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Sagarika Chattopadhyay, Amarjeet Nayak

Sagarika Chattopadhyay & Amarjeet Nayak: Geographical Consciousness and the Indian Novel

Emergence of Geographical Consciousness in the Realist and Postcolonial Indian Novel

Two  movements regarding the novel are considered for this essay, first being the  novel as a genre itself and its function along with its placement in the world, - in other words the space of the nove,l and second, the  spatiality created within the novel itself. These considerations speak to the primary contention that each literary convention defines its own space, but this space is pliable and open to negotiations such that a slide across frameworks is made possible. This discussion begins by articulating different kinds of spatialities involved in two literary conventions namely, the realist novel and the postcolonial novel, and how Amitav Ghosh’s novels can be read for and against the grain in the two. The specific motivation behind choosing the realist novel emerges from the historical situatedness of this convention in so far as the emergence of the novel as genre is concerned. The Postcolonial novel has been picked since it is one of the significant developments in the path traced by the evolution of the novel, especially keeping in mind a new geographic imaginary that works towards shedding assumptions that constantly question agency of the postcolonial periphery to perform and succeed in the modern world. The importance of this exercise is to establish that a text’s existence is specific and relational to its surroundings, both immediate and distant. This notion also speaks to Nirvana Tanoukhi’s case for the African novel wherein each novel begs for singular consideration as opposed to hasty categorisation within theoretical bounds. Tanoukhi lifts the conflicting critique on Achebe’s Things Fall Apart above terse theoretical polemics, to suggest that the openness a text provides in understanding the many collectivities of narratives within the region of what may be called ‘African’. She also forwards Appiah’s views concerning the decontextualisation of a text every time it is read against a canon, instead of reading each text as a specific encounter (Tanoukhi 2012: 458) such that some of those encounters are available to readers to be made their own as opposed to cultural contexts remaining tangible only within certain geographic boundaries.

Having done so, the essay moves to the concept of ‘distant reading’ as proposed by Franco Moretti to take up from world literary motivations, a mode of decoding that enables reading of culturally imbued contexts. The spatiality associated with such an enunciation finally culminates in a geographic consciousness that crystallises the focus on geographical scales as a mode.

On the Realist Novel          

Representation itself is a protean concept, ever contextual and evolving. A brief illustration is used to show how the representation in portrayal of female characters gets contextualised differently in three novels, Rajmohan’s Wife (was originally  published in 1864 by Bankim Chattopadhyay), The Home and the World (written by Tagore in Bengali and appeared in book form in 1916) and Sea of Poppies (2008), written at different points in time. The justification behind selecting these texts lies in their ‘situatedness’ in time and the consequent socio-political, cultural reading that they inspire. For example, Rajmohan’s Wife, belongs to the category of the early, in fact, it is the first Indian novel written in English which makes it especially suited for study in this chapter, since one of the objectives of this discussion is to look at the place of the novel in the world. Though the text does much to showcase the rural Bengal landscape, its life and peoples, what comes into sharp relief is the marriage between foreign form and local material as suggested by Franco Moretti, which inadvertently becomes problematic when one of the protagonists in the text is given an abrupt closure. A reading of the text suggests an authorial desire to project the women of the nation as strident, and also to question conventions, but neither of these motivations achieves a satisfying end. Home and the World,  achieves more in offering agency to its female protagonist, Bimala,  Keeping in mind exigencies of the times and their influence on the motivations of the novels of that era, intrinsic qualities of womanhood, like displaying courage in love, being protectors, a sense of honour,  emotional vulnerability,  sustain themselves through the times.  This is not to essentialise women, but to state the point that what gets established as realism is greatly influenced by a laying over of the aesthetics of the times in the scripting of a novel; or in the words of Mukherjee, “realism is just another narrative mode using a different set of literary conventions” (Mukherjee 2006: 596). For example, in Rajmohan’s Wife, Matangini’s portrayal is severely critiqued by Meenakshi Mukherjee as a non-agent female stereotype, hearkening to past ideological idiom of the ever sacrificing woman. What starts out as a character too bold for her times, is deprived of the expected denouement of a possible alliance outside a wedlock or a character who surmounts her restrictive fate. The unexpected denouement may be recognised as the author’s confusion in trying to remain rooted to the indigenous tradition and garnering the allegiance of the Indian reader over his attempt at writing in English to woo the British reader. The realism of the social scene in rural Bengal, in this case, gets contextualised by the readership in question (especially so because Bankim Chattopadhyay wrote very successful novels only in Bengali thereafter).  Mukherjee rightly questions “whether realism can ever be true to life” (Mukherjee 2006: 596), when she argues that the novel in India was certainly not a dedicated reproduction of the British Victorian realism even in its very early stages in India. A divergence from Matangini’s character may be seen in Rabindranath Tagore’s portrayal of Bimala in Home and the World. Critiqued as a commentary on the excesses of the nationalist movement disguised as patriotism in Home and the World, Bimala is shown to journey from the ‘andarmahal’ of the home to the ‘baithak’ or sitting room, which represents the world. The archetypal devotion Bimala has for Nikhilesh, her husband, a zamindar with a modern outlook toward life, expressed in her boudoir undergoes transformation into passion for Sandip, a political revolutionary, in their living room. The transition from the inner space to the outer is accompanied by the transition in Bimala’s character in her unorthodox love for Sandip.  According to Swagato Ganguly, Bimala’s character bears sustenance on her own account, instead of being shaped by other characters in the text. However, Mukherjee feels that Bimala is denied individuality when Sandip conflates her womanhood with the spirit of the nation. But a complete crossing over never does happen indicating that Bimala succeeds in retaining her devotion for Nikhilesh as she continues to abide by tradition which is critiqued by Mukherjee as being indicative of making women signifiers of non-change, a narrative move in favour of preserving that aspect of the nation which is impervious to imperial influences. Both in the case of Rajmohan’s Wife and Home and the World, the realism of women characters are contextualised by the requirements of the times, but what is interesting is that in neither texts, the true character of women in love gets completely foreshadowed by narrative norms.

On the Postcolonial Novel

Lived experience and the local in context to the postcolonial novel, could be considered as a natural sequel to the preceding section on representations in realist novels, since both these aspects work towards recovering those spaces which were left out during the nationalist project that marked representation in the realist novels in English, especially during the early decades of the post-independence era. Given the postcolonial literary agenda to project residual effects of colonialism and references to political backlash in the form of uneven economic development, the idea of lived experience in the everyday and the local offer a somewhat different take on the postcolonial perspective in The Hungry Tide owing to two reasons.  First, lived experience or the ordinary, effectively offsets the understanding of everyday living in specific relation to Henri Lefebvre’s premise of the ‘everyday’ that results from a systematised order of production and consumption closely interlinked and “inscribed within structures” (Lefebvre 1987: 9). Further, the local needs to be experienced in its immediacy and state of unvarnished existence.  The Hungry Tide reveals deep ecological spaces that remain distant and immune to the effects of capitalism which have spread their tentacles into inner reaches of Lusibari in Sunderbans. What preserves this immunity is the plying of the local skill of fishing practised by a humble fisherman Fokir. Fokir’s knowledge of his vocation is not structured within any system that it can be harnessed or controlled within the bounds of a capitalist system. But what does lend an unusual flavor to his trade practice is its close link to the geography of the mangroves and inland waters borne out of a thorough knowledge of the landscape. The close proximity with nature and the vocation of fishing are both embedded within the local, which according to Arif Dirlik preserves “received forms of local society” (Dirlik 2006: 464). The local society is a space that repudiates modern ideologies (Dirlik 2006: 463), by resisting progress or assimilation into a global socio-cultural, economic pattern. Fokir’s trade falls outside the format of a global economy, the flipside of which is that the future for the survival of such a vocation seems bleak for its scope toward contributing to the modernisation project seems limited. But the text offers reprieve in this direction when it brings together, both Fokir and Piya into a collaborative venture. Their alliance is a coming together of two individuals from sharply contrasting worlds, having no common grounds for language, culture, social practices, yet sharing a world that revolves around their love and understanding of rivers, tides and marine life. Their worlds become meaningful on a boat that cuts across social disparities that would become apparent on land conditioned by the different spaces they would occupy:


It was surprising enough that their jobs had not proved to be utterly incompatible – especially that one of the tasks required the input of geostationary satellites while the other depended on bits of shark-bone and broken tile. But that  it had proved possible for two such different people to pursue their own ends simultaneously – people who could not exchange a word with each other and had no idea what was going on in one another’s head – was more than surprising….(Ghosh 2008: 141)

Piya’s highly scientific world of marine biology is brought to lie close to the material rudiments of Fokir’s fishing. The difference in the material accomplishments of their respective fields is overarched by the expertise of their individual skills. “…when her glance happened accidentally to cross Fokir’s …she saw something in his expression that told her that he too was amazed by the seamless intertwining of their pleasures and their purposes” (Ghosh 2004: 141). Despite Robbie Goh’s argument that The Hungry Tide brings into focus two different economies “the cash-driven knowledge-intensive economy of the global, and the physical oppressive economy of the local” (Goh 2012: 350), Fokir and Piya are bought together in an understanding of each other’s world. The isthmus of their worlds lies in their work and their skills bridging the chasm of who they are in their private worlds. However regressive Fokir’s private space maybe as it is heavily weighed down by “urbane materialism” (Goh 2012: 352) that compels to wrench out of him a regular wage, Fokir’s spirit thrives in his humble and highly skilled vocation of fishing in the tidal waters. An awareness of the economies that are associated with the local and global spaces in the novel gets problematised and offers a counter version of everyday living not being a regimented experience in light of “repetitive gestures of work and consumption”(Lefebvre 1987: 10) as Lefebvre suggests. Kelwyn Sole, speaks of the South African quotidian which holds within itself the possibility to transform, though set against the backdrop of uneven development and a global capital system that is constantly revolving around abundance and lack of resources which are being produced simultaneously. In The Hungry Tide what holds good this transformation, is the incessantness and rudimentary aspects of Fokir’s vocation. A vocation which stands against and sustains itself in the light of the ever enclosing clutches of intruding capitalism which is not merely mercantile in nature but manipulates our lives, such that participating in the social and capital arena is made inevitable. In a conversation between Kanai, a translator from Calcutta and Piya, regarding “to get on in the world” (Ghosh 2004: 220), enterprise is defined by success in the world, but an enterprise like Fokir’s in his efficient understanding of the narrow and intricate channels of the mangroves and the workings of tides, in his knowledge of marine life, and the sheer absence of the desire for worldly success are held in utter disregard. But it is this remove from performing in and for the global landscape that is transformative, since it preserves Fokir’s locality and his lived experience. In that light the postcolonial is about preserving and appreciating ways of life that no longer fit the domain of modern ways of life.

Foreign Form-Local Material

According to Moretti the modern novel the world over does not owe its making to British or European conventions of the novel because of the enormous variety of local influences that the novel has been inflected with. In his wide analysis of literary critics from across the world (from mid-seventeenth century to mid-eighteenth century novels from Russia, Italy, Spain, China, Japan, etc. novels did consciously try to adapt the European novel form), Moretti finds that the narrative voice trying to bring about the ‘compromise’ between the foreign form and local material is the one which stands to be the most unstable. One of the primary reasons for it stems from the motivation of the narrator to somehow translate the traditional conventions of a culture into interpretive signposts for an eclectic readership. These experiments, according to Moretti, did not meet with much success, owing to either structural inconsistencies in the novel brought about by trying to string together themes which were found uneven within certain cultural contexts or a hypertrophic narrator who compromises the plot by overt justification of culturally conflicting elements. Thus Moretti proposes the idea of ‘distant reading’ as a condition of knowledge which allows you to focus on units much smaller or larger than the text, like devices, themes, tropes or genres and systems (Moretti 2000: 57).  The idea of distant reading, as opposed to close reading, is to go beyond a focused attention given only to certain texts which are considered to be part of the canon so much so that Moretti considers the exclusiveness of the canon and the solemn and serious consideration given to it an almost theological one (Moretti 2000: 57).  Looking at the variety of texts analysed as part of Moretti’s exercise, one also gathers that thematically, a socio-cultural perspective seems to strongly underpin all these texts. And the unfamiliarity, awkwardness or the lack of it, depends upon the treatment of these socio-cultural contexts in texts irrespective of the type of novel in question.  Also, the local narrative and foreign form misfit is the very stepping stone from which to analyse the text, since it is this very misfit that contributes towards the making of the non-European or non-British novel. Another case in point is the fact that the journey of this adaptation or misfit has yielded to a space for experimentation with the text at the level of form and also in treatment of themes which can be opened out with greater freedom and alacrity, as opposed to times when issues like cultural prudishness or culturally appealing to a wider readership restricted local material to find full expression.

The awkward marriage between foreign plot, local characters and local narrative voice asserts its awkwardness (if at all), very differently in Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Looking back upon Rajmohan’s Wife by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and his inability to strongly position Matangini in the text owing to the novelty of the literary form being adapted for writing along with issues of readership and social ethics in question, Ghosh’s novels are a case in point. Interspersed in the middle of the serious setting of migration of indentured labour on the Ibis, is an incident which is difficult to place in the schema of the larger context of the novel. Ghosh chooses humour as a literary device to bring together Baboo Nob Kissin Pander (the Anglicised version of Baboo Nobo Krishno Panda (the devout Vaishnava priest), a gomusta with Benjamin Burnham, the owner of Ibis and Zachary, the second mate of the ship. The interactions between both revolve around the theme of Bhakti, which is drawn outward toward the metropolis from the inner sanctum of one’s faith, wherein Bhakti is practised as a way of life.

Spatiality within the text

According to Mieke Bal, the topological location of a character in space can determine how a story is being presented. The character represents a point of perception situated in a space and reacting to it and also bringing their senses to bear on that space (Bal 1999: 133) as a consequence of living in it. The argument is that such a perception creates a geographical imaginary that contrasts the context at hand not only problematising the predetermined spatial perception of the narrative event under study, but perceiving it in a completely different manner. For example in the Sea of Poppies, on meeting Zachary for the first time Baboo Nob Kissin begins to create an imagery of Brindavan, a place associated with Krishna’s childhood and his sport with the Gopis (cowherd girls) and the consequent use of allusions to Krishna like, “Ghanshyam”, “Slayer of Milkmaids’s Hearts” or “Butter-Thieving Lord” (Ghosh 2008: 146), indicating Krishna’s divine play or ‘Leela’. These allusions will raise in the minds of the culturally informed reader a geography that is rain swept, trees dripping droplets at waterfronts which are full of flirtatious cavorting by Krishna around the gopis, Krishna’s eyes “drinking from the pool of a maiden’s love-thirsty lips”(Ghosh 2008: 146).  Nob Kissin is transported from the space of the Ibis which is strongly embedded in a colonial setting and creates a similar perception in the minds of the reader, into a space that is not only far removed in space-time from the current setting but is fantastical in nature as it invokes an imagery of the supernatural.

Could it be then, that this ivory-tinted Rupa was exactly what Ma Taramony had warned him of: a Guise, wrapped in veils of illusion by the Divine Prankster, so as to test the quality of his devotees faith? (Ghosh 2008: 146)

Brindavan is staged as a spatial fantasy, in terms of “mood investment” (Hoffman 1979: 3) that the character brings to the space which he is not occupying in the physical sense, since he is placed on the Ibis, but as Gerard Hoffman suggests, “Inner conflicts are transferred to spaces and objects, become embodied with them.” (Hoffman 1979: 3) What Nob Kissin does while kneeling outside Zachary’s cabin on the quarter deck of the ship is to transform that space from what it is to the uncanny imagery of the supernatural owing to his inner struggle as a devotee in constant quest of Krishna. Ma Taramony’s foreboding, as indicated in the above mentioned quote, is the primary motivation of his life that his eyes are tirelessly seeking out clues that point to the divine in this ephemeral world. The inside-outside dichotomy can also be alluded to very well here, that is Nob Kissin’s interiority of Bhakti as a way of life as opposed to his more worldly pursuits as Gomusta to Benjamin Burnham, the owner of Ibis. Nobo Krishno quickly establishes himself in the city, becoming a gomusta, a person of considerable responsibility in Benjamin Burnham’s shipping company. Ramanujan’s incredulity will not fail him in this instance either where Nobo Krishno’s inner piety manifests itself in ways that, “his shrewdness and intelligence did not go unnoticed…they appreciated also his eagerness to please and his apparent limitless tolerance of abuse” (163). Apart from his business acumen his piety finds humanitarian expression that, “he had acquired, over time, a wide circle of friends and acquaintances, many of whom relied on him for advice in matters pecuniary and personal” (164). The outer expression of diplomacy and cunning may be looked upon as a manifestation of the very same piety that makes Nobo Krishno so devout. The inner and outer lived spaces of Nobo Krishno are cohesive as they are entirely motivated by his spiritual seeking or Bhakti. Nobo Krishno’s inner and outer domain co mingle with each other in ways that somewhat problematises Chatterjee’s theory of the distinct existence of the inner and the outer domain and also the premise that the ‘outside’ is where practicality reigns supreme.

Space and Geographical Consciousness

It becomes imperative, therefore, to understand the notion of ‘space’ itself before we apply it in the texts of Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies opens with the image of Deeti’s dream of the ship Ibis (that will carry indentured labour to Mauritius later in the novel), bringing forth with it a foreboding that unnerves her about a distant future which is unknown. Deeti’s present situation is fairly rooted, in that she leads the life of a householder, wedded to Hukum Singh, a Rajput, working for the British opium factory.  Deeti works in her poppy field collecting poppy sap and gathering poppy leaves that are made into ‘rotis’ and later sold to the Ghazipur poppy factory. Her surrounding is deeply colonial in its geography, in that the economies of living and livelihood are severely affected by imperialism, particularly the business of poppy. “The ‘roti’ was indeed the name by which these poppy-petal wrappers were known…they looked exactly like the round wheat-flour rotis Deeti had packed for her husband’s midday meal.” (Ghosh 2008: 6)  Deeti’s everyday living is punctuated with a strong presence of poppy, meals comprising “a dish of stale alu-posth” (Ghosh 2008: 7), poppy oil for Kabutri’s hair, and Deeti’s personal possession of Akbari opium, which is sparingly used as a medium of financial transaction. Earlier to the British imposing strict imposition on cultivation of opium, wheat would be grown as a winter crop alongside other pulses. The straw from wheat helped in addressing needs such as mending thatched huts. Thin opium cultivation by the farmers would be used to preserve opium reserves as medicine, to be consumed during festivities or sold to nobility.  The forced injunction by the British to cultivate poppy alone resulted in depleting indigenous resources and an awareness of the geographical locale that once fed their needs and stabilized their lives:

“now the factory’s appetite for opium seemed never to be sate. Come the cold weather, the English sahibs would allow little else to be planted; their agents would go from home to home, forcing cash advances on the farmers, making them sign asami contracts.” (Ghosh 2008: 29-30)

The texts therefore are a brilliant crystallisation of the multiple interpretative possibilities that calls for a focus on geographical scales as a mode for enunciating the space of the novel as a genre and also the myriad of spatiality within the novel itself.


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