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.
In the third discussion on the occasion of Indian Republic day- we discussed some of the memorable characters of Amitav Ghosh’s novels.
Like Edward Said’s Orientalism, these novels also remain bound in the notion of a universal humanity.
CIRCLE OF REASON (1986)
Reviewers read it as an allegory about the destruction of traditional village life by the modernizing influence of Western Culture, and the subsequent displacement of non-European peoples by imperialism.
The character Alu
Alu’s journey starts from his village Lalpukur , where he is apprenticed as a weaver , while his uncle,Balaram, the village school master , is obsessed with Western ideas. 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.
In the next phase, Alu joins a tide of diasporic Indians drawn to the rich oil economies of the Middle East. This part is set in Al-Ghazira on the Persian Gulf. Alu weaves, is accidently buried alive when a new concrete building 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. 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, Jeevan bhai 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 Merchanges along the coast pulled (the couple) northwards like a bucket from a well. 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 ni 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 Lalpukuer , the Souq of Al-Ghazira does not represent a stable authentic culture, but a network of trade, centuries old, that unfurls like a cloth through a vast, borderless region.
When Alu is buried in the Star-building, Ghosh contrasts this mobile trading culture with the modern oil economy that threatens to subsume it.
A history teacher used the following tool to demonstrate bias
She asked everyone to write down what had happened in the first 3 minutes of class.
She then told many students to read their response out loud, and demonstrated how different everyone’s perception is in a description of just 3 minutes.
She also gave us two stories to read “X was fired” and “X stepped down” .
Article 1 put him in a negative light – he caused 60,000 deaths by sending Canadians to war; article 2 stated how great he was that in such a short time he gathered 600,000 soldiers. Was he good or bad? As Ms. Veletic said, “Everything is biased.” Paradoxically, that statement itself must then be biased. So must this statement.
The Podocyte societies…Line diagrams, Meanings behind words
The above writings made us look at the processes involved with public health, compounding, nursing, oil, construction and the many networks which these generate. In the World of Oil- which is made more complex by the many interventions-NATO-2011, Civil War 2014 and the consequences for local and internal workers, keeping a Line-Diagram group- (see the figures which we try to draw of renal physiology) and a Reading Group- help shape perspective.
Many years ago, one Reading Group member had talked about a Podocyte Society– a cell at the level of Glomerulus- needed for filtration-purification of blood.
At that meeting, we had smiled at his idea of having a Podocyte society.
But over the years, we have revisited the concept in many ways.
Allegory denotes a practice in which a narrative, continuously refers to another pattern of ideas or events. 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
Reading group discussions
We approached the above writings in two ways-
- History of one craft-discipline-subject
- History of diaspora in Tripoli region
- History of one craft-discipline-subject
As in Circle of Reason- Balaram-Alu’s uncle-the school teacher and founder of Pasteur School of Reason- tells about the history of weaving
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….Al 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, 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 the Orient and the Occident.
A Bangladeshi worker…I first met him in the flower shop,in Ben Ashor, where he helps the expert gardeners arrange plants, make bouquets, cleaning, arranging the pots. Then I met him in the morning in the street, where he is part of the company which keeps the streets of Tripoli clean. When I met him in the flower shop again, he reminded –clarified that he is the same person whom I say hello in the morning, cleaning the streets.
The –Everyday history society- has a Henry Mayhew section, in which we seek to interview and interact with workers who keep the city clean.
A compounder… I became oriented with this worker who helped a doctor with an Indian camp in Suani during the Civil war times of 2011. He chose to stay back. He was able to give basic treatments. Sometimes his doctor complained that he had become headstrong and did not give due respect to the doctor-who had taught him the basics.
This enquiry led us to see the way things look from the angle of Paramedical workers who keep the system running, especially in remote camps where they are usually the first responders to any medical emergency.
A driver…When the embassies closed in 2011, the driver of the Greek ambassador, an Orthodox Christian from Ethiopia drove his boss to Tunis. On being asked what he should do now, as the ambassador was leaving to safe Greece, the senior official replied- I have no instructions for you! The driver returned to Tripoli survived the first Civil war. He is an active volunteer in the Greek Orthodox church, and helps keeps many small things running in the place of worship, which now is not active as in better times.
Words for discussion in group
Diaspora…people who have spread or been dispersed from their homeland
Subaltern..of lower status: the private tutor was a recognized subaltern part of the bourgeois family.
Orientalism..Offensive stereotype of the far east, colonized people and their customs are seen as inscrutable and exotic. Edward Said-the founding intellectual figure of postcolonialism did a study of Orientalism.
Nuanced..A subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound: The writings of Amitav Ghosh are too nuanced to present cultures in binary terms –black or white, good or bad, Oriental or Occidental.
Allegory..a story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
The collapse of this building can be read as an allegory about the effect of postmodernity on the traditional societies of the Middle East