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Amitav Ghosh has of late attained the status of being one of the major Indian writers in English. Both his fictional and non-fictional works have been critically acclaimed in the academic world and they deal with, among others, issues like migration, belonging, dislocation both in the contemporary and bygone era. Ghosh's fictions relate peculiar and unique stories of the characters set against specific historical backdrop. His novels, richly informed by meticulous research done in multifarious fields, notably in the field of anthropology, contest the discreteness of culture and uphold the interpenetrative nature of various cultures. The interesting thing regarding the fictional oeuvre of Amitav Ghosh is the variable historical backdrop against which the unique stories of his characters are told. His characters, haling from various locales, cross geographical frontiers and Ghosh not only sets the previous colony as the background of his books, but they inhabit both the colonized place and the country of the former colonial masters. Ghosh's writings also foreground such places like Egypt, Burma etc that are normally accorded little space in contemporary fictions. The interpenetration of culture, revisionist history, migration of people lead critics consider Amitav Ghosh as a postcolonial writer, though the writer himself maintains his self-conscious distance from being labeled with such critical terminology¹. Amitav Ghosh expresses his displeasure at the attempt to be tagged with a particular critical nomenclature/catch-phrase. In fact his novels deal with the issues of the discourse of knowledge and power in the colonial set-up. He has traced the changing nature of the identities of people and how various discourses impact in the formation of identity.
The euphoric output of Indian writings in English following the legendary/phenomenal success of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children not only increased the greater visibility of Anglophone writings in the international market, but also led to the investment of serious critical attention to this huge bulk of literary exercise in the subcontinent. Amitav Ghosh shares some of the key concerns of postcolonial theory in his recuperation of the lost or marginalized voices(histories), the contestation of colonial knowledge and discourse, displacement and dislocation as a result of colonial upheaval, the formation of identity of the colonized people etc. Ghosh's novels have been analysed from various postcolonial perspectives particularly with regard to the way history has been presented in his fictional works. The interpenetration of culture and the contestation of the discreteness of culture as envisaged in Ghosh's works received critical attention from the leading scholars working with/from the postcolonial perspective. The relationship between knowledge and power, and the cultural construction of knowledge were minutely taken up by critics like Claire Chambers². However there are two monographs on Amitav Ghosh which address various issues like history, postcolonialism etc. The monograph, part of the series Contemporary Indian Writers in English(CIWE), entitled Amitav Ghosh, John Hawley analyses Ghosh's fictional and non-fictional works primarily from the postcolonial perspective. Hawley's evaluation of Ghosh is presented in six chapters which deal with specific themes encompassing his fictions. Two chapters however are broad in scope and generalized in theme since they place the novelist in the larger perspective of writing, problematics and politics of writing in English. In the first chapter entitled "The Writer, his Contexts and his Themes", Hawley contextualizes Ghosh's writings in the backdrop of contemporary writing in English. Other chapter "Beyond the Commonwealth: Amitav Ghosh and Indian Writing in English", Prof Hawley deals with Ghosh's commitment to writing and problematization of the role of the writer in the contemporary world. In the third chapter entitled "A Tale of Two Riots: The Circle of Reason and The Shadow Lines", Hawley focuses Ghosh's treatment of riots and its larger impact on the postcolonial nation-state. Hawley also draws attention to Ghosh's concern with the role of individual in the larger history of the world. The fourth chapter engages with the topic of mass migration that started with onset of colonial rule and continued even in the postcolonial nations. This chapter deals with the themes of migration, forced exile handled adroitly in Ghosh's novels like In an Antique Land, The Glass Palace, The Hungry Tide. Hawley explores the issue of social and cultural displacement in In an Antique land which resists any generic classification. It is sometimes dubbed as a historical novel, another time a travelogue and also a personal memoir. Notwithstanding its generic status, the book raises certain thought-provoking questions with regard to the role of the anthropologist. Hawley critically engages with the issue of Ghosh's excavation of historical event that is left out from the official recorded history. Ghosh calls attention to the provisional nature of history and advocates the revisionary/revisionist approach to history. Prof Hawley engages with the critical orientation of Ghosh's other works along the lines of interrelation between science and fiction. He devotes an entire chapter on The Calcutta Chromosome to talk about the subaltern agency and its function in the colonial discourse of science. Hawley successfully explores Ghosh's critical engagement with the cultural creation of various discourses including scientific discourse. But this monograph, though making substantial contribution to Ghosh criticism, does not take up the important issue of Ghosh's engagement with the formation of identity.
Another recent monograph by Anshuman A. Mondal on Amitav Ghosh (Contemporary World Writers series) makes substantial critical contribution to the body of Ghosh criticism. Instead of customary chronological, novel-by-novel approach, this book rather analyses various themes and issues of Ghosh's novels. It seeks to approach Ghosh's texts thematically and contextualizes his novels within various critical perspectives. Therefore the chapters in this book are arranged on the basis of certain core issues that are handled in Ghosh's novels. Interestingly one or two particular texts are given greater critical emphasis than other novels because of the thematic relevance in the context. Thus the chapter 2, for example, critically focuses on Ghosh's exploration of knowledge, science and rationality with respect to The Circle of Reason, The Calcutta Chromosome, and In an Antique Land. The Chapter 3 examines Ghosh's concern with the issues of identity, colonialism, religion, nationalism etc in the postcolonial world by concentrating on novels like The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land, The Hungry Tide, The Glass Palace. Chapter 4 deals with Ghosh's engagement with history and historiography and Mr. Mondal here brings all of Ghosh's novels within this context. Chapter 5 is the final chapter which offers an overview of the extant criticism on Ghosh. Even though this book puts critical premium upon identity and how it is constructed, this issue needs to be probed deeper and comprehensively. This book contributes to the burgeoning body of Ghosh criticism in terms of the major issues and concerns in Ghosh's novels. But the issue of identity is such a consistent concern with Ghosh that it merits a full-fledged critical study that obviously falls beyond the scope of the above-mentioned monograph. Besides these monographs there are a good number of significant anthologies on Amitav Ghosh mostly on his fictional works. One such important anthology is Amitav Ghish A Critical Companion (2003) edited by Tabish Khair, which contains a number of important articles on Ghosh's fictions. There are principally two articles that deal with Ghosh's handling of history. Despite the diverse perspective from which a number of critical entries on Ghosh's novels are included in this anthology, it seems to downplay the importance of the issue of identity so consistently employed in Ghosh's fictions. Brinda Bose edited a volume of critical writings on Amitav Ghosh in the anthology Amitav Ghosh Critical Perspectives (2003) published by Pencraft International. There are a number of scholarly critical writings of Ghosh's various novels, but they do not address the issue of identity in a comprehensive manner. Arguably this topic of identity has escaped the attention of serious scholars working Ghosh in particular and postcolonial literature in general. The recently published anthology entitled Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Essays edited by Bibhash Choudhury contains a good number of critical essays on the works of Amitav Ghosh and these essays primarily focus on the status of Ghosh a postcolonial writer and the basic preoccupations of postcolonialism. There is however one essay "Fraught with a Background: Identity and Cultural legacy in Sea of Poppies", that seeks to investigate Ghosh's ideas on identity. Even then this essay is primarily focused on various identities the characters take up in the course of their journey in life. Moreover this essay investigates the issue of identity together with cultural legacy with reference to Ghosh's latest book on the promised Ibis trilogy.
The body of Ghosh scholarship is generally directed towards the treatment of and presentation of history in the fictional works of Amitav Ghosh. Another major critical investigation is directed to Ghosh's musings on culture as envisaged in his novels. There has been considerable critical gap in the body of Ghosh criticism with regard to the systematic analysis of Ghosh's ideas on identity. In fact Amitav Ghosh invests his imaginative and professional knowledge in the comprehensive analysis of the issue of identity. He takes up various components of identity in his novels, sometimes in an overt way and at other times in a much more implicit way. Nevertheless the issue of identity has never escaped the attention of this creative artist who utilizes his professional as well as creative impulses to investigate this topic. In fact the relative avoidance on the part of the leading critics in the investigation of the issue inspires me to look into the way Amitav Ghosh invests his creative energy in the handling of identity. In the title of the topic of my research work there are two loaded words that will form the critical framework of my proposed study. These words are 'Contextualizing' and 'Identity'. I shall make modest attempt first in the explanation of these critical terminologies against which I shall endeavour to analyse the novels of Amitav Ghosh. In sociolinguistics 'contextualize' ordinarily refers to the use of words or ideas in a particular discourse to score certain points. Roughly speaking to contextualize implies the placing of some ideas or linguistic items in a particular discursive space to fathom its possible horizon of meanings. One, for instance, may use certain scientific terminology in a specific 'context' or environment in order that a new desired ideas or signification may crop up. Therefore the significance of a particular term may undergo transformation/change depending upon the context in which the term is placed. This is particularly evident in the way the postmodernist ideas, depending upon language itself, focus on the provisional nature of meaning of any discourse.
The issue of identity has attained critical centrality in recent times in the field of culture, politics, literary studies etc. This centrality however has always been shrouded by a number of debates. The controversy surrounding and critical engagement with the notion of identity revolve not only round its ontological nature, but also its formation and sustenance. Roughly speaking there are primarily two groups which debate on the issue of identity. One group emphasizes the essential core of human beings and tries to talk about some essential identity. Other group contests any essentialist idea of identity and considers identity in the plural. However it is important to look deeper at the issue of identity which has been continually affecting our lives more than ever before.
a) What is identity?
Identity: In the ordinary usage of the term, identity offers the possible clues so as to determine who we are. Identity therefore is a multi-faceted phenomenon since it points to the ways a human being knows himself/herself as well as how s/he is known to others. In other words it is both personal and collective/communal. In the personal sphere identity may simplistically mean certain personality traits, behaviour etc. that distinguish him/her form other human beings. But identity is not just about our personality or personal traits, since the latter is more about certain physical traits and psychological features of a person while the former is deeper, intrinsic and stronger than the personality traits. Having/holding an identity implies a conscious and active choice on the part of the individual in maintaining certain relationship with other individuals and the society at large. Interestingly therefore, the formation of identity takes place within specific social, cultural as well as political contexts. An individual attains a particular identity through his/her interaction with other individuals and the society within which he/she lives. S/he can attain identity by taking membership in a particular group. Therefore individuals have social identity acquired through their membership to various social/political or other groups or organizations. Thus one can have multiple identities depending upon the circumstances or contexts. These multiple identities are however neither fixed nor absolute, since they can be negotiated at different levels. Besides, people can possess multiple identities without having any contrary or oppositional relationship. In that case people attach greater importance to certain identity categories than others in a specific circumstance. But identity is just not a matter of simple awareness on the part of the person concerned, it must be recognized by others also. Since attaining identity takes place within a socio-cultural, political context, it is basically a socially recognized position where the recognition of that (particular) identity by others is very important. As argued already identities can be managed in specific context depending upon the importance one chooses to attach on a particular aspect of identity. Therefore 'choice' does matter in the adoption of a particular identity since this critical act determines the orientation an individual takes in his/her forward movement in life. However, it must be noted that this 'choice' is neither absolute nor without constraint. In other words there is always a tug of war between the individual and the society or the world at large. The critical issue therefore is whether individuals have agency and to what extent they can exercise their liberty in the matters of adopting or subscribing to an identity category. There is thus a tension between how much control/freedom an individual holds/enjoys in constructing his/her identity(-ies) and the constraint or control is exercised over him/her. Since an individual lives in the society among other human beings, s/he has to manage his/her identity in relation to others. S/he acquires his/her identity through a variety of ways s/he interacts with his/her social milieu. Therefore some identity categories may be preordained as in the case of a particular identity (caste/class) an individual adopts by virtue of his/her 'birth'. This identity category, though, obtained through birth may later be transcended through an act of negotiation with other identity markers. Besides this type of 'given' identity categories, there are other identities which people adopt by making 'voluntary' subscription to certain group memberships, like political organization or any other social groups. In fact there are a number of ways an individual can organize his/her identity. Both the natural identities and other identities acquired through an interaction with the society or outer world are likely to be resisted or re-negotiated. The identity one is born with, say, belonging to a social group or a particular caste, may later be resisted and that may inaugurate the process of crisis in identity. Erik Erikson who made an extensive research on identity showed how crisis in identity starts in adolescence when young people, faced with the crucial task of making career choices and other personal decisions, go through various critical phases. Importantly they may not always successfully resolve those crises properly. The successful resolution of the crisis depends to a great extent upon the past experience, exposure in his/her early stages of life. In other words the crisis in identity starts with one's deep sense of 'lack' in the identity s/he holds or s/he is known by. This sense of lack is produced because of the subject's discontent at the way s/he is referred to in the social framework. To put it in other words, a person may like to outgrow the limiting aspects of the identity s/he holds and eventually s/he may adopt any new identity that may be more open, inclusive and flexible. Thus s/he is at the crossroad of conscious choice of a new identity and the rejection of an earlier identity category. The adoption of an identity in the changed scenario may not always be successfully done/accomplished by everybody, for the successful resolution of the crisis lies in the psychological make-up of the person concerned as well as the social/political situation conducive for transformation. Interestingly the overcoming of identity crisis implies the adoption of a new identity in the face of the realization of the limitations of the exclusive identity. Thus the switch from one identity category to another also testifies to the fact that identities are negotiable, readjustable, and fluid. Since an individual is primarily a social being, his/her identity therefore is determined by his affiliations to a number of social, political organizations. The membership to each of these various groups give identity to the individual, but the formation of a distinct identity can be said to be complete only when the person concerned is aware of the limitations of various identity categories and therefore consciously subscribe to a particular image of himself/herself emerged out of his/her interaction with varied identity categories. Interestingly the crystallization of the ever-changing social experience leading to the formation of an identity may further lead to re-negotiation of his/her identity.
Identity in Psychology:
The issue of identity has been investigated from the psychological point of view by a number of eminent researchers. Erik Erikson, for instance, carried out extensive research on identity from the psychological point of view. The sense of continuity is the cornerstone of identity. An individual develops greater sense of himself/herself through his/her constant interaction with the society or culture. This interaction with the society may not be always smooth, easy or simple. When an individual fails to integrate himself/herself because of certain psychological blockades, s/he faces what is known as identity crisis. The resolution of the identity crisis depends upon the past exposure of the person to society, psychological make-up etc.
The basis of Erikson's concept of identity is exploration of and fidelity to certain identity categories. The Neo-Eriksonian perspective, developed by James Marcia, identified four core areas or elements that individuals experience in the formation of various identities. The formation of identity takes place through an act of exploring the possible role models with which to identify as well as remaining committed to those identification. Therefore these two things may not happen simultaneously always and thus may end up losing identity. Marcia here identifies four possible phenomena taking place in this regard. There may be occasion when an individual may not have any interest in or intention of making exploration with regard to possible roles s/he may take up. The same person may also show indifference even in committing to the roles s/he may have been maintaining or occupying. Such absence of exploration and commitment is termed as Identity Diffusion. Identity Foreclosure suggests an individual's intention or desire to commit to certain roles which s/he may not have yet examined in the past. In fact such condition suggests a degree of awareness regarding the need for committing to some roles/models though lacking in the necessary task of exploring the possible target roles. Identity Moratorium on the hand takes place when the individual undertakes the explorative task of identifying the possible models or roles, but suffers from the active commitment to any roles identified after extensive exploration. Finally comes Identity Achievement which suggests the simultaneous act of exploring the possible role models and eventual commitment to those roles. Marcia therefore puts premium upon the role of choices in the matter of consciously adhering to certain roles. Interestingly identity therefore is not posited as something pre-given or as something waiting over there for final adoption. On the other hand identity is seen as something one must identify with after necessary exploration and final commitment.
An individual's interaction and relation with the society take place in a variety of social and psychological ways. An individual's membership in a particular social group gives her an identity, but the critical point is what sort of psychological compulsion impels one to subscribe to a group and not to others. In other words there must be some psychosocial reasons in subscribing to certain group members. Interestingly people cannot easily or unproblematically associate themselves with a particular group. An individual may, for example, be not very open or comfortable with the idea of forming association with a particular group. Cote and Levine investigate into the possible reasons for various types of behaviour in young adolescents. A Refuser individual refers to one who engages in child-like behaviour with others and this type of person develops cognitive blocks that prevent adoption of adult roles. Therefore such an individual fails to form any relation with the larger community of adults. A Drifter however is an individual who possesses greater psychological resources than the Refuser in terms of intelligence etc., but is not capable of applying the psychological resources resulting in his/her non-engagement with social roles. Therefore such an individual cannot form a social identity. A searcher in social psychology denotes a person who develops a sense of dissatisfaction because of personal and social expectation and therefore engineers a quest for various role-models with which to identify themselves. Thus such a person negotiates with various role-models to a certain degree, but eventually cannot commit himself/herself to those community or role models. As a result a searcher, though an improvement upon the previous stages of individuality, cannot form a social identity because of non-committal attitude. A Guardian on the other hand, has greater awareness of personal values and attitudes and strictly adheres to certain social roles or categories. But s/he does not possess the capability of interrogating his/her acquired identity because of deep fear for any kind of change. Such a person is actually overwhelmed by a sense of social identity. A resolver is rather an inquisitive person who negotiates with various social groups so as to enhance his/her scope for future personal development. Such categorization of individuals on the basis of their response to social expectation and personal demands reinforces various strategies people adopt to construct their identity in the society. The relation between the self and the society, which is the cornerstone of the social psychological identity, is looked at differently by other critic and theorists. Kenneth Gergen, for example, makes further classification with regard to the way individuals perceive their relation with the society. The strategic manipulator is a person who exploits all possible identity categories for his/her development and therefore becomes alienated from his/her social self. The pastiche personality is a person who does not believe in any true or essential identity and therefore engages in role-playing activities. The relational self on the other hand attempts integration between the self and the society and considers identity as basically an engagement with the society. The views that identity is basically a matter of engagement with the society can be traced to postmodern philosophy.
People acquire various identities at different stages of their lives through their constant interaction with the social context. Thus an individual may acquire one particular identity through his/her birth. But this particular identity should not be deemed as fixed or non-negotiable, for s/he may outgrow the limitations of that identity through the adoption of other identities that are not constructed through birth only. Thus being born into a Bengali family, for example, a person develops one particular identity earned through birth. But this identity can be transcended through an act of thinking oneself in terms of belonging to other identity categories like the country or nation to which s/he belongs. Therefore affiliations to various organizations or social or cultural groups give identity to people. Thus race, gender, nationalism, language give identity to people.
How are identities constructed?: The idea of an autonomous, thinking subject responsible for his action came to be strongly pronounced in the wake of the Renaissance when a host of philosophers like Locke, Descartes installed 'man' in the centre of the world and freed human beings from the absolute determinism of the Christian thought. Man was held to be responsible for his action and therefore the Enlightenment philosophers first talked about the autonomous, thinking subject. However in the twentieth century the concept of an autonomous subject was questioned during the age of explosion of modernist and postmodernist thought. Althusser, drawing upon the ideas and theories of Lacan, theorized how ideology constructed identity for an individual. Working on the concept of Antonio Gramsci's ideology, Althusser holds that ideology constructs identity for the individual. As a Marxist, Althusser's critical approach was directed towards uncovering the relationship between power, social structure and culture. Althusser endeavored to develop a scientific or systematic theory that could explain how society functions in order to maintain conditions favourable to capitalism. His primary focus was on the relationship between ideology and the roles and identities society creates for people that help to perpetuate these conditions. He finds the issue of ideology, particularly its operation most vital in the perpetuation of a particular social structure. He observes that ideology operates in two forms: Repressive State Apparatus or RSA and Ideological State Apparatus or ISA. While RSAs which include the government, police, military etc. are evidently repressive in their espousal of force or violence in maintaining the condition conducive for the social stability, ISAs are however secretive in their operation but more powerful in its ideological operations. These ISAs include church, education etc. that condition human beings to take up particular roles. Althusser holds that ideology transforms ordinary individuals into 'subjects' who are 'interpellated' or hailed by ideology. Althuser says that interpellation primarily occurs through language and transforms individuals into subjects. To illustrate how ideology works through the mechanism of interpellation, Althusser refers to the commonplace everyday example of how an individual is almost daily 'hailed' or 'interpellated' in the street by the police. The police officer calls out by saying 'Hey you', an individual responds immediately believing/suspecting/knowing the call made at him/her. Althusser proposes that human beings are thus ideologically interpellated into certain roles and thus take up particular identity. Althusser says that individuals are 'always-already interpellated' and thus preconditioned to adopt a particular identity. Althusser substantiates the overdeterminism of individuals by ideology by showing how the apparently 'uncontaminated' unborn child is actually always-already interpellated by the ideology. The working of this invisible and unsuspecting ideology can be seen in the way the birth of the yet-to-be-born child is preceded by certain rituals in the form of selection of the name of the baby in advance, future planning with regard to the child's birth. Althusser shows that individuals are constantly hailed in certain subject positions along the lines of consumer culture. We are interpellated by the prevalent ideology of consumerism and as employees or consumers we are pushed into specific subject positions and therefore form our identities accordingly. The advertisement, for example, constructs identity for us, as we are interpellated by the advertisement to purchase a particular brand. Althusser therefore shows the greater role of the ideology in constructing our identity.
Criticism: Althusser's ideas come under severe criticism primarily because of its overdeterminism of human action and discrediting of agency to human beings. Human beings are not just beings with unchallenging consciousness, for they can contest the overpowering of ideology.
Michel Foucault: Michel Foucault is one of the prominent figures of the social construction theory of identity. According to Foucault human beings operate in discourse, a broad concept that he uses to refer to language and other forms of representation, indeed for all human mechanisms for the conveyance of meaning and value. Foucault believes that human beings are transcribed in a discourse which leaves little room for options. In other words human beings acquire identity through the conditioning by a particular discourse. However Foucault also suggests that the very precise moment of subjection is also a moment of resistance. As Judith Butler says: "The Foucaultian subject is never fully constituted in subjection"( see book Subjectivity, p. 95). Foucault however thinks of the possibility of agency that may work towards the social change. Acknowledging the redoubtable power of discourse, Foucault however thinks that human beings can exercise some control over it. In fact he urges his readers to challenge the overriding effect of discourse:
"Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are".( Subjectivity, p. 94 to be checked later)
Enlightenment Views on Identity: Descartes, Kant, Locke
Identity in 19th Century: The Women's Liberation Movement in the nineteenth century Europe called into question the essentialist concept of identity endorsed by the Enlightenment thinkers. Mary Wollstonecraft's(1759-97) critique of Rossoue's notions of women and womanhood helps in dismantling the socially constructed nature of gender and therefore points to the constructedness of feminine gender. Wollstonecraft considers the process of socioalization as responsible for creating and sustaining the identity of women.
1. in an interview with Neluka Silva and Alex Tickell, Kunappi, 19:3, 1997, p.171(reprinted in Brinda Bose book)
2. unpublished Ph D thesis of Claire Chambers( as mentioned in the book Amitav Ghosh by Anshuman A Mandal)
Resolution of Identity problem can be seen in the case of the unnamed narrator in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, where the narrator moves through a series of incidents concerning the personal, political and national issues that he ultimately develops his own sense of identity. The resolution of his identity therefore can be seen as a conscious attempt to investigate the traditional/common markers of identity so as to reach at an identity that goes well beyond the popular ideas. His critical and investigative search into the library so as to locate the meaning of silence carries him forward to the search for an identity.