she said in disbelief, hugging her baby to her breast. ‘They wouldn't burn little dead children—no one could do that.’
‘Yes,’ I said, regretfully. ‘Yes, we do—we burn everyone.’
‘But why?’ she cried. ‘Why? Are people fish that you should fry them on a fire?’
‘I don't know why,’ I said. ‘It's the custom—that's how it was when I came into the world. I had nothing to do with it.’
And so it continues, with the differences growing until India becomes a land where everything is ‘upside down,’ where there's no compulsory military service and where even the night-time has been abolished—to save money on lamps, suggests Khamees.
The conversation turns to an often-repeated story in which the visiting anthropologist, out in the fields studying agricultural techniques, falls down to worship a cow. But as soon as Ghosh exclaims over a new baby, Khamees cries out in delight: ‘The Indian knows. He understands that people are happy when they have children: he's not as upside down as we thought.’ While the two cultures and religions keep their distance, the individuals caught up in these never quite frivolous debates learn to like each other. A mixture of incomprehension and complicity characterises fieldwork's human encounters.
Islam is a complex ‘other’: sometimes a rigid counterpart, pinioning Ghosh as Hindu, sometimes a less absolute, more personal constellation. Ghosh provides clear portraits of Jabir, Ustaz Sabry and several other younger Egyptians whom the Western press might too quickly label ‘Islamic Fundamentalists.’ One of the merits of In an Antique Land is its account of the Muslim religious revival in village settings. Here the brightest and most energetic advocates of progress reject the bankrupt paths offered by nationalism and Western development, in search of a third, Islamic way that is anything but reactionary or anti-modern. Islam, in Ghosh's portrayal, is far from monolithic, and it offers many points of attraction for the Indian visitor, particularly in its local, unofficial forms.
Things did not always go well, however. Two of the book's most dramatic scenes shatter the fragile structure of complicity built up with friends like Khamees. (The important connections are all—perhaps inevitably, given the constraints of fieldwork—with men.) At a marriage party the anthropologist's fate as honoured guest is to be imprisoned indoors with the older men while all the interesting action, the dancing and fun, is outside. He tries to escape into the crowd, but is dragged back. As the frustrated ethnographer nears breaking point, the conversation turns inevitably to cow worship and cremation. Abruptly, a horrified voice wants to know whether he himself has been circumcised. Ghosh bolts. Stumbling home he is too upset to explain his flight to a concerned friend, Nabeel. But he tells us a harrowing tale of finding himself as a six-year-old holed up with a group of terrified Hindus during a religious riot in Dhaka. ‘The stories of those riots are always the same: tales that grow out of an explosive barrier of symbols—of cities going up in flames because of a cow found dead in a temple or a pig in a mosque; of people killed for wearing a lungi or a dhoti, depending on where they find themselves; of women disembowelled for wearing veils of vermilion, of men dismembered for the state of their foreskins.’ Could friends like Nabeel understand? Egypt, despite occasional turbulence, was a far less violent society. ‘I could not expect them to understand an Indian's terror of symbols.’
In another crucial scene, Ghosh's vision of civility and negotiated difference is shattered by the discovery of having too much in common. An argument with the local Imam escalates beyond cows and cremation into a shouting match over whether India or Egypt is more ‘advanced,’ possesses the best tanks and bombs (second only to ‘the West’). Ghosh feels defeated. He and the Imam can communicate only in a language of techno-military power and universal ‘development.’ This is their only common ground. They are both displaced and ‘travelling in the West.’ Abruptly Ghosh feels the
dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us; we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences. We had acknowledged that it was no longer possible to speak, as Ben Yiju or his Slave, or any one of the thousands of travellers who had crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done: of things that were right, or good, or willed by God: it would have been merely absurd for either of us to use those words, for they belonged to a dismantled rung on the ascending ladder of Development.
At moments like this, stunned and silenced, Ghosh felt himself ‘a witness to the extermination of a world of accommodations that I had believed to be still alive, and, in some tiny measure, still retrievable.’
The gloom that descends cannot be dispelled by all the small, saving human contacts. Khamees laughs off the talk about bombs and tanks, and even offers to visit Ghosh in his upside-down country, adding quickly: ‘But if I die there you must remember to bury me.’ Is everyone only travelling in the West? If so, what about Khamee's offer to go East? And yet Khamees is a villager who never travels, who shuns the lures of migrancy. What, ultimately, is the significance of the loyalties and partial understandings, the ‘world of accommodations’ the 20th-century traveller sometimes manages to forge with his Egyptian hosts? At a personal level, they are crucial. When he is most despairing and confused, Ghosh has friends like Nabeel, to walk him home. And when Nabeel ends up lost in the mass of workers fleeing Baghdad after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the cluster of family in the Nile Delta searching for his face on a small TV (bought with money from Iraq) includes his friend from across the Indian Ocean. What is the continuing value of human contacts such as these?
Could there ever be a history, even a politics, of friendship? Of love? What made it possible for Ben Yiju to live happily for twenty years among Arabs, Jews and Indians in Mangalore, to marry a woman of profoundly different culture, to arrange a marriage between their mixed-blood daughter and the son of his brother in Sicily? Ghosh seems content simply to keep such stories of crossing alive, as imaginative resources rather than political models. The point of his exercise is not to romanticise the Geniza world, which saw its share of intolerance, including the Crusades. Ben Yiju's struggle to re-connect his family at the end of his life was a response, in part, to brutal expulsions of Jewish communities in North Africa. The point of juxtaposing the 12th and late 20th centuries is not, ultimately, to write a tale of loss (though In an Antique Land has its elegiac moments). The goal is to make space for a counter-history of modernity.
In an Antique Land's two worlds occupy opposite ends of a long history of globalisation, beginning with the age of ‘discovery’ and leading through mercantilism and imperialism to today's transnational capitalism. Its 12th-century commercial networks evoke a historical vision in which Europe is not the necessary centre of a dynamic ‘world system.’ A different international economy preceded the ‘Western’ version. And Ghosh's exploration of a portion of that network, linking the Mediterranean with India, reverses a division of ‘West’ and ‘East’ that, for five hundred years, has rationalised European expansion. When Bomma, Abraham Ben Yiju, and so many others criss-crossed the Indian Ocean, the region that would later become ‘Europe’ was still peripheral to trading centres such as Fustat. The Geniza world offers a concrete vision of global relations based on a non-aligned cosmopolitanism.
In an Antique Land juxtaposes possibilities, without concluding. In a world which has always been interconnected but is now swept up and partitioned by ever more powerful techno-economic forces, how will people give shape to their communities? Will differences be negotiated through intricate relational networks or measured against rigid templates of development and nationhood? Ghosh's pessimism of the intellect inclines him to the latter possibility, his optimism of the will keeps the former alive. His own book is evidence, perhaps, that the traditions of tolerance and diversity he celebrates can be reclaimed.
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SOURCE: A review of In an Antique Land, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring, 1994, p. 430.
[In the following positive review, King states that In an Antique Land is a skillful mixture of history, travelogue, fiction, and anthropology.]
Amitav Ghosh's novels The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines are somewhat difficult to place on the current literary map; they have an unusual perspective and cover unexpected territory. In an Antique Land fills in some of the picture of how Ghosh sees the world and, besides the interest of the book itself as social anthropology and what it tells us about Ghosh, might be a starting place for future critical discussion of his fiction.
Ghosh is a New Delhi and Oxford-trained social anthropologist, and In an Antique Land is a complex book which uses for its narrative his attempts to trace the lives of a twelfth-century Indian slave and his Jewish master. The story of the preservation and dispersal of the documents is itself a revelation of earlier Jewish customs and of the close former relationships between the Jewish, Indian, and Arab worlds which were disrupted by European imperialism and scholarship. Ghosh's main concern is to restore a cultural, social, and economic map that stretched from Spain through the Middle East to India for many centuries until it was redrawn by European military superiority. It is a wonderful picture of a now unknown world that has been lost, although probably sentimentalized, as Ghosh mentions enough non-European conquerors, pirates, and people held for ransom that life and trade seem to have been more insecure than he admits.
Ghosh's claim, however, is that this past has not really been lost. Besides traces found in southern Indian temples and Egyptian shrines of a time when the histories of India and Egypt, Muslim, Jew, and Hindu were intertwined, modern India and Egypt still retain many of the ways of the past, social customs that are now being threatened by modernization, Europeanization, and the rigidities of recent nationalism. As a student in Egypt, he feels at home among the uneducated in the villages and finds associations with the culture of the past, unlike in the cities. The Egyptians venturing abroad to find wealth are like his North African Arabized Jewish trader, part of a regional economy disrupted by politics and conquest. But then, like The Circle of Reason, this book is as much about diaspora as about home.
The genre of In an Antique Land is unique. The publisher's blurb suggests that the book is history in the form of a traveler's tale. It could be seen as a better-written, reader-friendly, improved version of the self-conscious contemporary anthropological study in which the author deconstructs his expected story, puts the cards or documents on the table for critical inspection, and discusses the dangers of constructing the “Other.” In this improved version the author claims to be part of the society, an “Other” partitioned by European imperialism and its aftermath, although again this seems a sentimental assumption, more a conventional traveler's tale of having made friends among villagers in a foreign land. In an Antique Land is also fiction, as most of the history and characterization is imagined or assumed and based on few certain facts. The book is a pleasure to read. Its complex structure appears effortless. Even the endnotes are well written, interesting, and often autobiographical.
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SOURCE: “‘Travelling in the West’: The Writing of Amitav Ghosh,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 3–24.
[In the following essay, Dixon examines The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, and In an Antique Land to demonstrate Ghosh's discontentment with the Western imperialism imposed on Arabic and Indian cultures.]
In the geography of human history no culture is an island. … In effect Tulunad was a region in the sense of the word desa, or the French pays—“country” is too loaded a term to use—an area … not “independent” but distinctive and singular, and precisely because of that, enmeshed with its neighbours in an intricate network of differences.1
Is this, then, another irony of history, doubly confirming the appropriative powers of the dominant discourse: that like the subaltern himself, those who set out to restore his presence end only by borrowing the tools of that discourse, tools which serve only to reduplicate the first subjection which they effect, in the realms of critical theory?2
This paper is in one sense a survey of the increasingly substantial body of writing by the Indian novelist and anthropologist Amitav Ghosh. Born in Calcutta in 1956, Ghosh has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford and has taught in both Indian and American universities. His oeuvre now includes two novels, The Circle of Reason (1986) and The Shadow Lines (1988), the ethnography In an Antique Land (1993) and a number of essays, notably the scholarly article “The Slave of MS.H.6,” published in Subaltern Studies in 1992. My interest in Ghosh's work arose initially from a growing concern with the way theories of colonial discourse have become globalized, while the practice of a good deal of post-colonial criticism has become overly theoreticized and predictable. Ghosh's training in historical and anthropological research, his eschewing of grand theoreticist gestures and his links with the Subaltern Studies project, make his work an interesting site around which current arguments in post-colonial theory can be conducted.
Ghosh's writing reflects the recent concern of anthropologists with the porosity of cultural boundaries. As Renato Rosaldo argues, “In contrast with the classic view, which posits culture as a self-contained whole made up of coherent patterns, culture can arguably be conceived as a more porous array of intersections where distinct processes cross from within and beyond its borders.”3 The characters in Ghosh's novels do not occupy discrete cultures, but “dwell in travel” in cultural spaces that flow across borders—the “shadow lines” drawn around modern nation states. Yet, like Edward Said's Orientalism, these novels also remain bound up in the notion of a universal humanity; and like the otherwise very different work of Homi K. Bhabha, they postulate a global theory of the colonial subject. As the Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas argues, “Orientalist … pre-occupations … can be displaced, not by a new universalism, but by an interest in a plethora of differences that would crosscut ethnic-cultural totalities.”4 Ghosh's ethnography In an Antique Land follows this trajectory. Influenced by his association with the Subaltern Studies scholars, Ghosh returns to a rigorous mode of empirical research to recover the historically situated subjectivities of a network of traders and their slaves operating between North Africa and south-west India during the Middle Ages. This cultural space is a vast, borderless region with its own hybrid languages and practices which circulate without national or religious boundaries. Ghosh's nuanced and self-reflexive writing means that the subaltern consciousness remains a trace rather than a presence, “a theoretical fiction” that allows him to avoid what Rosalind O'Hanlon, in her critique of the Subaltern Studies project, calls “the slide towards essentialism.”5
THE TRANSIT LOUNGE OF CULTURE
In his article, “The Transit Lounge of Culture,” the American anthropologist James Clifford has attempted to frame Ghosh's work in the context of recent developments in the discipline of anthropology. Texts like Gloria Anzaldua's Borderlands/La Frontera have shifted anthropology away from the study of separate, authentic cultures toward the borderlands between cultures; away from separate to “comparative inter cultural studies.” Such diaspora cultures are not oriented towards lost origins or homelands, but are produced by ongoing histories of migration and transnational cultural flows. Once we begin to focus on these inter-cultural processes, Clifford argues, the notion of separate, discrete cultures evaporates; we become aware that all cultures have long histories of border crossings, diasporas and migrations.6
In Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis Clifford's colleague Renato Rosaldo describes a symptomatic exchange between delegates at a conference where the contesting paradigms within anthropology were vividly expressed in the metaphors of a museum and a garage sale:
… at a conference … on the crisis in anthropology, Cora Du Bois, a retired Harvard professor, spoke of the distance she felt from the “complexity and disarray of what I once found a justifiable and challenging discipline. … It has been like moving from a distinguished art museum into a garage sale.”
The images of the museum, for the classic period, and the garage sale, for the present strike me as being quite apt, but I evaluate them rather differently than Du Bois. She feels nostalgia for the distinguished art museum with every thing in its place, and I see it as a relic from the colonial past. She detests the chaos of the garage sale, and I find it provides a precise image for the postcolonial situation where cultural artefacts flow between unlikely places, and nothing is sacred, permanent or sealed off … The image of the garage sale depicts our present global situation. … Ours is definitively a postcolonial epoch … the third world has imploded into the metropolis.7
The remaking of social analysis Rosaldo describes in his book has re-defined anthropology's field of study, while at the same time drawing attention to the role of the observer in producing that field. In this new context, “the fiction of the uniformly shared culture increasingly seems more tenuous than useful.” “More often than we usually care to think,” Rosaldo argues, “our everyday lives are crisscrossed by border zones, pockets and eruptions of all kinds … Along with ‘our’ supposedly transparent cultural selves, such borderlands should be regarded not as analytically empty transitional zones but as sites of creative cultural production that require investigation.”8
James Clifford illustrates this new paradigm with an allegorical reading of Amitav Ghosh's text, “The Imam and the Indian,” a chapter from what was then his work-in-progress, In an Antique Land, which Clifford assumed to be a short story.9 It describes the expectations of an anthropologist doing fieldwork in an Egyptian village, which he assumes to belong to a settled, “authentic” culture. What he finds, instead, is a palimpsest of movement, travel and inter-cultural crossing that is centuries old: “The men of the village had all the busy restlessness of airline passengers in a transit lounge. Many of them had worked and travelled in the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf … a few had visited Europe: some of them had passports so thick they opened out like ink-blackened concertinas.”10 Clifford argues that there could be no better image of postmodernity than this conflation of an Egyptian village with an airline transit lounge. Ghosh's writing, he argues, draws attention to the complex “roots” and “routes” that make up the relations between cultures: “Everyone is on the move, and they have been for centuries: dwelling-in-travel.”11
THE CIRCLE OF REASON
One consequence of the paradigm shift in anthropology has been to foreground the “literariness” of ethnography. As James Clifford put it in the preface to Writing Culture, “the ‘literariness’ of anthropology—and especially of ethnography—[is] much more than a matter of good writing … Literary processes … affect the ways cultural phenomena are registered.”12 The fact that Amitav Ghosh has been able to move freely in his writing between anthropology, history and fiction is symptomatic of the extent to which traditional boundaries between those disciplines have themselves broken down.
Ghosh's first novel, The Circle of Reason (1986), concerns the picaresque adventures of Alu, a weaver from a small village near Calcutta, who leaves home to travel across the Indian Ocean to the oil town of al-Ghazira on the Persian Gulf. Reviewers of the novel read it as an allegory about the destruction of traditional village life by the modernizing influx of Western culture, and the subsequent displacement of non-European peoples by imperialism. In the long opening section, set in the village of Lalpukur, Alu is apprenticed as a weaver, while his uncle, Balaram, the village schoolmaster, is obsessed with Western ideas, epitomized by his passion for phrenology and the writings of Pasteur. Balaram establishes the Pasteur School of Reason, alternatively bores and terrorizes people with his scientific notions, and eventually destroys the village by sterilizing it with carbolic acid. Anthony Burgess read the episode as a satire on Western imperialism: while Alu stands for tradition, Balaram “stands, in his demented way, for progress.”13The Circle of Reason certainly explores the relation between culture and imperialism. But Burgess's argument that it juxtaposes stable, traditional cultures with a diasporic, post-colonial culture is a reading made within the paradigm of classical ethnography. For Ghosh, even societies that appear to be static and traditional are always already diasporic.
Balaram's enthusiasm for Reason can certainly be read as satire on those diasporic Indian intellectuals who enthusiastically embrace the theories of the West, and it is surely significant that his greatest heroes are French. Balaram has made his mind “a dumping ground for the west.”14 But Ghosh's novel deconstructs any simple opposition between tradition and modernity, or discrete oriental and occidental cultures. His Ph.D. thesis at Oxford was a history of weaving and the cloth trade between Britain and India in the nineteenth century. In each of his subsequent texts, weaving is a synecdoche of that “intricate network of differences” in which all cultures are enmeshed with their neighbours. When Balaram decides to make the young Alu a weaver, he tells him a history of the technology of weaving that evokes cultural instability and borrowings across borders. According to Balaram, “… [the loom] has created not separate worlds but one, for it has never permitted the division of the world. The loom recognizes no continents and no countries. It has tied the world together” (p. 55). Balaram develops the idea that culture is a process of circulation that has nothing to do with national borders:
Indian cloth was found in the graves of the Pharaohs. Indian soil is strewn with cloth from China. The whole of the ancient world hummed with the cloth trade. The Silk Route from China, running through central Asia and Persia to the ports of the Mediterranean and from there to the markets of Africa and Europe, bound continents together for more centuries than we can count … All through those centuries cloth, in its richness, and variety, bound the Mediterranean to Asia, India to Africa, the Arab world to Europe, in equal, bountiful trade.
The history of weaving, then, has no single national root, as Burgess assumed in his review, but follows complex international routes. It is not a “traditional” craft opposed in a binary sense to Western science, but another part of a diaspora that unravels the distinction between Orient and Occident.
Yet Ghosh's understanding of these routes is also resistant to the framework of postmodern inter-cultural studies in which James Clifford attempts to place it. Clifford's border crossings run the risk of de-contextualizing specific local instances; the passengers in his transit lounge of culture are caught up in a seemingly universal postmodern condition that is innocent of specific economic determinants. Ghosh, by contrast, understands that the routes of international trade are over-determined by economic forces; that they tell a history of imperial exploitation. Balaram continues his lecture on the history of the loom by placing it in the context of British imperial trade: “Lancashire poured out its waterfalls of cloth, and [the] once … peaceful Englishmen … of Calcutta … turned their trade into a garotte to make every continent safe for the cloth of Lancashire, strangling the very weavers and techniques they had crossed oceans to discover” (p. 57). As the image of the garotte suggests, the trade routes may cut across national borders, but they are infected by blood and overdetermined by the asymmetries of economic and military power.
If Balaram's interest in Reason is part of the influx of foreign ideas into the village of Lalpukur, that village is not the symbol of an “Indian tradition” that can be placed in simple opposition to the West. Lalpukur was settled by refugees from East Pakistan after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. The village, apparently a symbol of traditional India, is itself the product of a diaspora. The people of Lalpukur were “vomited out of their native soil years ago” and “dumped hundreds of miles away … borders dissolved under the weight of millions of people in panic-stricken flight from an army of animals” (pp. 59–60). Lalpukur, with its mixture of technologies, its blend of Hinduism and Bruce Lee movies (p. 75), is not a site of tradition, but of hybridization: the village is “churning like cement in a grinder, and Balaram was busy chasing its shooting boundaries with buckets of carbolic acid, his hair wafting behind him, in the germ-free air” (p. 76).
When Balaram reduces the village of Lalpukur to rubble in his efforts to apply European theories to Indian life, Alu joins a tide of diasporic Indians drawn to the rich oil economies of the Middle East. Part Two of The Circle of Reason is set in al-Ghazira on the Persian Gulf. Alu there resumes his craft of weaving, but is accidentally buried alive when a new concrete building in which he is working as a labourer collapses. The collapse of this building can be read as an allegory about the effect of postmodernity on the traditional societies of the Middle East. But again, Ghosh's writing is too highly nuanced for such facile binary oppositions.
The collapsed building, called The Star, is contrasted with the traditional market place, the Souq: “the old bazaar's honeycomb of passageways … obscur[ed] every trace of the world outside … Nor did any but the most alert in the Souq feel the soil of al-Ghazira tremble when the Star fell” (p. 194). But the Souq does not represent a discrete culture rooted in one nation. Rather, it is part of a network of trade routes, confirming Balaram's argument that weaving produces not to one world but many. Alu has begun weaving again at the loom of his Egyptian neighbour, Hajj Fahmy, who abandoned his traditional craft for the more profitable construction business. As part of his revival of weaving, Alu must now learn Arabic as he had earlier learned English. His landlady, an Egyptian brothel owner named Zindi, plans to install Alu as her manager when she buys the Durban Tailoring House from another diasporic Indian, Jeevanbhai Patel. Patel is a Gujarati Hindu from Durban in South Africa, who has come to al-Ghazira after a marriage of which his parents disapproved. His movements evoke the flow of the Indian Ocean trade: “the Indian merchants along the coast pulled [the couple] northwards like a bucket from a well. First they went to Mozambique, then Dar es Salaam, then Zanzibar, Djibouti, Perim and Aden” (p. 221). Zindi's house is full of migrant labourers whom she hopes to divert from the construction industry to the now declining cloth trade: al-Ghazira “was a merchants' paradise, right in the centre of the world, conceived and nourished by the flow of centuries of trade. Persians, Iraqis, Zanzibari Arabs, Omanis and Indians fattened upon it and grew rich” (p. 221). Like the village of Lalpukur, the Souq of al-Ghazira does not represent a stable authentic culture, but a network of trade, centuries old, that unfurls like cloth through a vast, borderless region.
When Alu is buried in the Star, Ghosh contrasts this mobile trading culture with the modern oil economy that threatens to subsume it. Alu's friends Rakesh and Isma'il go inside the ruins to search for him. Like Fredric Jameson in the Bonaventura Hotel,15 they find themselves lost in the postmodern space of a collapsed glass and concrete dome: “It was like the handiwork of a madman—immense steel girders leaning crazily, whole sections of the glass dome scattered about like eggshells” (p. 232). The “voice” heard by the rescuers in the chapter “A Voice in the Ruins” turns out to be a transistor radio accidentally switched on during the collapse of the building, which echoes through the ruins (p. 232). The “voice” concisely evokes the aesthetics of postmodernism: the loss of affect, the de-centreing of the bourgeois subject, the loss of interiority and the relentless commodification of culture. Alu, the Indian weaver, is trapped inside postmodernity like Jonah inside the whale, and when the rescuers reach him, they find him lying beneath a slab of concrete that is kept from crushing him by two antique sewing machines (p. 260). The episode is an allegory about the cultural logic of global capitalism destroying the ancient trading cultures logic of the Middle East.
Ghosh's symbolism therefore complicates Clifford's too-easy application of the label postmodern to the inhabitants of the Egyptian village, for the collapse of the Star is connected to a more specific genealogy of British colonialism in al-Ghazira. “Since the beginning of time, al-Ghazira has been home to anyone who chooses to call it such” (p. 261). But when the British discovered the oil deposits, they broke with the past by using military force to persuade the elderly Malik to sign a treaty: “al-Ghazira was just a speck of sand floating on a sea of oil. So the British … sent a resident to al-Ghazira, to make the Malik sign a treaty which would let them dig for oil. … The Resident arrived, in a battleship” (pp. 248–9). As Renato Rosaldo observes, “all of us inhabit an interdependent late-twentieth-century world marked by borrowing and lending across porous national and cultural boundaries,” but we do not do so on equal terms. Those boundaries are “saturated with inequality, power and domination.”16
THE SHADOW LINES
The plot of Ghosh's second novel, The Shadow Lines, also takes as its originary moment the diaspora of East Pakistan. The narrator's family are Hindus who fled from their home in Dhaka to Calcutta after the formation of East Pakistan. There, during the Second World War, when Europe itself lies in ruins, they befriend an English family, the Prices, and the two families are woven together by a complex series of cultural crossings. Mrs. Price's father, Lionel Tresawson, lived in India before Independence, and is a type of the travelling Englishman, having left his home in Cornwall to travel widely in the Empire: in Malaysia, Fiji, Ceylon and finally Calcutta. The narrator's uncle, Tridib, went to London and lived with the Prices during the war. The narrator's own history continues this pattern of dwelling in travel. He is writing shortly after his return to Calcutta from England, where he too becomes involved with the Prices. The metaphor of weaving is again an organizing figure in the text, for in the narrator's recollections the lives of three generations of his family are woven together, as are the cities in which their lives have been acted out: Dhaka, Calcutta and London. He does not inhabit a culture rooted in a single place, but a discursive space that flows across political and national boundaries, and even across generations in time.
Since the conventions of the Anglo-Indian novel were designed to reinforce the classical notion of discrete cultures, in writing The Shadow Lines, Ghosh had to subvert what Sara Suleri has called “the Rhetoric of English India.”17 The opening sentence of the novel immediately unsettles this rhetoric: “In 1939, thirteen years before I was born, my father's aunt, Mayadebi, went to England with her husband and her son, Tridib.”18 Unlike the usual colonial novel, in which Westerners travel to India to observe an ancient and self-contained culture, The Shadow Lines begins with an Indian passage to England: the natives are the travellers. The central fact of travel in this Indian family's experience immediately demands that we modify our expectations about Indian culture and the way it is depicted in English novels about the Raj. Furthermore, these Indians are going abroad in 1939, the year Britain declared war on Germany. Classical ethnography assumes that the culture of the Western observer is a stable and coherent point from which to observe native society. Ghosh undermines this notion by depicting Britain at war with Germany, so that Partition takes place against the background of an equally unstable Europe. The parallels between England and Germany, and India and Pakistan effectively undermine any distinction between East and West, colony and metropolis, and point to similarities and continuities that cut across these differences.
Ghosh's subversion of the rhetoric of English India is reflected in the two-part structure of The Shadow Lines, which alludes to one of the classic texts of colonialism, Joseph Conrad's novella, The Shadow-Line (1917). In the preface to this story, Conrad explains that an invisible line divides youth from maturity. The protagonist, a young naval officer, is given his first command of a ship in South-East Asia with orders to return it to London. In crossing back from the Orient to the West under difficult circumstances, he successfully crosses the shadow line into maturity, which is superimposed in complex ways on to the opposition between Europe and the Orient.19 In The Shadow Lines, Ghosh complicates this “classical” mapping of the world into East and West by dividing his novel into two parts, “Going Away” and “Going Home.” The irony is that his characters come and go in so many different directions that the narrator is obliged to pose the question, what is home, and is there such a thing as a discrete homeland separable from one's experiences elsewhere?
The second part of the novel climaxes in the narrator's return visit to the family home in Dhaka in 1964. But this homecoming abounds with ironies. His grandmother wants to bring her uncle back from Pakistan, the land of their Muslim enemies, to her home in Calcutta—but Pakistan is her real home, the goal of her ritual homecoming. She is nostalgic for the “classical” conception of cultures. She believes that her children should not be mixing with English people, and is particularly critical of the narrator's cousin Ila for living in England: “Ila has no right to live there … It took those people a long time to build that country; … They know they're a nation because they've drawn their borders with blood. … That's what it takes to make a country” (p. 82). But when the grandmother looks down from the plane as they pass from India into Pakistan in 1964, she is surprised that there is no visible border on the ground, and asks, “if there aren't any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where's the difference then? And if there's no difference, both sides will be the same; it'll be just like it used to be before” (p. 154). The elderly relative in Dhaka delivers the final blow to her view of the world when he refuses to go back to Calcutta, even denying its existence in reality: “I don't believe in this India-Shindia. It's all very well, you're going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then?” (p. 216).
The Shadow Lines is therefore a fictional critique of classical anthropology's model of discrete cultures and the associated ideology of nationalism. The “reality” is the complex web of relationships between people that cut across nations and across generations. In his critique of nationalism, Ghosh's narrator celebrates “that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments” (p. 231). After the trip to Pakistan, the narrator looks at Tridib's old atlas, measuring the distances between nations with a compass, and reflects on the disjunction between memory, human experience and national boundaries. He realizes that the Euclidean space of the atlas has nothing to do with cognitive and cultural space:
I was struck with wonder that there had really been a time, not so long ago, when people, sensible people, of good intention, had thought … that there was a special enchantment in lines … They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that … there had never been a moment in the 4000–year-old history of that map when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines.
These ideas are summed up in the final act of the novel, the sexual union between May Price and the narrator on his last night in London, through which he is granted “the glimpse of … a final redemptive mystery” (p. 252)—the mystery of lived human experience that transcends the artificial borders of nation and race.
Finally, then, The Shadow Lines builds its critique of cultural borders upon the notion of a universal humanity. In so doing, it parallels Edward Said's work in Orientalism (1978). Said's project was to counter the production of discrete, essentialized racial collectivities—particularly “the Arab”—with the idea of a shared humanity. Yet, as James Clifford pointed out in his review, this rests upon a humanism entirely at odds not just with Said's chief theoretical debt to Foucault, but with the perspective of much recent work in anthropology.20The Shadow Lines shares these theoretical difficulties, apparently replacing the notion of discrete national cultures with an untheorized and utopian belief in a common humanity. In this celebration of “syncretic civilisations” (p. 226), Ghosh has moved further in the direction of global theory than in The Circle of Reason, where the flow of trade was overdetermined by an asymmetrical economy of power that favoured Western interests.
Ghosh's investment in a utopian humanism is one version of a problem that besets contemporary theories of colonial discourse—their tendency to become globalized. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. puts it, “anti-imperialist discourse has proved a last bastion for the project, and dream, of global theory.”21 The irony—and danger—of investing in universal categories of post-colonial subjectivity seems particularly acute for diasporic Indian intellectuals like Homi K. Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Amitav Ghosh, who might be seen as “travellers in the west,” a phrase from Ghosh's text “The Imam and the Indian.” In a recent critique of post-colonial discourse theory, Nicholas Thomas argues that theory must be brought more often into a dialogical relation to localized historical research:
… it is becoming increasingly clear that only localized theories and historically specific accounts can provide much insight into the varied articulations of colonizing and counter-colonial representations and practices. Much writing in the field, however, seems less inclined to localize or historicize analysis, than put Fanon and Lacan (or Derrida) into a blender and take the result to be equally appetizing for premodern and modern; for Asian, African and American; for metropolitan, settler, indigenous and diasporic subjects. It is striking also that many writers stress, in principle, the localized character of colonial and postcolonial subjectivities, while resisting much engagement with either localities or subjects. I am not saying that Fanon's interests, or deconstruction, still less “theory” in general, are unimportant for the kinds of inquiries and critiques that need to be pursued, but that colonialism can only be traced through its plural and particularized expressions. The paramount irony of contemporary colonial studies must be that critics and scholars, who one presumes wish to expose the false universality and hegemony of imperial expansion and modernization, seem unwilling themselves to renounce the aspiration of theorizing globally on the basis of particular strands in European philosophy.22
The work of Homi K. Bhabha represents a particularly strong form of this impulse toward global theory, and Thomas attacks it on a number of grounds. Typically in Bhabha's essays there is a tendency not to examine specific fields of governmentality “while instead attributing general characteristics [such as hybridity, ambivalence and mimicry] … to the singular totality of colonial discourse.”23 Part of the weakness arises from Bhabha's use of “universalised psychoanalytic terms,”24 the generality of which is matched by the inclusiveness of cases to which they are made to refer. In Bhabha's essays, the totality “colonial discourse” is projected across a variety of local and historical contexts—from the Caribbean to Africa to India, as part of a general “colonial project.”25
Thomas's critique of Bhabha's work is conducted in part by reading it against the very different work of the Subaltern Studies scholars. The difference between these projects, Thomas suggests, “may arise from the fact that Bhabha is attempting to parade a theoretical and political genealogy, or array of affiliations.”26 This project is entirely different to the historicized critique advanced by the Subaltern Studies group: “Though mainly diasporic academics, their arguments have been deeply and consistently grounded in Indian history and politics, and at a considerable remove from the ‘Fanon etc.’ category which Bhabha frequently invokes.”27 Thomas's strategies for redressing the problems of current theory show at least a strategic alignment with the work of the Subaltern Studies scholars, and he advocates “a more socially and historically grounded kind of characterization, than … Bhahba … is interested in.”28 The most recent work of Amitav Ghosh, which emerges from his association with Subaltern Studies, follows a similar trajectory.
The term “subaltern” is drawn from Gramsci's essay “On the Margins of History,” and is used by the Subaltern Studies group to identify a mode of historical practice that seeks to recover an indigenous culture which it assumes to be unaffected by colonialism. This contentious claim is most clearly made in Ranajit Guha's Introduction to the first of the Subaltern Studies volumes (1982):
Parallel to the domain of elite politics there existed throughout the colonial period another domain of Indian politics in which the principal actors were not the dominant groups of the indigenous society or the colonial authorities but the subaltern classes … This was an autonomous domain … Far from being destroyed or rendered virtually ineffective … it continued to operate vigorously … adjusting itself to the conditions prevailing under the Raj.29
The most searching discussion of this project to date has been Rosalind O'Hanlon's review article, in Modern Asian Studies, on the first four volumes of Subaltern Studies. O'Hanlon expresses serious theoretical reservations about the project of recovering a subaltern consciousness, arguing that “at the very moment of this assault upon western historicism, the classic figure of western humanism—the self-originating, self-determining individual … is readmitted through the back door in the figure of the subaltern himself.”30 She warns that “recovering the experience” of those “hidden from history” involves theoretical assumptions about subjectivity and agency. The historian's task becomes one of “‘filling up’: of making an absence into presences, of peopling a vacant space with figures.” “If this is the task,” O'Hanlon asks, how is it be carried out without recuperating the subaltern as “a conscious human subject-agent … in the classic manner of liberal humanism?”31
In her own powerful reading of the Subaltern Studies project, Gayatri Spivak has argued in its defence that the contributors make “a strategic use of positivist essentialism in a scrupulously visible political interest.”32 As Robert Young puts it, Spivak “reorients subaltern history away from the retrieval of the subaltern's consciousness and will, an activity which ‘can be no more than a theoretical fiction to entitle the project of reading,’ towards the location and reinscription of subject-positions which are instrumental in forms of control and insurgency.”33 For Spivak, “the historian must persist in his efforts in this awareness, that the subaltern is necessarily the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic.”34
While Spivak implies that this is largely achieved in the Subaltern Studies essays, O'Hanlon does not accept that the idea of a “strategic essentialism” is effectively used, or even understood, by all of the contributors.35 She argues that the project of retrieving a subaltern consciousness “remains the dominant trope in the series”:
The difficulty … is that in the assertion—which is very difficult not to make, without having to abandon the strategy altogether—that subordinate groups have a history which is not given to them by elites, but is a history of their own, we arrive at a position which requires some subtlety and skill if it is to be held from slipping into an essentialist humanism … Skill of this kind, the ability to argue for a distinctness of practice without slipping into a metaphysics of presence, is clearly very difficult to achieve, and most of all so where our object is a recovery of presence. Some of the contributors possess this skill in greater proportion than others.36
Finally, O'Hanlon questions the political location and effects of the work of the Subaltern Studies scholars. To draw the conclusion, as Ranajit Guha does, “that our efforts can be co-terminous with the struggles of the dispossessed … seems to me fundamentally misconceived. We may wish in all faith for their freedom from marginality and deprivation … But if we ask ourselves why it is that we attack historiography's dominant discourses, why we seek to find a resistant presence which has not been completely emptied or extinguished by the hegemonic, our answer must surely be that it is in order to envisage a realm of freedom in which we ourselves might speak.”37
This brings us back to Spivak's argument that the essays in Subaltern Studies are a form of allegorical narration, a form of strong reading of the past that brings it into a subversive relation with the present. Invoking Paul De Man's notion of allegory, Spivak sees the articles as effecting a displacement of contemporary discursive systems. She notes that “all of the accounts of attempted discursive displacements provided by the group are accounts of failures.”38 I take Spivak's argument to mean that, in recounting the failures of subaltern groups, the historian is using the past allegorically, reading it in a way that disturbs the established “readings” or meanings not only of the past, but also of the present. A similar argument about the allegorical function of ethnography has been advanced by James Clifford in the essay “On Ethnographic Allegory”: “Allegory … denotes a practice in which a narrative … continuously refers to another pattern of ideas or events.” Clifford argues that ethnographic writing is allegorical in the sense that it invites interpretation: “to the extent that they are ‘convincing’ or ‘rich’ [all cultural descriptions] are extended metaphors, patterns of associations that point to coherent (theoretical, aesthetic, moral) additional meanings.”39
IN AN ANTIQUE LAND
Amitav Ghosh's most recent work is characterized by a “rich” metaphoric style that derives from his association with the Subaltern Studies project. This work includes the text published in Granta as “The Imam and the Indian” and the scholarly article “The Slave of MS.H.6,” published in Subaltern Studies in 1992, both of which were subsequently incorporated into the ethnography In an Antique Land (1993). Like the work of the Subaltern Studies scholars, and unlike the work of other diasporic Indians such as Spivak and Bhabha, these texts seem almost wilfully to avoid European theoretical models, grounding their method in a rigorous elaboration of archival and field research which offers itself as a series of “extended metaphors” for allegorical interpretation. These texts also share the concern with recovering subaltern consciousness as a “theoretical fiction” that motivates an allegorical reading of the past while seeking to avoid the “slide towards essentialism.”
In an Antique Land is an archaeology of a great mercantile civilization that, from about the tenth century to the sixteenth century, extended from Fez and Seville in the West, through Cairo and Aden around the Red Sea, across the Indian Ocean to Calicut and the Malabar coast. As Clifford Geertz observed in his review of the book, “in this mobile, polyglot and virtually borderless region, which no one owned and no one dominated, Arabs, Jews, Iberians, Greeks, Indians, various sorts of Italians and Africans pursued trade and learning, private lives and public fortunes, bumping up against one another … but more or less getting along, or getting by, within broad and general rules for communication, propriety and the conduct of business. It was, we might say, a sort of multicultural bazaar. Today this part of the world is divided, like the rest of the globe, into singular and separated national States.”40
Ghosh's point of entry into this space is a fleeting reference to an Indian slave in a collection of letters written in Egypt in the eleventh century. The slave, whose name was “Bomma,” belonged to the Jewish merchant Abraham Ben Yiju, who traded between Aden and Mangalore on the Malabar coast. Bomma's first appearance in print was in a letter to Ben Yiju from another merchant, Khalaf ibn Ishaq, written in Aden in 1148. Ghosh's reconstruction of Bomma's life and times is intercut by accounts of his search for textual evidence, which takes him to archives in England, North Africa and the United States, and of his field work in Egypt in 1980–81, 1988–89, and in 1990, just before the outbreak of the Gulf War.
“Bomma” is the subaltern consciousness whose recovery justifies Ghosh's allegorical reading of the destruction of a polyglot trading culture by Western influence. Unlike some contributors to Subaltern Studies, Ghosh develops a style of writing that is sufficiently nuanced and elusive to sustain the “theoretical fiction” of a recovery of presence without actually falling back into essentialism. This is achieved by a fluid and at times confusing deployment of the lexicons of both liberal humanism and post-structuralism, though without allowing his writing to be affiliated with either—in the hundreds of endnotes to In an Antique Land, there is not one that refers to a European theorist. Introducing the textual evidence of Bomma's life, Ghosh comments that “the [first] reference comes to us from a moment in time when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual existences are the literate and the consequential … the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time. But the slave of Khalaf's letter was not of that company: in his instance it was a mere accident that those barely discernible traces that ordinary people leave upon the world happen to have been preserved.”41 Ghosh's apparently confusing juxtaposition of the words “properly human, individual existences” with the Derridean term “trace” is part of his strategic avoidance of affiliation with either humanism or post-structuralism. This theoretical duplicity enables him to continue the project of recovering the subaltern consciousness while retaining an awareness of the inevitably textual nature of that process. This self-reflexivity is supported by the image of “the stage of modern history,” upon which the slave makes his fleeting appearance from the wings (p. 13). The image suggests both the literariness of Ghosh's own writing, and also the textuality of all history, which deals with textual “traces” of the “properly human.” Ghosh's writing flickers between suggesting a metaphysics of presence and a Derridean trace. In a theoretically elusive way he suggests that “real life” can only be grasped as a performance in the “theatre” of writing, which actually produces the presence it seems to describe.
Ghosh is playfully aware that “Bomma,” in Spivak's words, “can be no more than a theoretical fiction to entitle the project of his [allegorical] reading” of the past. The very title of his Subaltern Studies article, “The Slave of MS.H.6” is radically ambiguous, suggesting that the historical subject Bomma is still a slave of the manuscripts that bear his name; that writing cannot ground his identity. Like the genie of the Arabian Nights, the “real” Bomma is trapped inside the bottle of textuality, his hypothetical “presence” serving as the “absolute” and “theoretical limit” of Ghosh's allegory.
The metaphors through which Ghosh reconstructs the “real life” of his trading culture are derived by synecdoche from the historical circumstances of trade. Aden is characterized as “one of the principal conduits in the flow of trade between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean” (p. 16). In one of his letters to Khalaf, Ben Yiju informs him that a consignment of Indian pepper has been lost in a shipwreck off the narrow straits that lead into the Red Sea: “the currents there are notoriously treacherous; they have earned the Straits a dismal name, Bab al-Mandab, ‘the Gateway of Lamentation’” (p. 18). The texture of daily life, then, is built up imaginatively from textual traces that record the circulation of objects—pepper, paper, cardamom, a lost frying pan; it is this circulation of objects that signifies human culture. The “properly human” is not an essence but a practice—it exists in the circulation of symbolic objects.
This semiotic economy suggests a post-structuralist understanding of language and textuality. Yet Ghosh elusively introduces another lexicon to describe these textual traces. The letters are assumed to be a more or less efficient “conduit” for the “flow” of feeling between “individual” human agents who entrust their inner lives to cross the “treacherous straits” of language. If “business weighs heavily” on Khalaf's mind, it does so solely because the letter that bears news of the shipwreck effectively communicates the properly human. Ghosh comments, like a liberal humanist, that “despite all the merchandise it speaks of, the letter's spirit is anything but mercenary: it is lit with a warmth that … translation renders still alive and glowing, in cold English print. ‘I was glad,’ writes Khalaf ibn Ishaq ‘when I looked at your letter, even before I had taken notice of its contents. Then I read it, full of happiness and, while studying it, became joyous and cheerful’” (p. 18). We associate the figure of “translation” with a postmodern theory of language; but Ghosh asserts that translation “works” efficiently—that something of the “properly human” is conveyed by the freight of symbolic capital across the treacherous straits of language. This appears to be an example of that “slide towards essentialism” which O'Hanlon sees as characteristic of the project. But in Ghosh's text this is part of a general refusal to be pinned down—to strategically use an implied recovery of “presence” while at the same time forever retreating into a post-structuralist lexicon of textual traces.
Ghosh's use of the trope of circulation as a model for culture has an obvious affinity with American New Historicism. In the major texts of Stephen Greenblatt, for example, culture is seen as an effect of the circulation of mimetic capital. Despite this similarity, Ghosh's use of figures such as circulation and trade differs from New Historicism in certain key respects. Howard Felperin has criticized Stephen Greenblatt's work by discovering in it features of the high structuralist poetics Greenblatt disavows, arguing that what he is really seeking to describe is a “deep structure,” expressed through the imagery of circulation and exchange. Felperin argues that these figures are so pervasive as to constitute another version of the familiar high structuralist quest for the langue of so many paroles: “For these newly essentialist categories … are so inclusive as to apply to virtually every activity conceivable within every historical culture under the sun.”42 The real target of Felperin's attack, however, is the politics of the New Historicism. Just as structuralist poetics tended to be profoundly anti-historical in its attempts to explain the production of meaning by the internal relations of a self-contained synchronic system, Felperin suggests that the New Historicist model of circulation has the same potential to de-historicize the cultural practices it models:
In approaching Elizabethan culture as if it were a self-contained system of circulating energies cut off from his own cultural system, Greenblatt's cultural poetics, relinquishes its potential for an historical understanding that might exert political influence upon the present. For such an understanding to arise, the past would have to be constructed not as a remote object—as in empiricism and structuralism alike—but as a vital issue; not in terms of discrete self-containment but of persisting relation. To qualify as a political—as distinct from an antiquarian, archaeological, or anthropological—discourse, the study of past cultures must have present import and consequence. … In sum, a genuinely political historicism inscribes the present as well as the past; it is not only diachronic, but at the very least dialogic.43
It is precisely such a “dialogic” relation between past and present that Ghosh achieves in In an Antique Land. Its very title is ambiguous, suggesting, that although he is researching the history of medieval Egypt, the historian at every turn discovers continuities between past and present. This returns us to the concept of allegorical reading as a dialogic connection between levels or instances. Above all, the Western military interventions that have destroyed the ancient trading culture Ghosh describes make their presence felt again and again: the book begins with the Crusades and ends with the Gulf War. It is precisely this sense of living in the midst of “antique” problems that makes Ghosh's cultural poetics more politically engaged than Greenblatt's. It is a poetics that at once attends to the circulation of symbolic capital in the past, and also to the succession of such systems—their dialogic, or allegorical relation with contemporary cultural systems. This dialogic structure is inscribed in the complex temporality of Ghosh's text, which cuts insistently between past and present.
Three episodes stand out as exemplifying this dialogic or allegorical mode: they are Ghosh's account of the Cairo Geniza, his encounter with a village Imam, and his final visit to an American research library on the eve of the Gulf War.
Among the most suggestively allegorical episodes in the book is Ghosh's account of his visit to the Synagogue of Ben Ezra, or the Synagogue of the Palestinians in Cairo, which Ben Yiju attended in the early eleventh century, and where letters referring to Bomma were originally lodged. The Geniza was the archive of the Synagogue, and was used as a storehouse where writings containing the name of God could be kept to prevent their desecration. The Geniza was therefore founded on the metaphysical idea that writing can ground essences—in particular the identity of God's name (p. 56). As such, it makes a suggestive location as a storehouse for letters referring to the subaltern, whose consciousness is the supposed object of historical recovery. Yet in his description of the Synagogue, Ghosh deploys a postmodern idiom that playfully undercuts any suggestion of presence or recoverable origins. Originally built in the eleventh century, the old building was demolished in 1890 and a new one built in its place. That new structure is itself in ruins and in need of restoration: “a team of Canadian experts and restorers has arrived, Mountie-like, to rescue the Synagogue from the assaults of Time” (p. 58). Ghosh is aware that the Geniza in this new ruin is not the original, but “of course, you have no cause to be disappointed. … The fact is that you are standing upon the very site which held the greatest single collection of medieval documents ever discovered” (p. 59). Ghosh's hunt for the identity of the subaltern brings him to this simulacrum of the Geniza; inside there is not a presence, but an absence, even of the original letters, which have long since been dispersed.
The dispersal of the Geniza material during the late nineteenth century under the impact of European and particularly British “scholarship” coincides with the age of high imperialism and Orientalism. Ghosh offers his own account of how the Geniza was gutted in the name of scholarship as “a sly allegory on the intercourse between power and the writing of history” (p. 82). Here Ghosh is pointing to the “allegorical” quality of his writing—allegory in the sense invoked by Spivak, Clifford and Felperin as a dialogic relation between cultural instances. By elaborating on the social text of the past, Ghosh produces a commentary which invites us to interpret it in ways that subvert the authority of anthropology and scholarship in his own time.
The Geniza collection was produced in the first place by a medieval trading culture without borders, in which Arab and Hebrew traditions blend. The dispersal of the collection is attributed to the age of imperialism, which brought that culture to an end by the inscription of borders: “Trans-continental trade was no longer a shared enterprise … the geographical position that had once brought [Egypt] such great riches had now made her the object of the Great Powers' attentions, as a potential bridge to their territories in the Indian Ocean” (pp. 80–1). Ghosh connects these military and commercial forces directly with the development of Orientalist scholarship: “Over the same period that Egypt was gaining a new strategic importance within the disposition of European empires, she was also gradually evolving into a new continent of riches for the Western scholarly and artistic imagination. From the late seventeenth century onwards, Europe was swept by a fever of Egyptomania” (p. 81).
From the mid nineteenth century the Geniza was visited and described by several European scholars and antiquarians—Saphir, Firkowitch and Adler among them—and by the 1880's a steady flow of Geniza documents was already making its way into collections in Europe and America. By far the largest single acquisition was made by Solomon Schechter, Reader in Talmudics at Cambridge University. Ghosh describes the powerful conjunction of academic interest and British administrative influence that allowed Schechter to gather the most substantial collection of Geniza documents: “by the time Schechter arrived in Cairo, a beribboned letter from the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University was no mere piece of embossed stationery: it was the backroom equivalent of an imperial edict” (p. 91). Ghosh speculates on why the local community acceded to these incursions: “the motives for their extraordinary generosity are not hard to divine: like the elites of so many other groups in the colonized world, they evidently decided to seize the main chance at a time when the balance of power—the ships and the guns—lay overwhelmingly with England” (p. 92). The acquisition of the Geniza materials is an echo of the intimidation of the Malik of al-Ghazira, who was also induced by gunboat diplomacy to allow his country's wealth to be mined by the British. In 1898 the manuscripts that Schechter had brought back from Cairo were formally handed over to the Cambridge University Library (p. 95).
The first section of In an Antique Land ends at this point with the scholarly depletion of the treasures of the Cairo Geniza by Cambridge University, intercut with Ghosh's account of his own experiences in the modern Egyptian village of Lataifa. In the revised version of “The Imam and the Indian” Ghosh now develops continuities between the fate of the Geniza material and his own insertion into the history he is writing as an Oxford graduate researching in Egypt.
Recognizing that the Imam is a representative of “Tradition,” Ghosh wishes to interview him about his role as a healer, but he is confounded to find that the Imam has totally lost faith in his profession, which he now regards as a relic of the past. Instead, he shows him a glistening new biscuit tin: “half a dozen phials and a hypodermic syringe lay inside the box, nestling in a bed of soiled cotton wool … This is what he had been learning … the art of mixing and giving injections … There was a huge market for injections in the village; everybody wanted one” (p. 192). When the Imam realises that the fieldworker wants to ask about traditional medicine, he avoids the subject because the influence of the West has made it shameful: “I knew then that he would never talk to me about the remedies he had learned from his father; not merely because he was suspicious of me and my motives, but also because those medicines were as discredited in his own eyes as they were in every one else's” (p. 193). As a scholar, Ghosh stands in the same relation to the Imam as Schechter to the Geniza and its riches, and their feelings of shame and embarrassment are caused by their common imbrication in the larger forcefield of “the West”: “So there we were, the Imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilizations … At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there, in person” (p. 236). Like Schechter's sacking of the Cairo Geniza, this is another triumph for the West: “I felt myself a conspirator in the betrayal of the history that had led me to Nashawy; a witness to the extermination of a world of accommodations that I had believed to be still alive, and, in some tiny measure, still retrievable” (p. 237).
In this paper I have argued that Ghosh's empirical research can be read as an ethnographic allegory in James Clifford's sense—a form of commentary that uses the past to speak indirectly about the present. His essay in Subaltern Studies, “The Slave of MS.H.6,” begins with the image of the Cairo Geniza systematically raided by Cambridge anthropologists and Orientalists. It ends with the Indian researcher working in the bowels of an American library that recalls Fredric Jameson's description of the postmodern space of the Bonaventura Hotel:
Bomma's story ends in Philadelphia.
At the corner of 4th and Walnut, in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, stands a sleek modern building, an imposing structure that could easily be mistaken for the headquarters of a great multinational corporation. In fact, it is the Annenberg Research Institute, a centre for social and historical research; it owes its creation to the vast fortune generated by the first and most popular of America's television magazines, “TV Guide.” …
The documents are kept in the Institute's rare book room, a great vault in the bowels of the building, steel-sealed and laser-beamed, equipped with alarms that need no more than seconds to mobilize whole fleets of helicopters and police cars. Within the sealed interior of this vault are two cabinets that rise out of the floor like catafalques. The documents lie inside them, encased in sheets of clear plastic, within exquisitely crafted covers.
Between the leaves of one of those volumes lies a torn sheet of paper covered with Ben Yiju's distinctive handwriting. … the characters are tiny and faint, as though formed by an unsteady and ageing hand. …
In Philadelphia then, cared for by the spin-offs of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” and protected by the awful might of the American police, lies entombed the last testament of the life of Bomma, the toddy-loving fisherman from Tulunad.
Bomma, I cannot help feeling, would have been hugely amused.
This is a remarkably restrained and highly suggestive piece of writing that is surely to be taken as an ironic raspberry blown at the theoretical and critical pretensions of the West. The archive is a synecdoche of postmodernism and postmodern theoretical practice, with its globalizing tendency, and its complicity with the most imperialistic aspects of the modern American state. In Philadelphia, Amitav Ghosh might be travelling in the West, but his sly civility ensures that he is not travelling with the West. To recover the subaltern consciousness, Ghosh has learned not French but village Arabic; instead of affiliating his text with high theory, he has spent years reading ancient manuscripts and talking to Egyptian peasants. The painstakingly specific and situated nature of his historical research and anthropological inquiry, and the way he has foregrounded his own location, not only in relation to his Egyptian informants but also to the intellectual and military culture of the West, is a challenging model to literary critics in the Western academy whose critical practice involves the application of high theory to third world texts—we might call that “travelling in the East.” The fact that In an Antique Land ends with Bomma's laughter does not mean that Ghosh thinks he has recovered the presence of the subaltern. It is no more a “real” voice than the transistor radio in the ruins of the Star in The Circle of Reason. Bomma remains the slave of MS.H.6, of textuality. But it does mean that Ghosh has performed a conjuring trick, using that “voice” to intervene allegorically in the present, not sliding into essentialism so much as sustaining a writing that is itself “slippery” in its dealings with the vexed issue of identity politics. It is an exemplary instance of what Spivak calls a “strategic essentialism.”44
Amitav Ghosh, “The Slave of MS.H.6,” Subaltern Studies, VII (1992), 175–6.
Rosalind O'Hanlan, “Recovering the Subject: Subaltern Studies and Histories of Resistance in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies, 22, 1 (1988), 218.
Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, p. 20.
Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture: Anthropology, Travel and Government, Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1994, p. 24.
O'Hanlon, “Recovering the Subject,” p. 201.
James Clifford, “The Transit Lounge of Culture,” Times Literary Supplement, 4596, 3 May 1991, p. 7.
Rosaldo, Culture and Truth, p. 44.
———. p. 208.
Amitav Ghosh, “The Imam and the Indian,” Granta, 20 (Winter 1986), 135–46.
Cited in Clifford, “The Transit Lounge of Culture,” p. 8.
———. p. 8.
James Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, p. 4.
Anthony Burgess, Review of The Circle of Reason, New York Times Book Review, 6 July 1986, p. 6.
Amitav Ghosh, The Circle of Reason, 1986; London: Abacus, 1987, p. 53. All subsequent references are to this edition and appear in parentheses in the text.
See Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991.
Rosaldo, Culture and Truth, p. 217.
Sara Suleri, The Rhetoric of English India, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, 1988: London: Black Swan, 1989, p. 9. All subsequent references are to this edition and appear in parentheses in the text.
Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line, 1917; London: Dent, 1962, pp. v–viii.
James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988, pp. 258–9.
Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Critical Fanonism,” Critical Inquiry, 17, 3 (Spring 1991), 469–70.
Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture, pp. ix–x.
———. p. 43.
———. p. 47.
———. p. 48.
———. p. 47.
———. pp. 50–1.
Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies, I: Writings on South Asian History and Society, Delhi: Oxford UP, 1982, p. 4.
O'Hanlon, “Recovering the Subject,” p. 191.
———. p. 196.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography,” Subaltern Studies, IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society, ed. Ranajit Guha, Delhi: Oxford UP, 1985, p. 342.
Robert Young, White Mythologies: Writing History and the West, London: Routledge, 1990, p. 160.
Spivak, “Deconstructing Historiography,” p. 346.
O'Hanlon, “Recovering the Subject,” p. 196.
———. p. 197.
———. p. 219.
Spivak, “Deconstructing Historiography,” p. 333.
James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Allegory,” in Clifford and Marcus, eds, Writing Culture, pp. 99–100.
Clifford Geertz, Review of Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land, The Australian, 25 August 1993, p. 30 (reprinted from New Republic).
Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land, New York: Knopf, 1993, pp. 16–17. All subsequent references are to this edition and appear in parentheses in the text.
Howard Felperin, The Uses of the Canon, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990, p. 152.
———. pp. 155–6.
A version of this paper was delivered at the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association Twenty-Eighth Congress, University of New England, Armidale, NSW, Australia, 6–10 February 1995. For their constructive comments, I wish to thank Ken Goodwin, Subhash Jaireth, Phillip Kitley, Philippa Kelly, Christopher Lee and Brian Musgrove, and members of the post-colonial discussion group, University of Queensland.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
SOURCE: “Post-Colonial Pox,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4870, August 2, 1996, p. 23.
[In the following review, Baker offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
The existence of “research luck” has been often remarked; a serendipitous book almost leaps from the shelf, and fortuitous pieces of evidence obtrude themselves on the researcher in ways that seem almost supernatural. Scientific breakthroughs, too, have famously happened as happy accidents. These phenomena are given uniquely sinister treatment in The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, an ingenious and bewitching novel which proposes a dark, secret history of malaria research.
It opens in a near-future New York, where a computer clerk named Antar is having his daily battle of wills with his computer, Ava. Ava has no qualms about reporting him to his employer, the International Water Council, if she senses she doesn't have his full attention, and they have already threatened to reduce his pension. Today, Ava has trawled up a mystery item in one of her filing inventories, which Antar recognizes as the burned remains of an ID card; more than that, he recognizes the man it belonged to, Murugan, an eccentric colleague who went missing in Calcutta back in 1995.
Murugan's hobby-horse was the research career of Sir Ronald Ross, who won the Nobel Prize in 1906 for discovering how malaria is conveyed by mosquitoes. “Take it from me,” he told Antar over lunch one day, “as far as the subject of Ronnie Ross goes I'm the only show in town. … If his wife would have asked ‘How was your day, honey?’ I could have told her.” Murugan's theory is that far from being the heroic lone pioneer, Ross was the tool of other forces: “He thinks he's doing experiments on the malaria parasite. And all the time it's him who is the experiment on the malaria parasite.”
Much of The Calcutta Chromosome's morbid fascination comes from the strangeness of malaria itself, which will be new to most readers. Malaria, which both Murugan and Antar have had, is not only a disease but a cure. For reasons poorly understood, it was the last hope in the final stage of syphilis, a discovery for which a pathologist named Julius von Wagner-Jauregg won the Nobel in 1927; artificially induced malaria was used as the treatment for syphilitic paresis until the 1940s.
Ronald Ross, the great white man of science, is the dupe of two of his humble lab wallahs, one of them an illiterate woman who becomes the priestess of a malaria cult still active in the 1990s. Long before von Wagner-Jauregg, she already knows that malaria has an effect on syphilis, but her goal is immortality. And here Ghosh adds a further, fictional, turn of the screw to Murugan's observation that “Fact is, malaria does stuff to the brain that we're still only guessing at.” The secret of the malarial “Calcutta chromosome” is the direct transference of psychic traits from one body to another, allowing a metempsychosis that amounts to reincarnation.
It is only with the addition of little votive figures in clay, bearing a pigeon—used in the malaria experiments—and a crude microscope that Ghosh is in danger of making his material too picturesque. Similarly, when a vital clue arrives as fish-wrapping, a woman shivers, “despite the clammy heat,” and says to Murugan: “So you think it's all connected? The message that was sent to you, and these bits of paper that the fish were wrapped in?” With the introduction of Theosophists and Gnostics on top, Ghosh seems to be constructing a kind of malarial Foucault's Pendulum.
But the core events are leaner and more concertedly sinister, accompanied by a ghost story about a remote railway station where a lantern lures travellers to their doom (a handy way of disposing of meddlesome sahibs, and an inset image of the larger dynamic). As the reader follows the events leading up to Murugan's disappearance and watches Antar becoming ensnared in the book's recurrent patterns, the central plot comes to resemble those popular supernatural stories—usually tales rather than novels—in which a protagonist is caught up in the serial transmission of a curse; encountering a man condemned to eternal life, for example, who tells his strange story to the traveller who must then take his place in turn.
The Calcutta Chromosome is probably more commercial than Ghosh's previous work, but it is a rich and satisfying novel. Ghosh's post-colonial thematics are understated but integral, as the colonial master is manipulated by the servants he hardly notices, and Ghosh plays off Western discourses of knowledge against a priestess's “counter-science” of silence. The semi-comic picture of Ross as an insightless colonial hearty is not calculated to please anyone who respects his achievements, but it is even-handedly matched by the jarring brashness of Murugan. Great research, it seems, sometimes chooses the most unlikely vessels for its work.
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SOURCE: “Oh Death, Where Is Thy Bite?,” in Spectator, Vol. 277, No. 8771, August 24, 1996, pp. 25–26.
[In the following review, Hulse offers a negative assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome, criticizing the characters' grating slang dialogue and the improbability of the plot.]
Immortality has not figured very prominently in literature since Swift's Struldbrugs, and Amitav Ghosh's donné ought by rights, in the age of genetic engineering, to have fired a fiction of unusual trajectory. His subject is malaria, and its transmission by the anopheles mosquito. What if the principle by which the disease is imprinted on the mosquito's target could be adapted for genetic imprinting, so that an entire personality, by being imprinted upon succeeding generations of host bodies, might be chromosomatically granted immortality?
That immortality, if I understand Ghosh's bee-in-bonnet protagonist Murugan correctly, has been achieved by a bizarre Indian conspiracy overarching the generations, a conspiracy in which a select community of the living dead seek new host bodies as they extend their franchise. The Calcutta Chromosome is a melodramatic thriller set simultaneously in three periods: the 1890s, when the anopheles mosquito was identified as the carrier of malaria by Sir Ronald Ross, who received a Nobel Prize for his work in 1902; the 1990s, when Murugan pursues his pet theory concerning the truth about Ross's research; and a futuristic present in which Antar, an Egyptian computer operator working for a global database in New York, tries to discover the facts of Murugan's disappearance in India in 1995.
Ghosh's is one of those plots in which every character, no matter how casually encountered, proves deeply implicated; in which computers decades hence are magically able to reconstruct a past to which none can have had sufficient access; and in which character depth comes a poor second to character function. It is story-board rather than novel, a yarn tailored to a Hollywood idea of narrative and shorn of the Swiftian considerations that would have given an edge to it. Grammar is the least of Ghosh's worries:
He began to bitterly regret the impulse that had caused him to leave his own microscope behind, at his family's New England home, or else it would have been all too easy to set up an improvised laboratory right where he was.
And there are other problems. Chief among them is the grating style of Murugan's speech. Here is his account of Ross's commitment to malaria research:
He's married, he's got kids, he's about to hit his midlife crisis; he should be saving for the power lawnmower and what does he do instead? He looks in the mirror and asks himself: ‘What's hot in medicine right now? What's going to bag me a Nobel?’
Forty pages of Ghosh's exposition are told by Murugan with this burger-joint facetiousness, and the infantility is so wearying that I wonder if Ghosh, for some reason best known to himself, wants us to think his hero is an idiot. Furthermore, the notion that a serious scientist might calculatingly cast about for a line of research that could earn a Nobel Prize is too vulgar for words, though I'm prepared to believe that such people exist; what I will not believe is that Ross can have thought in this way in 1895 (according to Murugan), a year before Alfred Nobel died and the preparatory work for the Nobel Prize was begun under the terms of his will.
Two chapters near the end of The Calcutta Chromosome unexpectedly contain the most arresting Indian ghost story I have read in many a year. Ghosh can write when he wants to, but the frustration of reading the other 270-odd pages is a high price to pay for the pleasure of that tale.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 548
SOURCE: “The Story Bug,” in New Statesman, Vol. 125, No. 4299, September 6, 1996, p. 47.
[In the following review, Chew offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
With its dazzling and haunting mix of science fiction, the history of malaria research, thriller, ghost story and postcolonial allegory, Amitav Ghosh's new novel is—like his previous work—wonderfully clever as well as a good read. Set in the not-too-distant future but covering in its sweep the 1880s and 1890s (crucial years in the medical history of malaria), The Calcutta Chromosome finds its driving force in the idea of research. Specialised knowledge carries the narrative, and is fired by the character's obsessive energies into mesmerising talk. This has all the excitement and frustrations of the chase, with the tangled operations of accident and design, the ground-breaking discoveries as well as the near-misses.
Antar is a bored computer clerk employed by the International Water Council in New York. In the course of identifying an item from one of the endless inventories that AVA (the computer) is programmed to file, he is stirred to curiosity by the familiar image of a metal chain and its scrap of ID card. A closer check points to the owner as Murugan, a colleague reported missing in Calcutta since August 1995. Murugan was an eccentric who held himself to be the “greatest living expert” on the Nobel-winning bacteriologist, Sir Ronald Ross.
Ross's fame rests upon his work on malaria and its transmission by the anopheles mosquito. According to Murugan, however, this “discovery” had been anticipated by local knowledge. Far from being a lone genius, Ross had been steered towards the right conclusions by covert assistants under the direction of Mangala, the mysterious sweeper-woman at the PG Hospital in Calcutta.
As Antar recalls, such ironic twists marked the rest of Murugan's idiosyncratic account of malaria research. He claimed that, about the time that artificially induced malaria became accepted as a cure for syphilis in Europe, a form of the treatment was being meted out by Mangala to syphilitics in the grounds of PG Hospital. The treatment probably led Mangala to observe the malaria's parasite's ability to carry personality traits from malaria donor to recipient—a process of transmission that points to reincarnation. All guesswork on his part, as Murugan was prepared to acknowledge. Nevertheless, 100 years after Ross had “bagged a Nobel,” Murugan is searching the streets of Calcuttaa for ongoing traces of Mangala's malaria cult and for the secret of a chromosome outside “the standard Mendelian pantheon.”
Beyond Murugan's obsessions, a sharp sense of the interactivity between science and counter-science emerges from his hypnotic volubility and punchy assertions. If fame was the spur behind the English scientist's endeavours, the sweeper-woman's interest in malaria was also prompted by a desire for immortality of a kind. If Ross was little more than a tool of forces he failed to recognise, then it is still the case that Mangala needed him to take the existing knowledge of malaria forward.
Stranger than all else in Ghosh's novel, perhaps, is the malaria parasite itself. Its paradoxical nature (at once disease and cure) and remarkable talent for self-renewal makes it an apt figure for the mysterious process of story-telling itself. Like parasites, the tales Murugan hears take possession of him, are repeated and transform themselves in retelling.
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SOURCE: A review of The Calcutta Chromosome, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 1, Winter, 1997, pp. 221–22.
[In the following review, Sen offers a positive assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
The Calcutta Chromosome is Amitav Ghosh's fourth substantial work of prose. He has already written two novels, The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines, as well as a book of creative nonfiction, In an Antique Land, all of which have received widespread critical attention and praise. Those familiar with Ghosh's earlier work will at once recognize the macrocosmic links his latest work has with the earlier ones, not in terms of similarity (in fact, stylistically the novels are entirely dissimilar) but in terms of linking various landscapes and vocation. By training, Ghosh is a social anthropologist, and therefore it is not surprising that he brings to his art of writing an exactitude of construction and a clarity of language and style. The way one handles content and themes in a novel, however, is a consequence of one's intellect and genius of creativity. Ghosh possesses all that, and therefore his new novel is able to take the reader through the multiwired world of computer technology, archeology, and tropical medicine that simultaneously traverses an unusually variegated landscape: that of New York, Egypt, and Calcutta.
At the level of story, the novel is about an accidental discovery of an identity card of an old colleague, Murugan, by Antar, an Egyptian working as a computer operator in New York. This curiously leads him to the world of Sir Ronald Ross, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who in 1898 solved the “malaria puzzle” in Calcutta. Ross primarily worked in Secunderabad and Calcutta, a white man in a nonwhite country. His research, imagination, and poetry, Murugan's own encoded quest, Antar's childhood and bewilderment, and the whole equation of secrecy and the unfamiliar create a chilling overall narrative.
Another important strand in the book is painted through Urmila Roy, a journalist whose movements allow us to see the present-day lower-middle-class Calcutta, revisit real locales such as Rabindra Sadan and Lower Circular Road, and experience the world of Bengali literary fiction and culture. There is always a tension between the said and the unsaid, the known and the unknown, and between what is considered eerie and what is normal.
The promotional blurb says that the book “is a medical thriller, a Victorian ghost story and a scientific quest,” but I would be more inclined to say that it is in fact a literary thriller that contains within its folds advanced science, intellectual exploration, and fertile imagination. Set in two sections, “August 20: Mosquito Day” and “The Day After,” and comprising a total of forty-five swift chapters, the novel is equally brisk-paced from its very incipience. The narrative, with its wonderful host of characters, swerves, twists, and loops with sharp-edged velocity. Not only do the diction and plot lend themselves well to such a sustained pace, but so does the superimposed shift of scenes, motives, and intent.
Cleverly constructed and beautifully written, The Calcutta Chromosome infects both the imagination and emotion of the reader hauntingly and convincingly. It is also a book full of understated humor and humanism, crucial aspects that allow one to keep one's vicissitudes in balance. Before realizing it, the reader has reached the end of the book, entirely transported in a weave of creation. Here Amitav Ghosh not only corroborates his reputation as being among the best writers of his generation in India, but also confirms his position as one of the finest literary writers on the contemporary international scene.
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SOURCE: “Once Bitten,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 21, 1997, p. 13.
[In the following positive review, Panosian discusses the scientific aspects of The Calcutta Chromosome.]
“Murugan sat suddenly upright, the sweat pounding off his face, not sure whether he was still dreaming or awake. The net was buzzing with mosquitoes; he could see them dancing like motes, in the finger of light that bisected his bed. His whole body was aflame, covered with bites. He had been scratching himself furiously in his sleep; he could see blood on his fingernails, and on the sheets.”
Blood, mosquitoes and malaria are all talismans imbued with mystical powers in The Calcutta Chromosome, Amitav Ghosh's latest book, deliciously subtitled A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery. Ghosh, a Bengal-born anthropologist living in New York City, ought to know. In his native Calcutta, malaria is a malady as familiar as the common cold, albeit more sinister. Even today, this tropical invasion of red corpuscles claims 1 million to 2 million human lives every year.
Malaria's not the only microbial scourge featured in The Calcutta Chromosome. Syphilis too rears its ugly head, and for good reason. Here's a clue. In the pre-penicillin era, dementia paralytica was sometimes treated by artificially induced malarial fever, in hopes that it might reverse the late syphilitic meltdown of the brain and other tissues. If the practice seems primitive in the 1990s, remember that it earned its creator, Julius Wagner von Jauregg, a Nobel Prize in 1927.
Back to Ghosh. His thriller opens in near-future Manhattan with Antar, a depressed Egyptian émigré relegated to spending his pre-retirement years as an at-home systems analyst for LifeWatch, a nonprofit consultancy to the International Water Council. Antar's sole companion, AVA, is a computer who performs two functions: It helps him work and monitors his every move. But one day AVA's holographic imagery delivers up something special, a seductive relic of the 1990s. It is a metal chain and an attached scrap of identity badge bearing the name of Murugan, LifeWatch's onetime principal archivist. Murugan, Antar recalls, was a “cocky little rooster of a man” who considered himself the supreme authority on Surgeon Maj. Ronald Ross, the real-life pukka sahib of the Indian Medical Service who was awarded the 1902 Nobel Prize for decrypting the malaria life cycle in the Anopheles mosquito. Antar, who lunched with Murugan just before the latter left New York to pursue further research on Ross, also knows that Murugan has been missing since Aug. 21, 1995, the day after the Ross commemorative World Mosquito Day.
With the introduction of Ross as a character (admittedly, he has a non-speaking part), readers of The Calcutta Chromosome receive a fore-shadowing of what is to follow, namely, a rollicking ride between the past and the future, real and imagined history, science and counter-science. Along the way they meet a baroque cast, from dhooley bearers, street urchins, spiritualists and journalists to Phulboni, an eminent bellettrist; Soldani Das, a retired film star; and Mrs. Aratounian, the elderly proprietress of the guest house where Murugan has his psychedelic malaria dream.
Ghosh teases readers by peeling away—like layers of the proverbial onion—the subplots and characters that ultimately unveil the secret force in The Calcutta Chromosome. It is Mangala, an illiterate (and fictitious) sweeper-woman who, in the late 1890s, cleaned Ross's bungalow laboratory on the grounds of the (real) Presidency General Hospital in Calcutta. Ghosh wickedly presents Mangala as the true discoverer of malaria in mosquitoes, and Ross as a somewhat undeserving genius whom she manipulates into a partial understanding of the protozoan's life cycle. Why partial? Because in Ghosh's chimera of fact and fantasy, Mangala has stumbled on a far greater wonder, one that she can conceal only by distracting Ross with a few tidbits of truth.
Mangala, it emerges, has been secretly treating advanced syphilitics with blood containing avian malaria obtained by slitting the throats of pigeons that flock on the hospital grounds. In the process, she inadvertently perfects a genetic technique for transposing personality traits from one human being to another. Because her clandestine experiments yield a measure of immortality, Mangala is deified by cult followers.
There's much more, delivered in fast-paced chapters that ultimately bring us back to Antar, but at least you can begin to fathom some of the intricate connections of Ghosh's characters from mid-Victorian times through 21st century cyberspace.
In reading The Calcutta Chromosome, one can certainly forgive the author's disrespect of the eccentric Ross. He was in truth a “huntin' fishin' shootin' colonial type” as Ghosh writes, who, having turned to malaria research only after unsuccessfully pursuing a literary career, may well have lucked out in winning his Nobel. One can also forgive the novel's bizarre science, assuming (one hopes) that any graduate of a halfway decent high school biology class would be able to spot the charming absurdity of Ghosh's non-Mendelian genetic sleight of hand. However, through his richly textured and enthralling pseudo-history, social anthropologist-turned-writer Ghosh plays to another hidden yearning that is not so preposterous and, in these premillennial days, possibly just as Western as it is Eastern, and that is the yearning for reincarnation and/or magical reinvention of our less-than-perfect selves.
The novel brings to mind another failed genetic theorist who claimed the heritability of acquired biological traits, Trofim Lysenko (1898–1976). Lysenko, a Russian peasant with meager education, was catapulted from humble plant breeder to Stalin's leading agronomist because of his Marxist biological notion (unsupported by scientific data) that winter wheat could be transformed into a fast-growing spring species by deliberate “teaching” and “exposure” of seeds. His grievous error led to widespread Soviet famine and finally placed him in the highest ranks of 20th century scientific charlatans. Should readers become too mesmerized by Ghosh's genetic fantasies, it would be wise to recall Lysenko's ignominious downfall.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2142
SOURCE: “Rushdie's Children,” in Nation, Vol. 265, No. 9, September 29, 1997, pp. 36–40.
[In the following essay, Kumar analyzes the reception to and importance of Indian writers who write in English, using Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosome as his primary examples.]
“India: The Fiction Issue” sang the cover of The New Yorker at the newsstand run by a Gujarati man inside Penn Station. On the bright cover, topped with turmeric sunset hues, sat a stone Lord Ganesha browsing through a couple of books, the task made easier because He has more than two hands. And emerging from a thicket, dressed for a safari, were a white couple, mouths agape.
This has been the season of the discovery of India—presumably because it is the fiftieth-anniversary year of Indian independence and not because India, under World Bank/I.M.F. dictates, has introduced wide-scale “structural adjustments,” exponentially increasing the commercial traffic between India and the United States. (Jesse Helms, whose conservatism is old enough to deserve an anniversary of its own, congratulated an Indian-American audience recently for its enthusiasm for U.S. capitalism: “Everything that you good friends who are citizens of this country of ours have worked for—opening the Indian economy and improving relations—is coming to pass.”) Welcome to the literature of the New Economic Policy.
I grew up in India under the stultifying shadow of the nationalist myth that we were all the children of Mahatma Gandhi. Now, if The New Yorker is to be believed. we are all the children of Salman Rushdie. A bit extreme, perhaps, but indulge me, dear reader. For we live in an extreme world. And one of the features of this world is that publications from Western metropoles have the power to be the god of all things—especially things from the famished, resourceful regions of the Third World.
In one such powerful venue, The New York Times, the publication of Rushdie's Midnight's Children was characterized as “a Continent finding its voice.” The Delhi-based critic Aijaz Ahmad remarked caustically, “As if one has no voice if one does not speak in English.”
In the editorial introduction to The New Yorker, Bill Buford repeated the same fiction, talking of what he calls “Indian fiction” as the literary output in only one language, English, and that too by recent, mostly expatriate, authors. In his own survey of Indian writing in the same issue, Rushdie rather briskly and a bit disingenuously inrushes away post-independence writing in other languages of India as not being as “strong” or “important” as the literary output in English during the same period. “Admittedly,” he says, “I did my reading only in English, and there has long been a genuine problem of translation in India.” But this confession isn't intended as a genuine qualification, it would seem and it only inoculates his judgment against further inquiry. No mention is made of the explosion of Dalit (literally, the oppressed referring to the untouchable castes) writing in Marathi, for example, which represents a radical rewriting not only of the canon but of the very notion of the literary.
Like the Times, Buford reduces the history of writing in India—in at least eighteen other languages but also in a variety of other contexts, not the least of which was the nationalist movement—to one single publication in the West, as cozily close to the present as the year 1981, the year “that Salman Rushdie published Midnight's Children, a book that … made everything possible.”
Even if that were true, such a contention would beg the question: Why is it so? Or, what does it say about the historical invisibility of others and their languages? But Buford's statement isn't true. Even if we take novels written only in, say, Hindi or Urdu, around the singular event of the partition of India in 1947—the event that constitutes the bloody underside of what we're celebrating this year—very little that has been written in English in India approaches the eloquent expressions in those novels of the woes, the divided hopes, or the numb, demented silences of 10 million uprooted lives.
And yet there is an undeniable force to several new novels written in English by Indian novelists. How are we to read them outside the ignorant and self-congratulatory rhetoric of Western publishing? How can we frame this writing with issues that join, rather than separate, them from other milieus both in India and the world?
Arundhati Roy's moving first novel, The God of Small Things, has created a publishing sensation not only in the West but also in India—where, of course, some gods fare far better than others. But, this is not a novel about those gods that dwell in temples or mosques. The violence at the heart of the novel has nothing to do with, for instance, the demolition in 1992 of a mosque by right wing Hindu zealots in the Indian town of Ayodhya. The communal frenzy in Hindu-Muslim riots had led the historian Gyan Pandey to comment that violence in Indian historiography is often “written up” only as “aberration” and “absence.” So that an interrogation of an experience like the trauma of Ayodhya makes it essential, as the critic Rustom Bharucha has put it, to produce another kind of historiography, one that “do[es] not neutralise the necessity of writing, but acknowledge[s], nonetheless, the gaps and holes in it.”
I invoke the Ayodhya violence here because Roy engages the recall of—rather, the recoil from—violence and the difficulty of ever articulating its trauma. Her novel is set in a small town in Kerala where the police inspector taps the breasts of a divorced, upperclass woman, in front of her small children, when she comes to inquire after her jailed lover, a Communist worker from an untouchable caste. The policeman uses his baton to touch Ammu's breasts: “Gently. Tap tap. As though he was choosing mangoes from a basket. Pointing out the ones that he wanted packed and delivered.”
We are offered this in the first pages of the book. The rest of the novel is not only a keen, unremitting revelation of the jagged edges of the holes in memory, it's also a nearly visible attempt by Ammu's two little kids, a pair of dizygotic twins, to grasp the meaning of those events and the words that surround their mother. Words like “illegitimate children” and “veshya” (whore). That long journey leads to the slow madness of language and to silence, to deaths from lonely griefs, and the sweet, small, bitter consolations of incestuous caring.
Writing about the traditional Indian dance form Kathakali, Roy says “the Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. … You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don't.” In The God of Small Things, you know “who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again.”
It is possible that the novel can't tell more because it discovers its own postcolonial heart of darkness in caste violence and the humiliation of domestic abuse. (“The hidden fish of shame in a sea of glory.”) But, perhaps connected with that is also the possibility that Roy refuses to hope for anything beyond the horror she contemplates. Those who had fought are now dead; those who are alive only happen to be survivors. The untouchable barely speaks in the narrative, and it's likely that when the story is over, all you can remember of him is his glittering smile. The subaltern with perfect teeth.
The subalterns in Amitav Ghosh's latest novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, are even more mysterious, represented by shadowy, occult figures in Calcutta and New York City of the near future. Our uncanny subalterns are preoccupied with the search for a unique chromosome with links to the discovery of the malarial parasite; their meetings and intrigue take place as much in the margins of colonial history as in the postmodern dimensions of cyberspace. In this novel too, language leads to ritual madness, as surely as the fever and delirium that results from the onset of malaria. The result is a history lesson fringed at its edges with a hallucinogenic glow.
In the year 1902, a British doctor, Ronald Ross, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery—in the summer of 1898, in Calcutta—that the malarial parasite is carried in the stomach of the anopheles mosquito. The Calcutta Chromosome raises suspicions: Were there others in India, unlettered but savvy, who actually handed this information to Ross? Were they members of a secret society with their own designs about using Ross to find out more? These are the questions posed by a fast-talking L. Murugan (“Morgan” to you), whose speech is spiked with American colloquialisms; and it is Morgan's bizarre search through the lanes of history and the bylanes of Calcutta, mobbed with disturbing coincidences, that keeps one turning the pages.
Ghosh is in equal parts a historian and a novelist. Consider his fine piece on the Indian National Army in The New Yorker double issue. His third book, In an Antique Land, an engaging weave of archival research and travel writing, was excerpted both in Granta magazine and in Subaltern Studies VII, a collection of academic writings on South Asian history and society. The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh's fourth novel, is an intelligent thriller and reflects both those affiliations—with a twist.
The critic Franco Moretti, commenting on the ideology of detective fiction, writes that the genre “enacts the antithesis between life and property and between life and individuality: to have one, it is necessary to give up the other. Kafka's inexorable law is already at work, but detective fiction cannot see the Castle that promulgates it.”
Ghosh's novel stumbles into that trap too. Even while calling into question the claims and certainties of Western science, The Calcutta Chromosome finds redemption only in the tyranny of the secret society and its mysterious, mystical silence. And Morgan, in what is a disheartening representation of the interrogative, Nietzschean intellectual, is condemned at the end to syphilitic dementia and the terror of isolation.
Is that cringing figure in any sense an approximation of the modern Indian writer in English? Let us first ask the question: Who would make that writer cringe?
As we learn in Suketu Mehta's report, published in a Granta special issue on India, the rise to prominence of the right-wing Hindu party Shiv Sena in Mumbai has been based on its demonization of minorities, who are seen as foreigners. A part of that nativist ideology is also the wholesale rejection of the English language—and hence of these writers. But? Mehta tells us, the real condition for writers' isolation is not the contempt in which the right wing would hold them but their insulation from the consequences of their actions. Rushdie's victimization is an exception that pretty much proves the rule.
In the previous decade or 50, magical realism has become more and more a tool of the expatriate writer, the N.R.I. (in Indian bureaucratese, Non-Resident Indian). It has only compounded, in my opinion, the distance of exile. Of course, there have been advantages. In Rushdie's hands, magical realism has freed the language from the rigidities of an official Babu English, and it has fed the appetites of the narrative on the delights of the imagination. Nonetheless, it has given the writer illusory shortcuts to the heart of history. Not only because it is easier to write a poem than to organize a march in a slum torn by a Hindu-Muslim riot but also because the real as a difficulty or challenge becomes merely a textual affair and not a social one.
We need more reports that carry the burden of the present in all its urgency. More intellectuals like K. Balagopal, a scientist and human rights worker on behalf of Andhra peasants, who writes in English and Telugu. Or Mahasweta Devi, a prolific writer of fiction and drama, who has also written valuable journalism in both Bengali and English on the condition of Santhal tribals.
I end by quoting Devi because her example poses a challenge not only to writers but also to readers of Indian writing: “Why should American readers want to know from me about Indian tribals, when they have present-day America? How was it built? Only in the names of places the Native American legacy survives.” That is a lesson I want to keep in mind when I teach novels by Roy or Ghosh or Devi to students at the University of Florida. In this town it sometimes seems that the only thing that makes another man my brother is that we root for the same football squad and piss warm beer on the other team, named after a Native American tribe that today doesn't even have a truck named after it.
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SOURCE: “Malarial Dreams,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXVII, No. 50, December 14, 1997, p. 7.
[In the following review, Todd offers a negative assessment of The Calcutta Chromosome, faulting the plot elements as underdeveloped and incohesive.]
Last summer, in a special Indian fiction issue of The New Yorker, Amitav Ghosh was one of 11 writers included in a group photo of leading Indian novelists. The label “Indian novelist,” applied to Ghosh, is slightly misleading, since there's nothing distinctively Indian about Ghosh's writing.
Born in Calcutta and currently living in New York City, Ghosh tends toward the international. His prose doesn't sound Indian: It's the polished, textbook-perfect English of CNN reports. His books of fiction and nonfiction (The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land) are set in places as diverse as 12th-century Egypt and contemporary London, and his characters are unrooted, itinerant types. He's less interested in describing a single culture than in examining the interaction between cultures and histories on a global scale.
His third novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, is no exception. It spans one century and three continents, and the main characters are an Egyptian data analyst and a malaria-obsessed Indian living in New York City. There's no easy way to describe The Calcutta Chromosome. It's part science fiction, part history, part thriller, part detective story. Certain chapters are reminiscent of Dickens or Poe, while others feel like something out of “The X-Files.” It's an ambitious, often entertaining novel that addresses, with mixed success, big questions about history, science, knowledge and identity.
The novel is framed by the story of Antar, a lonely, low-level, overworked Egyptian data analyst, and Murugan, his Indian colleague. Murugan has a strange theory about Ronald Ross, the Nobel Laureate who discovered how mosquitoes transmit malaria: that someone “had systematically interfered with Ronald Ross's experiments to push malaria research in certain directions while leading it away from others.” This “bizarre hypothesis” leads to Murugan's disappearance in Calcutta on World Mosquito Day, Aug. 20, 1995. Years later, in a near future New York City, Murugan's I.D. card is discovered by Antar's personable computer, Ava. For reasons that are never adequately explained, Antar decides to investigate Murugan's disappearance and his “Other Mind” theory that Ross was a pawn in someone else's malaria research project.
Nothing in this novel stands still for very long. The narrative soon leaves Antar and moves on rapidly from place to place, traveling and mutating like one of the malaria parasites at the heart of this story. We see Calcutta in 1995, where Murugan meets Urmila Roy, a journalist struggling with conflicting demands of career and family; a military hospital in Secunderabad in 1895 where Ross is beginning his malaria research, and where two uneducated servants, Lutchman and Mangala, know more than they should about the malaria parasite; an abandoned train station in Renupur where the writer Phulboni spends a horrific night that will inspire a collection of allegorical stories; a village in Egypt where, as a child, Antar watches an old Hungarian archaeologist sift the sand with tweezers.
These seemingly disparate episodes cohere to expose a bewildering world in which none of the ordinary rules of science or logic apply. An alternative history of malaria research begins to emerge, in which a team working in India in the late 1800s discovers that the malaria parasite can be used to transfer a lot more than just malaria from person to person. Soon it's impossible to know what's true, or who's who. It seems that Antar, Murugan, Urmila and Phulboni are all caught up in this counter-science project, but they (and the reader) don't know exactly how. No one can ever really know, explains Murugan, because “to know something is to change it, therefore in knowing something, you've already changed what you think you know so you don't really know it at all; you only know its history.”
There are occasional moments of vivid writing, as when Phulboni sees, through a train window, “the still waters, lying in great silver sheets under the lowering monsoon skies.” But more often the prose is dry and expository. It's a pity. In his nonfiction writing, Ghosh displays a talent for finding vivid details and symbols—a description of a stand of rubber trees, or a young girl dancing at a wedding—that develop his ideas.
In The Calcutta Chromosome, ideas aren't conveyed with this kind of imaginative force. Murugan explains his theories to Antar and Urmila in long, awkward dialogue passages that interrupt rather than impel the pace of the story. The prose explains, but never embodies, the ideas. What Ghosh has produced in The Calcutta Chromosome is less a fully imagined novel than something like one of Phulboni's stories—an elaborate allegory of some intriguing, but disappointingly underdeveloped, ideas.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497
SOURCE: “Science-Fiction Novel Intrigues but Falls Short,” in Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 1998, p. 12.
[In the following review, Rosenberg argues that although The Calcutta Chromosome is an excellent fiction novel, it fails as a science-fiction novel due to its lack of scientific concreteness.]
Amitav Ghosh is an Indian-born writer and anthropologist who writes “fabulist,” or science fiction. He considers this genre part of the literary mainstream—one that encompasses such varied works as the 2,000-year-old Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh, replete with mythic elements, and the recent movie Groundhog Day, where time is severed from cause and effect.
His latest novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, begins in the not-too-distant future, where Antar, a low-level functionary using his computer to sort through information, discovers the trace of someone he met briefly in 1995, L. Murugan, who then disappeared.
Murugan was obsessed with the life of Ronald Ross, winner of a 1902 Nobel Prize for discovering the life cycle of the malaria parasite. Beginning with claims about “slight discrepancies” in Ross's work, Murugan responds to more extravagant suggestions—that there was a “secret history” of unseen forces using Ross as a tool, directing his research along certain lines and away from others.
Finally, despairing of getting the world to listen, Murugan sets off in search of suspected conspirators who are using methods deeply at odds with modern science—and disappears.
The book unfolds along three time lines—Antar's “now” of the near future, the past of Murugan in 1995, and the far past surrounding Ross's methods of research in the 1890s. The reader is drawn ever deeper into Murugan's theories—rather than the medical inquiry—which only develop partially and slowly.
As pure fiction, the book succeeds brilliantly. Murugan is an engaging character—an obsessive verging on madness, but also a raconteur with a delicious instinct for life's absurdities in general and colonial hypocrisy in particular. A host of vivid characters vie with him and Antar for our attention, and the split time lines allow for rapid linear development along with a growing web of connections across time.
But as a novel of ideas—which science fiction at its best usually is—The Calcutta Chromosome is less successful. Ghosh imagines a wholly different way of seeking knowledge indirectly, based on the supposition that knowing something changes it. But that's hardly new. It's been at the heart of quantum mechanics since the 1920s.
If Ghosh intends to critique science by imagining an alternative way of knowing, he needs a firmer grasp of what science is and a less vague presentation of his alternative. There are writers aplenty in the science-fiction tradition he could learn from. Philip K. Dick wrote countless stories dealing with empiricism betrayed by a metaphysically mad world. George Alec Effinger's When Gravity Fails and William Gibson's Count Zero exemplify another approach—viewing a world of scientific rationalism through strikingly non-Western cultural and spiritual norms.
Still, Ghosh writes skillfully, the mood is entrancing, the plot intriguing, and the world he creates is rich and enticing.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1310
SOURCE: “The Past is Now,” in Far Eastern Economic Review, Vol. 61, No. 31, July 30, 1998, pp. 42–43.
[In the following review, Tripathi offers a positive assessment of Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, and stresses the importance of historical Asian literature written by post-colonial Asian writers.]
In 1906, two years after succeeding his half-brother Norodom, King Sisowath of Cambodia went on an extensive visit to Marseilles, accompanied by the royal ballet troupe. France responded warmly to the charming dancers and the king's entourage. The dancers so enchanted sculptor Auguste Rodin that he travelled with them and drew evocative sketches of their fluid, graceful movements. Lamenting their inevitable departure, a moved Rodin said: “What an emptiness they left for me! I thought they had taken away the beauty of the world. I followed them to Marseilles; I would have followed them as far as Cairo.”
According to chroniclers of the day, one milestone of that visit was the signing of a Franco-Siamese treaty, which saw today's Thailand returning the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap to Cambodia. The latter area, where the stunning and culturally significant Angkor Wat temples are located, was particularly meaningful for Cambodia's self-image.
But as David Chandler has pointed out in A History of Cambodia, Sisowath actually had little to do with the return. He was in France more as a connoisseur. In fact, he was not vastly different from Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the ruler of Avadh in northern India in the 1850s. Known for his poetry and fine taste in art, he watched Lord Dalhousie's empire-building swallow his kingdom while doing nothing to prevent it.
When Sisowath returned to Cambodia, he wrote a proclamation to his people praising French planning and management, which he said he wanted to use to develop his country. The tone was humble and grateful: He told his subjects to emulate the good that France had to offer, successfully hiding the anger he felt toward the French, who sent him a bill for their hospitality.
Kings being kings, Sisowath soon forgot his development plans, and his exhortations today sound oddly like a Soviet five-year plan. But as the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh perceptively observes in his slim volume of fascinating reportage from Cambodia and Burma, “For all the apparent servility of its tone, it makes no cultural or political concessions at all: The ‘emulation’ it calls for is entirely within the domain of technology and economics … [I]f his is the view that has come to prevail throughout Southeast Asia, no one is likely to thank him for it.”
What has the 1906 dance tour got to do with today's Cambodia? Plenty, if one sees the country through eyes of Ghosh, whose novels include the acclaimed Shadow Lines and the part-anthropology, part-literature In an Antique Land. The author sees a link that connects stories and lives in incredible ways. Picking up the thread of Sisowath's visit to France, Ghosh places it in the context of the return of civil society in Cambodia, with rare ingenuity and empathetic understanding of the country's modern history.
Ghosh focuses on the irony of it all: of how the protagonists are linked; how the tragedy is—geopolitical realities aside—essentially a Cambodian tragedy [in Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma]. Travelling through the countryside with mine-defusing sappers, Ghosh seeks out people whose memory plays tricks. They want to forget an immediate past and yet yearn to remember a more ancient past; they are fighting the tendency to forget everything.
He meets Chea Samy, a dance instructor who knew Sisowath's daughter, Princess Soumphady, a member of the 1906 French entourage. And when Ghosh reminds her about Soumphady—who she recalls meeting as a young girl—she responds with “a smile in an indulgent, misty way in which people recall a favourite aunt.”
But the same Chea Samy is the wife of a man whose youngest brother was Pol Pot. And it is Pol Pot's men who killed Chea Samy's dance instructor, who also taught the royal troupe, taking over from Princess Soumphady. These coincidences—of evil co-existing with aesthetics—are, among other things, what intrigues Ghosh.
A people who have been robbed of their education, names, profession and identity now searching for the small strands and clues linking them back to the origins of their culture, these are the other things that intrigue the author. Watching Cambodians responding, with tears in their eyes, to a dance performance, Ghosh concludes: “It was a kind of rebirth: a movement when the grief of survival became indistinguishable from the joy of living.”
The Czech author Milan Kundera lamented the decline of central Europe during the years of Soviet dominance of eastern Europe. Kundera used a Czech word to describe a synthesis of grief, sympathy, remorse and anguished longing: litost. Ghosh doesn't have a similar singular word, but by revealing how a brutalized people are trying to reconstruct their society, by seeking inspiration from high art, he casts light on a similar human disposition.
In an essay about Burma in the same volume, Ghosh follows the well-trodden path of contemporary Burmese history. He meets Aung San Suu Kyi twice and recalls an earlier meeting with her when she lived in Oxford with her family during more tranquil times.
But what sets his reportage apart are the details. Ghosh presents fascinating vignettes about the ethnic-Indian community in Burma: about how Indian families, now pauperized in Calcutta after leaving Rangoon in the late 1940s, wax nostalgically about that golden land and the fortunes they made there.
And Ghosh goes beyond—to the very heart of Burma's little-known wars: the struggle of the Karenni minority, who have been fighting, virtually uninterrupted, since 1946 for independence. He crawls with soldiers fighting Burmese government forces and discovers an ethnic-Indian leader committed to the freedom of the Karenni region. While Ghosh realizes intellectually the futility of Karenni forces' struggle and the inability of the province to survive as an independent nation state, he admires the determination of the people fighting for it, fully conscious of the tragedy.
Until now, Indian writers haven't shown much interest in Southeast Asia's history or culture. Through his reportage, Ghosh is interpreting Southeast Asian reality through South Asian eyes. That is an important development in post-colonial discourse.
For instance, at the Khmer Rouge's torture chamber, the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, a guide once told me that vignettes about the ethnic-Indian community in Burma: about how Indian families, now pauperized in Calcutta after leaving Rangoon in the late 1940s, wax nostalgically about that golden land and the fortunes they made there.
And Ghosh goes beyond—to the very heart of Burma's little-known wars: the struggle of the Karenni minority, who have been fighting, virtually uninterrupted, since 1946 for independence. He crawls with soldiers fighting Burmese government forces and discovers an ethnic-Indian leader committed to the freedom of the Karenni region. While Ghosh realizes intellectually the futility of Karenni forces' struggle and the inability of the province to survive as an independent nation state, he admires the determination of the people fighting for it, fully conscious of the tragedy.
Until now, Indian writers haven't shown much interest in Southeast Asia's history or culture. Through his reportage, Ghosh is interpreting Southeast Asian reality through South Asian eyes. That is an important development in post-colonial discourse.
For instance, at the Khmer Rouge's torture chamber, the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, a guide once told me that she was perplexed by the different reactions of Asian and Western tourists. Asians walked through the exhibits with little emotion, as though they were looking at paintings in a museum. But Western tourists, perhaps sensitized by the Holocaust, were deeply moved and often wept. One possible explanation is that not enough Asians have written Asia's stories in an accessible manner for other Asians. Ghosh's essays, for their part, contribute greatly to that effort.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506
SOURCE: A review of Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, in Asian Affairs, Vol. 30, No. 2, June, 1999, pp. 230–31.
[In the following review of Dancing in Cambodia, At Large in Burma, Zinkin commends Ghosh for his proficiency in portraying the strife and harsh living conditions in past and present-day Burma and Cambodia.]
Published in Delhi, this small book by Amitav Ghosh deserves to be available worldwide. Never before has this reviewer had the privilege of reviewing a travel book, if it can be so classified, of such evocative scholarship and empathy. The title, like the presentation and illustrated cover, is deceptive. There are three essays, two on Cambodia, one on Burma.
The author, Bengali by name who leaves one in doubt as to whether he is Indian or Bangladeshi, has such a rare gift of empathy with the people and events he describes that his readers can imagine themselves at his side.
In Burma he meets Suu Kyi, Aung San's Nobel Prize-winning daughter on two occasions. He is at his best when he describes how the Karen guerrillas manage to live in the jungle off the land they cultivate. A messier situation is difficult to imagine, or indeed convey: there are no boundaries, no issues beyond the government's refusal to let democracy and autonomy exist. Unlike in Cambodia there is no genocide or ethnicity at stake. Some of the guerillas are pure Burmese, some are Burmese of mixed Indian or Sikh blood. Taking to the maquis has become such a way of life for so long, it has acquired such normality that harvesting cauliflowers becomes more important than oiling sub-machine guns, while running dispensaries and schools is as important as, if not more important than, the pursuit of the civil war. His two meetings with Suu Kyi are interesting, although they do not add much to what one already knows; it is his description of jungle revolt which make him such an admirable reporter.
In Dancing in Cambodia, he evokes the history of Cambodia from colonial rule to Khmer genocide through his meeting Pol Pot's sister-in-law, the last of the great court dancers. Pol Pot was adopted and brought up in the King's court before being sent to university in Paris where he became a Communist. Amitav Ghosh's gift for lateral thinking brings to life conditions in Cambodia most vividly, whether it is the reluctance of his interpreter to drive even a small distance out of the capital, or the unbelievably normal life Pol Pot led in a village when he had to retire, despite the horrors of his regime. He uses descriptions of the ruined temple city of Angkor to cover Cambodia's past and present by showing the extent to which what the temple stands for dominates every aspect of life in Cambodia even today.
Such is the author's power of evocation and description that to summarise this little chef d'oeuvre would be to do it an injustice. To read it is a must if one wants to understand what is happening in Cambodia and Burma.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6312
SOURCE: “Microstoria: Indian Nationalism's ‘Little Stories’ in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2, Fall, 2000, pp. 35–49.
[In the following essay, Roy uses The Shadow Lines as an example of how local ties and community history can supersede the ideal of nationalism.]
If imperialism is an “act of geographical violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored, charted, and finally brought under control,” the primacy of the cartographic impulse in the anti-imperialist imagination is quite understandable. Cultures of resistance are seen to “reclaim, rename and remap the land”1 in their move towards nationalist self-assertion. Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines examines the relevance of nationalism's concern with geographical restoration in the context of a new borderless, global landscape.2 While acknowledging the contribution of nationalism in affirming the Indian people's identity during the Independence struggle, Ghosh attempts to fill up the gaps in nationalist histories by telling alternate revisionist stories, suppressed or elided by nationalism's dominant discourse, even as he interrogates the validity of the nation, nationalism and nationalist identity in an era of global capitalism.
Following Benedict Anderson's idea of “nations” as “imagined communities,” post-colonial commentators have rigorously investigated the nation, along with other “narratives,” during the last two decades.3 This contestation is most directly addressed in the works of the Subaltern Studies group and the historiographic fiction of Rushdie, Ghosh and others. In Imaginary Homelands, Rushdie raises the fundamental question, “Does India exist,”4 which he unravels through the central metaphor of a nation's birth in Midnight's Children.5
Rushdie emphasizes the “mythical” nature of the land calling it “a country which would never exist except by the efforts of phenomenal collective will.” Like all myths, the reality of this one, too, is predicated on belief, “a dream we all agreed to dream,” “a mass fantasy shared in varying degrees by Bengali and Punjabi, Madrasi and Jat.” Ghosh's reiteration of the “invented” nature of places—“a place does not merely exist, […] it has to be invented in one's imagination” (p. 21)—echoes Ernest Gellner's reading of nations almost verbatim.6
Anderson distinguishes modern states by their tendency to mark their sovereignty over every square centimeter of a legally demarcated territory and outlines the significance of the map in achieving this purpose. Linking maps and power, he shows how the European colonizer exploited the map to legitimize the spread of his power by establishing the antiquity of tightly bound territorial units in the new cartographic discourse.7 Ghosh introduces the novel's cartographic theme through the growing boy's natural fascination for an old Bartholomew's Atlas on which he learns to locate distant lands with his peripatetic uncle Tridib's help. The boy's obsessive interest in mapping histories compensates, in some inexplicable way, for his insulation in his hometown, Calcutta. His cousin Ila, as a senior diplomat's daughter, has the privilege of travelling across the world. Ghosh contrasts the centrifugal and centripetal movements at work in the native and the migrant psyche through the difference in the two characters' approaches. As a teenager, the boy is astounded to learn that magic names on the map were to Ila: “a worldwide string of departure lounges, but not for that reason, at all similar, but on the contrary, each of them strikingly different, distinctively individual, each with its Ladies hidden away in some yet more unexpected corner of the hall, each with its own peculiarity” (p. 20). With his strong roots in middle-class Calcutta, from which he struggles to break free, he finds it difficult to understand the importance of the Ladies in Ila's life as “the only fixed points in the shifting landscapes of her childhood” (p. 20). At the same time, Ghosh stresses the mind's capacity to transcend localities in order to inquire into the meaning of ghettoization and cosmopolitanism. Ila is, really, no less cloistered than her Calcutta-raised cousin living the imaginary landscapes painted by Tridib's vivid stories because “the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all” (p. 21). Ila, mocking at the constructions of Tridib's imagination as “fairylands,” little realizes that “her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine [her cousin's], neither more nor less true, only very far apart” (p. 21). Throughout the novel, Ghosh juxtaposes Tridib's “fairyland” picture of places with Ila's quotidian view to accentuate that “invented” places need not be “fabricated.”8 His play on the real and the “invented,” through people like Tridib, “who could experience the world as concretely in their imaginations as she [Ila] did through her senses” (p. 30), cumulatively exposes the “invented” nature of nations.
In contrast to Tridib, who sensitizes his young ward to the “invented” nature of boundaries even as he initiates him into the mysteries of reading dots and markings on the atlas, his grandmother's naive belief in the existence of borders is shown to be consonant with the definition of the nation as “limited.”9 “[D]id she really think,” her son teases her, “the border was a long black line with green on one side and scarlet on the other, like it was in a school atlas” (p. 151). Her consternation at being told that no trenches or strips of land mark the border articulates the central dilemma of Indian nationalism and independence:
But if there aren't any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where's the difference then? And if there's no difference both sides will be the same, it'll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then—partition and all the killing and everything—if there isn't something in between?”
The modern border, as her son explains, is political but real. Anderson has called attention to this aspect of international boundaries by delineating their importance in “determining the limits of sovereign authority,”10 even though they might be mere vertical interfaces with no horizontal extent. In “The Riddle of Midnight: India August 1987,” Rushdie recalls prenational imaginings of community which conflict with the construction of the Indian nation:
After all, in all the thousands of years of Indian history, there never was such a creature as a united India. Nobody ever managed to rule the whole place, not the Mughals, not the British. And then, that midnight, the thing that had never existed was suddenly “free.” But what on earth was it? On what common ground (if any) did it, does it, stand?11
Ghosh too unveils the process through which a collective consensus was obtained to “invent” a new nation by following the personal history of an immigrant family uprooted by the partition of Bengal in 1947. Casting Tha'mma, the narrator's grandmother, in the role of historical witness recounting the microstoria of Indian independence, he traces, albeit affectionately, the limits of essentialist nationalism.12 Tha'mma, as part of the generation which agreed to “dream” a new nation, must perforce believe in “the reality of nations and borders,” beyond which “existed another reality,” permitting only relationships of war and friendship “between those separate realities” (p. 219).13 Ghosh intermingles personal and public, the people and the state, by inserting this frail woman into the “extraordinary history” of terrorist movement among the nationalists in Bengal. Tha'mma's firm conviction in the necessity for war and violence “to make a country” (p. 78) becomes the cue for Ghosh's investigation into the fascist strains in chauvinist nationalism whose disastrous results contain hard lessons for Indian nationalism.14 Though he concedes nationalism's value in mobilizing Indian resistance against British domination through its restoration of community. Ghosh expresses his scepticism about romantic celebrations of identity in the present context.
Ghosh configures the nation in the metaphor of the house. He finds an analogue for drawing of national boundaries in a game of Houses eight-year-old Ila and her cousin play during one of her visits back to Calcutta. Ila spells out the rules of the game required to suspend disbelief. “‘Don't you understand?,’” she explains to the boy, “‘I've just rearranged thing a little. If we pretend it's a house, it'll be a house’” (p. 70). Ghosh uncovers the same strategy of “rearrangement” and “pretence” in the birth of nations, which he extends to the very process of the construction of reality. As Tridib tells the young narrator, “‘everyone lives in a story […] because stories are all there are to live in’” (p. 182). While Tha'mma reveals an awareness of this aspect of making up stories, “one begins to believe in one's own story,” she seems oddly oblivious to the “narrative” of nations.
Tha'mma's idealistic subscription to the glorious task of nation-building shows how the rhetoric of unification and reconstruction in the Indian resistance concealed from her the grand narrative of Indian nationalism, which is clearly visible both to the pre-and post-independence generations. Tha'mma's nonagenarian uncle registers his protest against the creation of the myth of a nation by stubbornly refusing to migrate:
I don't believe in this India-Shindia. […] suppose they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to […] As for me, I was born here and I'll die here.
Rushdie reports a conversation with a '47-born Bengali intellectual, Robi Ghosh, in 1987 about the idea of the nation and its location. His simple dismissal postulates a very basic definition:
“To the devil with all that nationalism. I am an Indian because I am born here and I live here. So is everyone else of whom that is true. What's the need for any more definitions?”15
Though this simple logic of equating nationality with one's birthplace, violently refuted by the massive migrations during and after partition, is no longer available to the post-independence generation, Ghosh's novel posits imaginings other than such nationalist self-definition.
Abena Busia's 1993 Presidential Address to the African Literature Association, accentuating the imagined nature of present communities, created by the politics of passports and visas, engaged with several issues such as the contradiction of national territorial borders with previously imagined communities and the notions of identity and belonging.
We live in a world of imagined communities. We are also policed through a world of fixed state borders. Accustomed as we are to the fluidity of our own imaginations, we are also, increasingly, being accustomed to negotiating borders, and using the one to serve the other.16
Busia concluded by establishing the inappropriateness of fixed and stable identities given the collusion of disparate worlds in the lives of the post-colonial individual and underlined the need for developing “manifold senses of self and community” and to “transform the boundaries policing us, and go beyond them, to imagine new movements to create ourselves anew.”17 Ghosh's novel explores the possibility of constituting identity as multiply interpellated and non-stable in the post-national Indian context.
Tha'mma's education in the fictiveness of the nationalist construct begins with her preparations for her journey back to her birthplace, Dhaka. Her neat ordering of the world is disturbed when she realizes that, by filling in Dhaka as her place of birth on her passport, “her place of birth had come to be […] at odds with her nationality” (p. 152). Ghosh unravels this paradox through a play on a peculiar use of the verb for coming in the Bengali language which connotes both coming and going. Tha'mma makes an inadvertent slip by using it in describing her train journey to Dhaka in the pre-partition days. Travelling to Dhaka was different in those days, she tells her family, because she could “come home to Dhaka whenever [she] wanted” (p. 152). The technicalities of passports and visas apprise her of the politics of borders, which, in the modern world, begin at the airport. Tha'mma's present visit to Dhaka is portrayed as a homecoming as well. But she realizes that, post-partition, for immigrants like her to come home is to arrive in a foreign country. Throughout the visit, Tha'mma's search for the pre-partition Dhaka of her childhood and youth is projected as a nostalgic return home. Despite her naturalization as an Indian citizen, her strong loyalties and affiliations to the city of her birth, which surface during this return, permit Ghosh to investigate the conflicting claims of roots and belonging, nations and boundaries in the Indian mind. Tha'mma's attempt to identify herself as a native Dhakaian from the older parts of the city, who is contemptuous of the alien inhabitants of new residential localities, demonstrates her amnesia to her new Indian identity when confronted with the more compelling claims of an older solidarity. The irony of her alienation in her own homeland comes home to her only through Tridib's teasing reminder, “‘But you are a foreigner now, you're as foreign here as May […]’” (p. 195). Her visit to her parental home, ironically figured as a married daughter's “going home as a widow” (p. 205)—where she emotionally declares to her estranged uncle, “‘We've come home at last’” (p. 212)—is used to explore this contradiction of local and national identities further. The paradox between home and abroad, going and coming, is interrogated through Tha'mma's repeated confusion of this distinction during her strange mission to her old home to bring her uncle “back where he belonged, to her invented country” (p. 137). “Going Away” and “Coming Home,” the headings of the novel's two sections, aptly sum up the post-colonial condition where, especially for the immigrant, “going away” and “coming home” challenge essentialist notions of belonging and identity.
In configuring the partition, almost literally, in the wall constructed to partition the ancestral family house on Jindbehar Lane as a fratricidal war, Ghosh returns to a memory that is earlier than nation-ness. He contests the traditional conception of family as the domain of disinterested love and solidarity in the undocumented chronicle of the family feud between two brothers over a trivial matter. He critiques the nationalistic idiom of brotherhood through challenging the claims of kinship and consanguinity as illustrated in the independent course of a family feud preceding and outliving the partition of Bengal.18 Jethamoshai, the lone member of the joint family left behind, is seen defending his house against its rightful claimants, his own brother's daughters, long after the partition even as he displays complete indifference to its occupation by Muslim squatters. Tha'mma's sudden surge of filial affection at the horrifying prospect of an old man abandoned by his kin to die among his enemies seems out of place as she find her uncle in the care of a Muslim rickshawalla to whose children he is a surrogate grandfather. Ghosh introduces a deliberate confusion in the meaning of family and outsider, friend and foe, to investigate the basis of community formation and warns, as Busia did with a different focus, against creating “national myths which reduce the complexities of creating community to a fixed choice of fathers.”19
The immigrant family's visit to their ancestral home in their native place becomes the site for Ghosh's examination of the meaning of presumed national communities. The narrative reiterates Tha'mma's estrangement from her home and kin to turn filial duty and nationalist sentiments upside down before they culminate in the horror of the climactic scene of Tridib's death. The delayed account of Tridib's death serves the purpose of providing a detailed inquiry into the meaning of essential nationalism and underlines the need for “transcending the ways in which meanings get fixed, locked in moments of history which time nor social change, nor personal affiliation can alter.”20 Ghosh argues that only an awareness of the “invented” nature of communities can release individuals from the manipulations of political imaginings. Tha'mma remains imprisoned in the myth of nation until the end. Her response to Tridib's death, donating her last few pieces of jewellery to the war fund, shows how steeped she is in nationalist rhetoric.
Tridib, on the other hand, hints at possibilities of community formation, which might be more aptly termed post-nationalist. His cosmopolitanism is evident in the wealth of “abstruse information” he possesses on subjects ranging from Mesopotamian stellae to the plays of Garcia Lorca (p. 9). We are told he was “happiest in neutral, impersonal places—coffee houses, bars, street-corner addas—the sort of place where people come, talk and go away without expecting to know each other any further” (p. 9). He reveals a marked disdain for “creatures who sink to the bottom of the sea of heartbreak when they lose sight of the herd” (p. 18). In his correspondence with May, he expresses a desire “to meet as the completest of strangers—strangers-across-the-seas—all the more strangers because they knew each other already … in a place without a past, without history, free; really free, two people coming together with the utter freedom of strangers” (p. 144). His favourite story is that of “a man without a country, who fell in love with a woman across-the-seas” (p. 186), which is re-enacted in his own encounter with May. Tridib is cast as the paradigmatic figure of migrancy and hybridity hinting at imaginings of the self other than the traditional ones.
Spinning yarns at neighbourhood addas being the favourite pastime of the young and the old in Calcutta, Ghosh conveniently falls on the traditional manner of telling stories—although the story of Tristan and Iseult is not a Bengali one—to uncover the “narrative” of nations. All the characters in the novel tell stories simulating the manner and formulaic construction of oriental tales.
The novel begins with the story of Tridib's journey to England which he tells his young nephew in installments and he, in turn, tells the audience in the neighbourhood “the truth as [he knows] it” (p. 12). While stories openly speak about their “invented” nature—they can be made up, have different versions, or be given multiple endings—the novel labours to disguise the artifice involved in writing fiction. Out of the several stories in circulation about Tridib, his adda friends choose the one that threatens their self-esteem the least. Even at age eight the protagonist shows awareness of the fictive status of narratives. He ridicules Ila for crying “because of a stupid story she's thought up” (p. 182). Many years later, he tells his grandmother “the story Ila had told [him] and about the odd little ending that May had added” (p. 77). This shows that stories can be created, altered and ended at will. The novel's attempt to encapsulate every event as a separate story, often within another story, illustrates Tridib's insight about stories “being there to live in, it was just a question of which one you chose” (p. 182). Ila's story about Nick and Magda shows that it is not “just a story” but a most traumatic reality blurring the distinction between life and storytelling. Tridib alone realizes the narrative element in perception; “we could not see without inventing what we saw” (p. 31).
Ghosh's revisionist historiographic project incorporates elements from the premodern oral discourse of storytelling in opposition to the written documentation favoured by western historiography and the novel to call attention to the “narrative” of history.21 He retells the stories of the minor personages and the unknown players of Indian nationalism to retrieve those counter-narratives occluded or appropriated by official bourgeois nationalisms through the circumscribed but close-up perspective of microhistory, which tends to focus on the local rather than the national. Louis Gonzalez's gendering microhistory in 1968 as either “matria history, suitable for evoking that small, weak, feminine, sentimental world of the mother which revolves around the family and the village” or as “yin history, the taoist term that recalls all that is ‘feminine, conservative, terrestrial, sweet, obscure and painful’”22 might reflect a masculine bias but provides a clue to its method. Microhistory allows Ghosh to restore the oppositional narrative of subaltern militancy conveniently forgotten and appropriated by the grand narrative of the ahimsa brand of middle-class nationalism.23 It also helps him answer Kumkum Sangari and Suresh Vaid's call in Recasting Women for a gendering of nationalism through another silenced voice, that of the nation's women represented by the grandmother. Ghosh creates matria history through his reconstruction of the history of undivided Bengal by tracing the dynastic line of a middle-class Bengali immigrant family from Dhaka to Calcutta and, later, to London. By articulating the suppressed histories of Indian nationalism in the nostalgic voice of displacement, of the grandmother telling her grandson “the story of growing up in Dhaka,” Ghosh foregrounds the most violent phase of Indian nationalism against genteel domesticity and engages with the silences and amnesia of the dominant patriarchal nationalism. Ghosh's matria history, revolving around the family and the home, challenges the patriarchal thrust of dynastic histories of rural Bengal by constructing a matrilineal genealogy, beginning with Tha'mma's, not her husband's, parental cognates, her sister and her immediate family and her own children and grandchildren. Similarly, the connections of the Price family with Calcutta are matrilineal, through Mrs. Price's father, Lionel Tresawsen. The novel's entire machinery—its gentle, nostalgic tone, the use of the oral medium, the reliance on memory, the non-linear time scheme—belongs to the spoken discourse of word-of-mouth genealogy rather than elite, written historiography. In this alternative womanist account of the Indian national movement with its origin in European nationalisms, males and national events are included only to the extent that the public space impinges on the private space to call attention to their division in the traditional construction of genders.
Ghosh finds in the spoken word, which relies on the dynamics of memory, a way of recapturing the foreclosures and absences of written records. These alternative accounts can be recovered only through individual and communal memory, in reminiscence and in rumour. The novel transcribes speech meticulously retaining, as far as possible, the dynamics of a typical speech situation. The characters reconstruct the past through telling, listening and remembering. The dialogue between the sixteen-year-old Ila and her cousin illustrates this well:
I tried to tell her […]
I began to tell her […]
I had been talking for a while when I noticed that she wasn't listening to me […]
(p. 20, emphasis added)
Stories, obviously, can only be told:
Ila […], who could tell us stories about smart girls and rich boys […].
(p. 76, emphasis added)
Many years later, … I found myself telling her the story Ila had told me.
(p. 77, emphasis added)
I rose guiltily […] angry with myself for having told her the story.
(p. 77, emphasis added)
What about the story you were telling me […].
(p. 82, emphasis added)
And, since they are never written down, stories rely on the dynamics of memory. As a novel of memory, The Shadow Lines prefers memory's truth to recorded history to explore alternative means of documenting events. The words “remembering” and “memory” punctuate the narration of almost every story, establishing the loose time scheme of remembered histories:
I cannot remember when it happened any more than I can remember when I first learnt to tell the time or tie my shoelaces […]. I remember trying very hard to imagine him back to my age […] and I could not remember him looking anything other than old. […]
(p. 3, emphases added)
The novel re-creates the Calcutta of the 'fifties and 'sixties through the memory of a growing boy but also the Dhaka of the 'twenties through his grandmother's memory. Other characters supplement knowledge of events in other parts of the world in a similar fashion: Tridib, Mayadebi, Robi, May. Unlike the protagonist, who resurrects his boyhood Calcutta entirely through fragments of memory, his and those of others, Ila displays an amnesia towards the past:
I could tell she didn't remember.
I asked her if she had any memory of the stratagems […]. she did have a faint recollection, but she could not exactly say she remembered.
But how could you forget? […] how do you remember.
(pp. 19–20, emphases added)
Ghosh exploits personal reminiscence to replicate the workings of memory in “remembered” histories. Memory of public events in private memory, which colours and distorts them in accordance with personal biases and priorities, is used by Ghosh to call attention to the selective amnesia of the recorded history of Indian nationalism to all that ran counter to its narrative. The narrator's grandmother's story about her classmate, who was a member of one of the terrorist groups operating in Bengal, centres two such narratives which were either totally erased or elided to mere footnotes in the heroic epic of Indian nationalist history. Her womanist gaze tints the semi-forgotten archives of subaltern militancy with the rosy vision of her own youthful idealism. The novel uses Tridib to contextualize these to acknowledge the contributions of militant nationalism in mobilizing resistance against British domination even though its idealism proves to be misguided in hindsight. Against the official story of Indian nationalism run the little stories of personal lives supplementing as well as giving the lie to official facts. Tha'mma's “dreamy” recollection of the boy, whose close shave with martyrdom is denied to her, captures the wistfulness of the nation's women, left out of the heroic narrative of the nation.
Dipesh Chakroborty in “The Difference—Deferral of a Colonial Modernity” links the two questions currently being debated—those of the nation and the women—by showing that the nationalist project of creating a citizen subject cannot be separated from the domestic. Nationalism imbibed imperialism's civilizational critique and the idea of the divided spaces of the personal/domestic and the public/communal, which required it to recast the nation's women in a domestic role that could service the nationalist cause.24 Tha'mma's dream of standing by the side of her terrorist classmate, pistol in hand, is subversive of patristic cultures that make women's participation in nationalistic struggles contingent on their subsuming of sexual difference. As a woman, the most she can hope for is a nurturing role:
She would have been content to run errands for them, to cook their food, wash their clothes, anything. But, of course, they worked secretly: she didn't know how to get in touch with them, and even if she had it would have been twice as hard for her to get in, because she was a girl, a woman
Though later, her nurturing role is greatly superseded by the necessity of being the family breadwinner, Tha'mma must still participate in the civilizing mission of nationalism in the domestic sphere through inculcating the highly revered “discipline” of the European home maintained through a regimented routine, regulating children's eating habits, games, work and manners. Deprived of direct heroic participation, Tha'mma attempts to embody the “new woman,” constructed to aid nationalist goals. She exemplifies almost all the virtues detected by Chakroborty in the instruction manuals, such as the question of building the body, valuing time and hard work, the importance of games. Ghosh interrogates the gendering of the private and the public domains by Tha'mma's frequent violations of these boundaries. Her widowhood, liberating her from the private, domestic space marked by patriarchy, aids her natural, resistant femininity. Tha'mma's is an untypical femininity: she does not particularly enjoy cooking; she seeks to fulfill the role of the son of the family by volunteering to fetch Jethamoshai; and her retirement does not bring her any feminine consolations.
Finally, Ghosh's microscopic account of two events—the arrest of Tha'mma's terrorist classmate and Tridib's death—not only outlines the local thrust of his microhistoric project, but also engages with the occlusions of nationalist historiography. The secrecy and silence shrouding these two events re-enacts the silence of the recorded history surrounding accounts inconsistent with dominant reconstructions:
Every word I write about those 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.
Both these events, erased or added as a postscript to the central narrative of nationalism and war, are preserved only in personal memory. Ghosh challenges the dominant discourse of both imperialism and nationalism in banishing local history to oblivion. Ila articulates true metropolitan disdain for the periphery when she informs her shocked cousin that “nothing really important ever happens” where he is:
Well of course there are famines and riots and disaster, she said. But those are local things after all—not like revolutions or anti-fascist wars, nothing that sets a political example to the world, nothing that's really remembered.
But when a restaurant owner of Bangladeshi origin, Malik, dismisses the 1964 riots as insignificant compared to the war, the centre/margin pattern is replicated in nationalist discourse. Ghosh focuses on this incident to unmask the distortions and suppressions in nationalist histories, to tell the untold stories. The perfunctory coverage of the event by English-language newspapers—a short report on the bottom of the back page mixed with cricket news and speech coverage—calls attention to the complicity of the written discourse in the erasures of state versions. Aligning wars with nations and with documented history, he locates riots in the people preserved in personal memory, saying:
[…] they were subject to a logic larger than themselves [governments], for the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior independent 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 peoples.
Riots recall those imaginings of community that precede the nation. Tridib's death and the events that lead to it demonstrate that the memory of these imaginings is far stronger than the newly-forged nations. While Tha'mma's identification with Dhaka as home figures the memory of a linguistically constructed unity, the repercussions of an event in Hazratbal in Dhaka assert the claims of a religious community. Ghosh's close-up of one single incident, the riots of 1964, erased in the national memory in microhistoric fashion, foregrounding similar erasures in nationalist discourse and official histories, demonstrates the power of pre-national memory. The silence of national history is reproduced in the secrecy, the gaps and the disjunctures punctuating the reconstruction of the event in the narrator's mind. Its marginalization in the written document, the newspaper, can only be countered through imperfect memory, by nature fragmentary. The resolution comes also through the map—as the grown-up protagonist returns to a long-forgotten atlas to understand the meaning of distance.
They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of prehistoric Gondwanaland.
He has an intimation of the workings of those imaginings of community which recognizes no national borders. Even as the remoteness of Khulna from Hazratbal in no way weakens the claims of religious fraternity, the parallel riots in the twin cities of Dhaka and Calcutta expose the futility of national boundaries:
His atlas showed me, for example, that within the tidy ordering of Euclidean space. Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer Calcutta than Delhi: that Chengdu in China is nearer than Srinagar is. Yet, I had never heard of those places until I drew my circle, and I cannot remember a time when I was so young that I had not heard of Delhi or Srinagar. It showed me that Hanoi and Chungking are nearer Khulna than Srinagar, and yet, did the people of Khulna care at all about the fate of the mosques in Vietnam and South China (a mere stone's throw away)? I doubted it. But in this other direction, it took no more than a week …
In the face of micronationalist factions threatening to tear the nation asunder, the ideological aspect of the rhetoric of unity and freedom to gain a tenuous consensus underlines the narrative status of the nation. Robi, administering separatist movements in Punjab and Assam, pronounces the final word:
And then I think to myself, why don't they draw thousand of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It's a mirage. […] How can anyone divide a memory?
By calling attention to the imagining of nation as a bounded territorial space underlying the creation of the Indian nation, Ghosh opens out possibilities of other imaginings preceding or following the nationalist one. Partha Chatterjee's investigation of modern historiography in “Claims on the Past: The Genealogy of Modern Historiography in Bengal” also suggests other imaginings of nation-ness that challenge the unitary history of the Indian nation. Tracing a disjuncture between the history of India and the history of Bengal in the historical writings of the Bengali novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and others, Chatterjee speculates that there could have been many such alternative histories for the different regions of India that call for a confederal rather than national unity. Chatterjee concludes that “we do not yet have the wherewithal to write these other histories.”25 The methods of microhistory used by Ghosh to retrieve the suppressed stories of the partition of Bengal could provide the wherewithal for writing these local histories.
Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism, London: Vintage, 1994, p. 271. Cf. Paul Carter's “Spatial History” where he suggests that the cultural place where spatial history begins is “not in a particular year, nor in a particular place, but in the act of naming. For by the act of place-naming, space is transformed symbolically into a place, that is, a space with a history.” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, eds. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 377.
Amitav Ghosh, The Shadow Lines, New Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1988. Subsequent references are to this edition and are included in the text.
Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1992.
Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981–91, Delhi: Granta, 1991, p. 26.
Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, London: Picador, 1982, p. 112.
“Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist,” Ernest Gellner quoted in Imagined Communities, p. 6.
Anderson shows how the status of the map as a representation of something that existed “there” changed to something that anticipated spatial reality, op. cit., p. 173. Consider Paul Carter's definition of imperial history as one where “the primary object is not to understand or to interpret: it is to legitimate,” The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, p. 376.
While Gellner interprets “invent” as “to fabricate,” Anderson looks upon the “imagining” of nations as essentially creative. op. cit., p. 19.
Anderson defines the nation as being imagined as “limited” because it must have finite boundaries beyond which lie other nations. ibid., p. 19.
———. p. 172.
In imposing a homogenous national culture, nationalism ignores preexisting cultures even though it tries to define itself in the name of some putative folk culture. Imaginary Homelands, p. 27.
Ginsberg traces the various interpretations of microhistory as traditional history (Braudel), history of local events (Cobb), of a particular trade (Levi), of one significant event (Les Fleurs bleues), close-up history (Stewart), and history as practised by Furet and Le Goff, which rejects Eurocentric perspectives and is recommended by Aries for the study of pre-industrial societies. Ginsberg used it for “the minute analysis of a circumscribed documentation, tied to a person who was otherwise unknown” in The Cheese and the Worms (1976). Carlo Ginzberg, “Microhistory: Two or Three Things that I know about It,” Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1993), 10–33.
This corroborates Anderson's thesis about earlier imaginings of community in which “borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another” (op. cit., p. 19) Also, his assertion that notwithstanding their imagined status, “nations inspire love, and often self-sacrificing love,” op. cit., p. 141, is borne out by post-colonial nationalisms.
Partha Chatterjee, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse, Delhi: OUP, 1986, p. 2.
Imaginary Homelands, p. 32. Although the idea of nation as a prepolitical entity tied to a homeland is increasingly being reexamined in the light of large scale migration and displacement, both Jethamoshai and Robi Ghosh create a sense of belonging around a pre-political community integrated on the basis of descent, a shared tradition, and a common language. These imaginings conflict with the one defined as the praxis of citizens exercising their civil rights.
Abena Busia, ALA Bulletin, 19, 3, (1993), 7.
Anderson brings out the contrast between the newness of the nation-state and the hoariness of the states from which they are born. The prenational imaginings that conflict with the new national identity here are both linguistic and religious, which often overlap. Tha'mma's prenational, linguistically defined identity as a Bengali is at odds with her new Indian citizenship as she tries to recover her old sense of belonging in her birthplace. Indian Partition is invariably imaged as a fratricidal war, Imagined Communities, p. 200.
Busia, op. cit., 12.
Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” Metafiction, ed. Mark Currie, London: Longman, 1995, pp. 104–21
Louis Gonzalez quoted in Ginzberg, op. cit., 12
The distinction between “war of position” and “war of movement” is important to understanding the two counter-tendencies—moderation and radical action—informing Indian nationalism. Chatterjee, op. cit., p. 46
Dipesh Chakroborty, “The Difference-Deferral of a Colonial Modernity: Public Debates on Domesticity in British Bengal,” Subaltern Studies VIII: Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, eds. David Arnold and David Hardiman, Delhi: OUP, 1994, p. 55
Partha Chatterjee, “Claims on the Past: The Genealogy of Modern Historiography in Bengal,” ibid., p. 48
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
SOURCE: “Questions of Authority: The Story of 3 Generations Living in the Shadow of Empire,” in Chicago Tribune Books, Vol. 1154, No. 35, February 4, 2001, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following positive review, Aslami praises The Glass Palace and examines the characters' quests to discover their physical and moral boundaries in a post-colonial land.]
Amitav Ghosh's latest novel, The Glass Palace, begins with a sound. New and unintelligible, this sound comes surging across the plain into Mandalay, Burma, traveling up the banks of the Irrawaddy River, skidding across the western wall of the Mandalay Fort, and ultimately spreading confusion in the marketplace. With gentle irony, the narrator tells us that the only person who can identify the sound correctly—it is British cannon as the army advances on defiant Burma in the 1880s—is Rajkumar, who is merely an Indian and only a boy, and thus not to be believed.
In this way, the opening of Ghosh's fourth novel beautifully ushers the reader into a world of sensations, crowds, symbols and boundaries that rest fragile and suspended in the face of global forces. As this impressive historical novel unfolds over 100 years and across the borders of Burma, India and Malaya, it reminds us how globalization is not a recent invention of late-20th Century capitalism, but rather a phenomenon with a long and complex history that insinuates itself into other histories, whether national, communal, familial or, perhaps most threateningly, personal.
The opening scene of The Glass Palace also introduces us to a question that is repeated throughout this momentous epic narrative: the question of authority and, in particular, the authority to interpret new signs as they appear on the constantly changing landscape of colonized territory.
Questions of economic, artistic, cultural and national authority emerge in the novel's portrayal of two families over three generations, pushed apart and pulled together by the forces of capitalism, colonialism and insurgency movements. It is Ghosh's particular talent to interlace these questions with the telling of his characters' lives and to use them to probe deeply into the intricate nature of colonialism as it is lived on a daily level and as its legacy is transmitted over time.
The novel begins its ambitious trajectory in Burma with the story of Rajkumar, an orphan who arrives in Mandalay on a boat from Bengal. Released from his job as errand boy, Rajkumar finds work in the bazaar outside the Mandalay Fort. Just within this fort lies the Glass Palace of the novel's title, and within it the Burmese royal family.
In its sweeping narration, the novel dwells on the extraordinary hold that power, whether in the form of the Burmese authoritarian monarchy or British imperialism, has over its subjects. When the British invade Burma, seeking control of its lucrative teak trade, some of the local people overrun the now-unguarded Glass Palace to salvage a few goods for themselves and encounter a fiercely proud Queen Supayalat and her servant girls. While refusing to release their bejeweled loot, the mob nevertheless performs homage to their queen, who is freshly divested of material power by the British, but newly reinvested with symbolic power by her fearful subjects:
“For the first time in her reign she had become what a sovereign should be, the proxy of her people … It was good that they should [bow] and she berate them. Were she meekly to accept her defeat, none would be so deeply shamed as they. It was as though they were entrusting her with the burden of their own inarticulate defiance.”
For his part, the boy Rajkumar finds himself entranced with the youngest servant girl, Dolly. Later, as he becomes a savvy timber entrepreneur, he remains transfixed by her image and intent upon tracking her down to make her his wife.
The historical upheavals that mark this exhaustively researched novel extend far beyond this one boy's life, and the novel goes on to follow Dolly as she travels with the exiled royal family to India, where she enters into an enduring relationship with Uma, the wife of the Indian official whose job is to deal with the now-deposed Burmese king and queen.
With Uma, we encounter the growth of a new political consciousness. Uma experiences her own awakening, not into an enterprising capitalist like Rajkumar, but rather into a cosmopolitan intellectual and activist, traveling from India to England to the U.S. and back, learning from displaced Indian populations and questioning the inevitability and rightness of British rule.
The rest of the novel traces Rajkumar, Dolly and their sons, and Uma and her nieces and nephew as their lives unfurl, intertwine and expire, shaped by such political events as World Wars I and II, the independence movement in India and the military dictatorship of Burma. Their lives also gain meaning as they navigate the radical economic shifts caused by the global demand for teak, rubber and oil, which conscript south Asia into 20th Century industrial systems. Finally, the meaning of an individual life in this novel comes to be measured not only against these developments, but also in relation to mass culture. The movie industry and photography's development into an art form are also features in the novel's multilayered historical texture.
The novel is most impressive when it asks how colonialism reproduces itself in those it has subjugated. Arjun, Uma's nephew, embodies this unthinking desire to assimilate and tells a terrifying story about his fellow Indian officers and their eating bacon, ham, sausages and roast beef, and smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. Forcing themselves to overcome their bodies' revulsion for these Western items, they subdue and conquer their own reflexes in the effort to give birth to new selves, fully modern and improved: “every mouthful had a meaning—each represented an advance towards the evolution of a new, more complete kind of Indian.”
Ghosh's great strength as a writer lies in his location of colonial power in such seemingly universal and natural activities as eating. He is also adept at exploring his characters' inner lives and outward actions in relation to the broad yet detailed map of historical events that underlies this generational chronicle.
At times, though, the weight of the historical material seems to bog down the writing, forcing it to lapse into episodes of historical reportage that clash with the otherwise subtle and inflected narration. Ghosh also seems to worry that his readers will miss certain points. Instead of allowing ironies and insights to resonate out of the scenes he has set up, he at times employs a more heavy-handed style of telling his readers what they are supposed to apprehend, often passing off certain spelled-out insights as characters' inner thoughts.
This awkwardness is especially noticeable when his characters hash out the official political positions of others or themselves. When Uma transfers her allegiance from radical separatist movements to Gandhi's, or when Dinu, Dolly's son, reaches a kind of bland relativist position on Arjun's conversion to the rebel Indian national movement, the narrative goes flat, perhaps suggesting that for Ghosh, these official politics don't grip the imagination.
Despite these limitations, The Glass Palace stands as a superb historical novel that delves into new territory and focuses on individuals, rendering them like the ancient shrines on the Malayan mountainside that Dinu photographs: “small and intimate, but saturated with a sense of time.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622
SOURCE: “The Persistence of Memory in Love and War,” in Christian Science Monitor, February 8, 2001, p. 20.
[In the following positive review, Hewett compliments Ghosh's weaving of history and political turmoil into the lives of his characters in The Glass Palace.]
Amitav Ghosh's sweeping historical novel, The Glass Palace, begins with a young boy watching the British storm the Burmese royal fortress in 1885. Eleven-year-old Rajkumar, an impoverished orphan from India, sneaks into the forbidden palace and meets Dolly, a beautiful young court attendant. Amid the chaos of looting and violence, Dolly's face is permanently etched into Rajkumar's memory.
Soon after, Dolly follows the banished king and queen to India, while Rajkumar stays in Burma, making his fortune in the timber industry.
The young man is haunted by Dolly until years later, when he meets her again in India. The Glass Palace traces the story of their love during the tumultuous 20th century.
Ghosh, the author of three novels and the nonfiction travelogue In an Antique Land (Vintage, 1993), weaves an intricate story of desire whose scope and richness echo the fantastic tales of Naguib Mahfouz and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Ghosh grounds his latest work in the unassailable march of history and the unpredictable swings of fate, infusing his novel with a sense of the tragic.
History is more than a backdrop for the story of Dolly's and Rajkumar's lives; it is a powerful force that constantly threatens and dwarfs each individual in the novel.
All of Ghosh's characters struggle through an almost overwhelming number of turbulent events: British imperialism, depression, World War II, the Japanese invasion of Burma and Malaya, India's struggle for independence, and military rule in Myanmar.
As in his previous work, Ghosh interweaves several intricate plot lines that follow the lives of multiple characters.
But The Glass Palace is even more ambitious in the territory it attempts to cover: the story of three generations of three families in Burma, Malaya, and India.
Both Rajkumar and Dolly make close friends—a Malayan businessman and an Indian woman named Uma, respectively—whose own families become intertwined with the lives of Rajkumar and Dolly's descendants.
Eventually, the novel's multiple plot lines must come to an end—though when they do, the conclusion isn't as satisfying as the unfolding of the story. The author seems compelled to tie up all of the loose threads, resulting in an ending that feels forced.
Nevertheless, Ghosh, an anthropologist by training, masterfully uses cultural details to illuminate the psychological conflicts of colonialism. For example, Uma's nephew Arjun, an officer in the British Army, and his fellow Indian comrades force themselves to eat foreign foods like pork and beef that are taboo in their own culture. These meals are battles that test “not just their manhood, but also their fitness to enter the class of officers.”
With the advent of World War II, Ghosh carefully illuminates how Arjun slowly and painfully becomes aware of what he has sacrificed in order to “become” British.
As many Indian troops mutiny and the Japanese invade Malaya, Ghosh describes Arjun's attempt to grasp the surrounding cataclysm in a wistful and haunting voice: “He tried to form the sentences in his head and found that he did not know the right words in Hindustani; did not even know the tone of voice in which such questions could be asked. These were things he did not know how to say, in any language.”
With this novel, the author demonstrates that he can balance the sweep of history with the depth and complexity of the individual.
Ghosh spins his tale with harrowing precision and insight, leaving the reader with a lingering disquiet about how the forces of history can irrevocably alter the lives of ordinary men and women.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1695
SOURCE: “Questions of Allegiance,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, February 11, 2001, p. 5.
[In the following review, Budhos offers a positive assessment of The Glass Palace.]
What an exciting time for Indian writing in English. Every month, it seems, another young Indian writer publishes a novel capturing the migratory pangs of the new Indian diaspora, an immigrant group that now ranges from dot-com engineers in Silicon Valley to taxi drivers in New York. In The Glass Palace, Amitav Ghosh has staked a different claim: turning the clock backward to examine a lesser-known, earlier Indian diaspora, and in doing so exploring the foundation of modern Indian identity.
Ambitious, multigenerational, The Glass Palace is a saga akin to a 19th-century Russian novel. Opening with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, its early chapters focus on Rajkumar, a penniless boy who, through sheer intelligence and pluck, becomes a rich merchant in Burma and marries Dolly, a lady-in-waiting from the exiled Burmese royal court.
From Rajkumar, the novel expands to a vast array of characters in Burma, India and Malaya, all connected through the broader currents of history and the intimate links of friendship and marriage. Out of this large cast, the two most searing portraits are of Rajkumar, the unquestioning empire builder, and Arjun, the tormented warrior who tries desperately to break free of the empire that has molded him.
In the 19th century, Britain was expanding its commercial interests, especially in its colonies. India in particular had become not just a continent to exploit and rule, but a source of raw labor and military muscle that bolstered British dominance worldwide and kept the imperial machine humming. With the end of slavery in the empire in 1833, thousands of poor, willing Indian workers were recruited for work in Burma, Fiji, the Caribbean and Africa—on plantations, in docks, mills and railroads—while others were conscripted into the British army, turning India into what one character in The Glass Palace calls a “vast garrison.”
In 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny, a failed rebellion of Indian soldiers, contributed to a jittery mistrust between English and Indians. By World War II, when Indian soldiers were forced to put the fight against Japan ahead of their own independence, this simmering tension culminated in a group of soldiers rebelling and forming their own Indian National Army.
This is the complicated backdrop for Ghosh's novel, which centers on the fascinating story of Indians in Burma. By the late 19th century, there was a sizable Indian community in Burma; many were recruited to fill the lowly positions; others, such as Rajkumar, came to prosper as merchants in the growing economy. In the 20th century, as India's independence movement gained strength, and England and Japan faced off in East Asia, these overseas Indians stood at a particularly agonizing crossroads, which tested their sense of national identity. Tragically, the idyll of Indian families in Burma ended in 1942, during the Japanese invasion, when thousands were forced to flee by foot through jungle and mountains back to India.
Rajkumar is the quintessential opportunist, in the best sense of the word. He makes his first money recruiting indentured workers in India, then builds up a teak export business in the hills of Burma. Through Rajkumar we can observe the wheels of British commerce transforming the subcontinent and its other colonies into a vast network of trading and exploitation. And though this book aims at a deep critique of empire, Ghosh does not have so narrow an agenda as to simply bash the imperial masters. After all, in the new colonial system, someone like Rajkumar is not stuck in his born station in life, but given a greater chance to succeed on his own initiative. Instead, through the novel's characters, Ghosh shows the subtle questions of allegiance that come to torment them all.
The first real stirrings of disquiet occur in the transitional figure of Beni Prasad Dey, the district collector responsible for the welfare of the king of Burma, who was exiled to Ratnagiri in India. The Collector, as he is known in The Glass Palace, has achieved the ultimate status for an Indian, as an esteemed civil servant in the bureaucratic Raj. And yet the Collector is plagued by doubts, “haunted by the fear of being thought lacking by his British colleagues.” On a deeper level, though, the Collector is confronted with the awkward position of being a willing servant to an alien power.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the British Empire had evolved from being a powerful trading presence into a huge government apparatus, imposing its hierarchies and protocols on its colonies. Figures such as the Collector were instrumental in enforcing its myriad colonial rules—even the most absurd ones, such as treating the king of Burma like a caged animal and controlling who his daughters, the princesses, could marry. As the Collector's wife, Uma, reflects, “Did this mean that one day all of India would become a shadow of what it had been? Millions of people trying to live their lives in conformity with incomprehensible rules?” The Collector, a tragic figure, is seeded with an incipient nationalism, one that is thwarted by time and place.
A generation later, in the late 1930s, Arjun, the nephew of Uma, takes this self-questioning to new, agonizing heights. Arjun joins the British Army and becomes one of the first Indian officers to rise in its ranks. At first, as a colonized subject, even eating at the officer's mess hall was an exhilarating barrier to smash, “an adventure, a glorious infringement of taboos. They ate foods that none of them had ever touched at home. …” Arjun is venturing where few Indians had ever gone: mingling with Englishmen and talking and behaving like them, too. If the West represented progressive modernism, Arjun throws himself headlong into this frontier in the hopes of turning himself into a “new, more complete kind of Indian.” Eventually, though, Arjun is troubled by the slights of the British officers and the rumblings of dissatisfaction among fellow Indian soldiers who question the Crown's aims when their own cause—freedom—has been delayed.
In the Indian epic the Mahabharata, Arjun is the warrior who pauses in battle to question the purpose of war and the kingdom he is fighting for. So too does this modern Arjun begin to doubt his soldier's training—during World War II, when he encounters those drawn to the aims of the Indian National Army. As a fellow soldier remarks, “It was strange to be sitting on one side of a battle line … knowing that you had to fight and knowing at the same time that it wasn't really your fight …” During the Japanese invasion, Arjun comes to understand what it means to literally give over his trained body in bloody battle, and he wonders whether he even possesses his own self. He sees himself as molded by “an unseen potter … he had become a thing unto itself—no longer aware of the pressure of the potter's hand.” Worse yet, in surrendering himself so completely to the British army, he realizes that “he had never acted of his own volition; never had a moment of true self-consciousness.” He had become an unthinking machine, well-oiled and well-trained to fight for the Crown. “Everything he had ever assumed about himself was a lie, an illusion.” He was sacrificing his very life, and yet this life was no longer his own.
The Glass Palace is saturated with these questions of agency and volition. The danger in such a novel is that the fiction can become schematic, as characters fulfill a particular facet of history and the balance tilts toward fact and overwhelms the imaginary terrain. Some of the portrayals in The Glass Palace seem to be willed, workman-like representations: Uma, for instance, a sheltered wife, has an abrupt transformation after the disgrace of her bureaucrat husband and reinvents herself as a leader in the independence movement. Characters often pause to deliver articulate disquisitions on their place in history and politics. The Glass Palace is crammed full of historical minutiae, as if the scholarly nonfiction writer in Ghosh could not resist squeezing in yet another detail, be it how teak was extracted from the forests; the exact symptoms of anthrax, a disease that destroyed the load-bearing elephants; or the engine specifications for new model cars. These nearly textbook descriptions sometimes detract from the flow of the story.
Still, there is something irresistible about the novel's ambition and how thoroughly it dissects the impact of the British colonial enterprise. The Glass Palace, like its farranging subject, is capacious; It reflects the author's own curiosity and hunger for understanding. Ghosh shows how, for all its oppression, British colonialism helped to create a cosmopolitan culture in which Indians and others recreated themselves in foreign lands. Ghosh has taken great care to depict these mingled identities, where questions of allegiance are not so clear-cut. There is the figure of Saya John, for instance, a Europeanized, Christian Malayan, who speaks Hindustani and builds up a successful rubber plantation, which his son and American wife come to run. Character, for Ghosh, is built up through the careful accrual of culture and history, and it is against this complex panorama that his creations are most vibrant.
Toward the novel's end, a Burmese writer remarks: “In classical writing, everything happens outside—on streets, in public squares and battlefields, in palaces and gardens—in places that everyone can imagine,” yet a modern writer must take the terrifying step “past the threshold, into the house.” Ghosh's aim here is to do both: to cross the threshold of the private sphere, yet never to lose track of the larger sweep of history—all the while mounting a devastating critique of how the British Empire left its indelible mark on the souls of Indians.
This is The Glass Palace's most profound point: that human beings are molded in large part by forces beyond their control. The result is a rich, layered epic that probes the meaning of identity and homeland—a literary territory that is as resonant now, in our globalized culture, as it was when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3618
SOURCE: “The Road from Mandalay,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVIII, March 8, 2001, pp. 28–31.
[In the following review of The Glass Palace, Iyer acknowledges that Ghosh's body of work draws attention to the oppressed Indian and Burmese people, but argues that Ghosh's political stance against the British is hypocritical in nature.]
Although the British formally left India more than half a century ago, their presence still sits at the center of that culture like a picture of Miss Havisham's lost fiancé. It has been tempting—too tempting, perhaps—to place all the Indian writers recently so conspicuous in the West on a spectrum represented at its poles by Salman Rushdie on the left, trying to get back at the Empire by turning its very language and literature into sentences as crowded and noisy as the streets of an Indian city, and, on the right, V. S. Naipaul, perfecting a style more Augustan and austere than even that of his historical masters, and writing with a self-conscious concern for clarity, and for making fastidious discriminations, in an international world ever more without a center.
The distinction is a political one, of course, as well as a generational one (Rushdie's great good fortune, aesthetically and personally, having been to come into the world just as the British were leaving India), but on neither side have any Indian writers been able to find a resolution of their competing literary legacies as sonorous or affirmative as that, say, of Derek Walcott. Midnight's grandchildren look a little like children in the wake of a messy divorce, having to choose between an imperial father who's gone off to lick his wounds and an indigenous mother who, though supportive, seems a little lost.
In recent years, as the American Empire makes its presence more urgently felt in India, and as the West itself begins to be colonized by young Indians in their thirties, the old divisions have at last begun to fade. Many of the most accomplished “Indian writers” now in view (some of them from Sri Lanka or Pakistan, some of them never having even lived in India) refuse to be placed within the old colonial frame. Arundhati Roy, in her God of Small Things, addresses the age-old Indian theme of caste in a style that seems driven by a Lawrentian fury and a cinematic sense of structure, with very little of classic English literature behind it; Abraham Verghese, born to Indian parents in Ethiopia, trains his compassionate diasporan eye on the shifting migrant cultures that overlap in the American South; and Pankaj Mishra, in his impressively lucid and unshowy first novel, The Romantics, turns a style of Naipaulian transparency and rigor on the latest passengers to India, circling around an Indian student who's never been outside his homeland. In his last novel, An Equal Music, Vikram Seth does not even mention India, and someone who'd never seen his face or name would never guess that he had anything to do with the subcontinent.
Amitav Ghosh, though only forty-four, is already an elder statesman in this field, having published his first novel, The Circle of Reason, in 1986, well before the current vogue for Indian writing began. And he fits into it interestingly because, right after that book, he visibly moved from the phantasmagoric myth-making that in the wake of Midnight's Children held so many young Indians in its thrall to a prose of clean restraint. Born to Burmese parents in Calcutta, as his new book tells us, and growing up in a diplomatic family that moved from Sri Lanka to Bangladesh to northern India, he attended universities in Delhi, Oxford, and Egypt (and has lived for several years now in New York, where he teaches anthropology at Columbia).
What this means in practice is that Ghosh has one foot in the comfortable upper-middle-class Bengali world we know from Satyajit Ray movies and, more recently, the novels of Amit Chaudhuri, and the other among the displaced peoples of the world, whose sufferings and split identities he has chronicled in reportorial works distinguished for their social conscience and compassion. His books tell us not to hew to any of the old categories: the last one, The Calcutta Chromosome (subtitled A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery), cut back and forth between networking exiles at their computer terminals in a Manhattan of the near future, a group of friends in Calcutta in 1995, and an Englishman's researches into malaria in the jungles of Bengal in the late nineteenth century. The one immediately before it, In an Antique Land (1993), perhaps his most graceful and suggestive work, explored the themes of homelessness and the dissolution of borders by bringing together his own experiences as an anthropologist in a tiny Egyptian village in 1980 and the letters he found describing a group of cosmopolitan traders moving between India and the Middle East in the twelfth century.
It comes as something of a surprise, therefore, that his latest book, far and away his most ambitious, is of the kind that could be called a “sweeping multigenerational epic.” Strikingly formal in tone and procedure—public in both manner and, it seems, intention—it follows the lives of a group of Indians and Burmese from 1885, when the British invaded Mandalay and sent the Burmese King Thebaw into an Indian exile, to the streets of Burma today, and the very different struggle for independence currently haunting that country. Though the form of the novel is highly traditional, the one theme giving the huge saga a sense of shape and direction is its insistent, highly contemporary attack on empire and the lost souls left behind it. It's as if a revisionist wolf were dressed in imperialist clothing.
The Glass Palace begins in Mandalay, in 1885, with Rajkumar, an eleven-year-old orphan from India whose resourcefulness and rootlessness give him something of the air of a Kim in reverse. During the chaos of the British invasion, he happens to spot a royal maid, Dolly, in the glass palace in Mandalay, “beautiful beyond belief, beyond comprehension,” and comes away bewitched. When the Burmese court moves to a languorous exile in the western Indian town of Ratnagiri—a forgotten historical episode that Ghosh recalls with characteristic warmth—Rajkumar follows to claim Dolly. He asks for her hand in marriage, she says no, and four pages later they are wed.
The slightly startling abruptness with which Ghosh pairs off two of his characters is a sign that, in this book at least, he's less interested in them than in the grand historical forces at play around them. He treats almost everyone with evident affection, and yet it is the affection of a writer with his mind on larger things; rarely does he linger on people and their complexities as he did so searchingly in, for example, his 1988 novel, Shadow Lines. This historical novel is often more history lesson than novel, and its people appear like distant relatives at a family get-together whom everyone smiles at but no one really knows.
In the narrative that follows, we go back with Rajkumar and Dolly to Rangoon, where he, though scarcely literate, sets up a booming business in timber, and we see one of their sons, Neel, become a film producer and the other, Dinu, a photographer. At the same time, we follow Dolly's best friend Uma, who, when her civil servant husband dies, takes off for Europe and then, in flight from its “ruthless hypocrisies,” to New York, where she joins a group of Indians who agitate for independence under the tutelage of Irish activists (another obscure corner of history that Ghosh vividly illuminates). The book has many widows, virtual and actual, but Uma, independent-minded to the end, is the strongest of them all. While Rajkumar tries to turn even war into an occasion for profit, she returns to India to spread the word of Burma's suffering and to join Gandhi in his nonviolent fight for freedom.
In an author's note at the end of the book, Ghosh refers to a “near-obsessive urge to render the backgrounds of my characters' lives as closely as I could,” and it is this urge that is often most evident throughout the book. He has consulted “hundreds of books, memoirs, travelogues, gazetteers, articles and notebooks” and we get, for example, fascinatingly detailed accounts of how teak camps worked in the Burmese jungle or how rubber plantation tappers began their day in Malaya. At times the research almost swallows up the story; we are treated to a brief excursus on the delights of Nyonya food (and then another 126 pages later), and we learn (twice) that the current way of wearing a sari, with blouse and petticoat, was in fact the invention of an Indian official during the Raj. At one point Ghosh suddenly begins classifying cars (“There goes a brand-new 1908 Hutton,” “It's an Oldsmobile Defender …, mint new, this year's model, a genuine 1914,” “a new 1938 Delage D8 Drophead,”), and we realize, perhaps with alarm, that this is a device comparable to the flapping of calendar pages in old movies, to show where we are in time.
The real heart of the book, though, and its dramatic centerpiece, lies in the classic imperial setting of World War II, in Burma and Malaya; here everything that is powerful in Ghosh's somewhat aerial perspective, and everything that is shaky, comes to the fore. He takes us into the Southeast Asian theater of war by cutting back and forth between a shy romance on a rubber plantation in Malaya's highlands—a microcosm of empire—and another involving the Indian soldiers who are fighting for the British as the Japanese approach. In the love scenes, the widescreen approach leads to some curious effects. As Dinu, the photographer, lies with his beloved, he watches “the horizontal planes of her forehead, her eyebrows and her mouth perfectly balanced by the verticals of her black, straight hair and the translucent filaments that hung suspended from her lips.” The man sees life through camera angles, to be sure, but still it seems odd that the closer the bodies get, the more abstract the language becomes.
Yet even as he seems somewhat ill at ease here with intimacy, and so squanders the emotional force of the scene, Ghosh conveys the larger picture with particular vividness. We see Christmas trees in the department stores of Rangoon whose branches are “whitened with a frosting of Cuticura talcum powder,” and as the Japanese move through Malaya, we follow great crowds of people running for evacuation trains only to find that all the cars are reserved for Europeans. “The road's embankment was dotted with parked vehicles. Families could be seen to be sleeping in their cars, snatching a little rest before daylight. At intervals one-and-a-half-ton military trucks came barreling down the highway, heading south.” Filmmakers must be relishing the prospect of working with such scenes.
Typical of everything that is most affecting in The Glass Palace are the passages evoking the panicked exodus of tens of thousands of people, nearly all of them Indian, as the Japanese took over Burma in 1942. Even those lucky enough to have made it to Calcutta, more than a thousand miles away, arrived in an already impoverished city in the throes of one of the worst famines in its history. “People were stripping the parks of grass and leaves, sifting through the sewers for grains of rice.” In some ways the two themes that have animated Ghosh's writing from the beginning—his interest in the lives of middle-class Indian families and his concern for the world's afflicted—come together stirringly as the very people who once thrived in Burma (including, he suggests, his ancestors) suddenly turn into dispossessed refugees themselves, struggling across rivers and mountains, wheeling the elderly in carts and often dying along the way. The worlds of his fiction and of his reportage memorably converge.
The scene that Ghosh enters most intensely, though, and that seems to nag at him with unusual force, is the one involving Uma's easygoing nephew, Arjun, who prides himself on becoming one of the first Indian officers in the British army, even as the Indians around him begin asking ever more impatiently why they're risking their lives to protect the very people who are holding them down. As the novel (and the war) goes on, more and more of them begin slipping away to join the Indian National Army, the unfortunate group that joined the Japanese only to find that its Eastern masters were no more solicitous of its members' interests than its Western ones had been. (“Asian unity” has always been a notion most persuasive on paper.) Over and over we return to the intense discussions among the soldiers, as Ghosh argues, with great sympathy, that the Indians who might be reflexively written off as “collaborators” were in fact confused idealists, ready to do anything to fight for freedom from British oppression. He also tells us, intriguingly, in his author's note, that his father was one of the “‘loyal’ Indians” who fought with the British throughout, often against the Indian defectors.
These characters, torn between two kinds of oppression—traitors if they support the British, traitors if they turn toward the Japanese—take Ghosh back to what has always seemed to be his central concern, the consequences of displacement, and his exhaustive research here excavates the many ironies of a British system ready to go through the motions of offering Indians power yet not really willing to change deep down. Indian soldiers were discouraged from carrying umbrellas, he tells us, because they were a traditional sign of sovereignty. Dinner jackets were customarily worn at the mess on Thursdays, “this being the day of the week when the news of Queen Victoria's death had been received in India.”
Ghosh treats all but a few of his characters with tenderness, yet it soon becomes clear that the ones he regards as the most treacherous are the ones who collaborated with the British, aping the very people who looked down on them, and in this book at least, nearly always destroyed by the empire they served. (Two of them are actually portrayed, in separate incidents, as near-rapists.) At one point Arjun, who has grown more and more troubled by his service to the British army, abruptly kills his most loyal attendant to save him from the plight of becoming an Indian with divided loyalties.
In Michael Ondaatje's English Patient, this same issue is disposed of, more or less, in two quick paragraphs; here it is what gives life to the narrative, and though Ghosh allows some of his characters (always men, and, to some extent, complicit with the Raj) to speak up for empire, he seldom gives them the last word. Near the end of his life the former Anglophile Arjun acknowledges that the empire “is a huge, indelible stain which has tainted all of us. We cannot destroy it without destroying ourselves.” One of his companions declares that “in a way, the better the master, the worse the condition of the slave, because it makes him forget what he is.” Ghosh's claim is that the empire so thoroughly stripped India of its roots that even today the educated Indian cannot begin to find a sense of “loyalty, commonalty, faith.” Such creatures of mixed affiliation, he writes with unusual violence, are “deformed, … grotesque, misshapen.”
Even Burma in this scheme becomes a case study of colonial wrongdoing. India, as Ghosh acknowledges, was rife with divisions and injustices well before the British arrived on the scene; but Burma, he tells us, was peaceful, united under its king, and blessed with universal literacy, equal rights for women, and freedom from the blight of caste before the British invaded. The sad story of how the once “golden land” became a basket case run by eccentric dictators here becomes a tale of imperial perfidy.
I'm not convinced, I must admit, that the decline of Burma, the decisions of some Asians to side with the Japanese during the war, and the confusions of the Indian middle class can all be laid at empire's doorstep. When I think of my parents and the many others I know who grew up in India during the Raj, I'm not sure that Ghosh, born nine years after the British left, can justifiably claim so sweepingly that for “the Indian public … imperialism and Fascism were twin evils, one being a derivative of the other.” The Indians I know tend to say that they longed for independence, while remaining grateful for some of the good things the British brought, not least the language of Shakespeare and Milton. And in Burma many good Buddhists would surely argue that no system is stronger than we allow it to be in our minds, and that it makes more sense to tend to a wound than to look for someone to blame.
It isn't fair, of course, to judge a novel by its political argument, but in this case it is the political that promises to elevate the story into something more than a colorful historical drama. At one point, Uma, using the word constantly attached to empire and its subjects here, says that the Raj is a form of “absolute evil” hardly different from Nazism or fascism. “You say that Nazism will rule through violence and conquest, that it will institutionalize racialism, that it will commit unspeakable atrocities. … Is the Empire not guilty of all of this?” When Dinu points out that she's attacking the English in the language they gave her, she says, “Many great Jewish writers write in German.” As Ghosh himself suggests, one sign of the power of empire is that it defines even those who rebel against it.
Reading such excoriations, I found myself thinking back to A Passage to India, whose first exchange of dialogue involves Indians discussing “whether or no it is possible to be friendly with an Englishman.” Forster acknowledges, as Ghosh might, that Dr. Aziz “generalized from his disappointments—it is difficult for members of a subject race to do otherwise. Granted the exceptions, he agreed that all Englishwomen are haughty and venal.” And later the Englishman closest to Forster in his sympathies, Fielding, cannot bring himself, even when provoked, to give voice to the line that “England holds India for her good.” Yet the point of Forster's novel, famously, is that generalities divide us as much as the institutions they vilify, and that the only solution to mutual suspicion is to put sympathy before judgment and the person before the group. In this case at least, the one who sounds like a Buddhist sage is the English liberal.
Ghosh is much too serious and responsible a writer to take easy potshots at what he regards as the source of much Asian evil, and his sympathies, movingly, are always with the oppressed. Besides, his interest here is less in the lives of individual Englishmen than in the tortured and divided creatures they left behind them. All he is doing, he might say with justice, is rounding out a picture dominated by British accounts, history in this case having been written mainly by the departing losers.
Yet even as he argues, passionately, in writing of the Indian soldiers, that a person's patriotism can be judged only by his compatriots, he seems reluctant to extend the same principle to the British.
Returning from her travels, Uma, whose sentiments always seem closest to Ghosh's, says, “That's the thing about politics—once you get involved in it, it pushes everything else out of your life.” Much of The Glass Palace reads as if it had been written after just such a political conversion. Yet at its conclusion, when the stage is given over to the contemporary figurehead of Burmese independence Aung San Suu Kyi (“beautiful almost beyond belief …, it was impossible to behold this woman and not be half in love”), the book suddenly turns against politics. Dinu argues that “while misrule and tyranny must be resisted, so too must politics itself …, it cannot be allowed to cannibalize all of life, all of existence.” Of course he is saying this by way of affirming his support for a woman whose political power comes from a force beyond politics, and of lamenting the ways in which Burma's cruel leaders have consigned its people to a prison in which nothing is unpolitical. Yet in the light of everything that's preceded the outburst, it sounds as if Ghosh is not so much against politics as against the politics of those he doesn't like.
The Glass Palace performs an invaluable service in showing us how the events of the last century, and especially the war, looked to many people in Burma and India, whose voices have seldom been heard before in the West; but its narrative is obscured occasionally by an abundance of detail, occasionally by political argument. Ten pages before the end, the only character who is a writer advances its only literary reflection. “In classical writing,” she says, “everything happens outside—on streets, in public squares and battlefields, in palaces and gardens—in places that everyone can imagine.” Her own writing, she goes on (speaking, perhaps, for Ghosh as he nears the end of his epic task), is of the modern kind, difficult, and even terrifying, because it involves crossing the threshold into private life. I don't know how this distinction applies to Shakespeare or Chaucer or Ovid or Sappho or Jane Austen, but it does tell us that, in his characters' own terms, Ghosh has written a classical novel in which the chief enemies are the very classicists who gave his book its old-fashioned manner—and the settings we recognize from a hundred old British movies.