History, Memory and the Immemorial: An Analysis of Amitav Ghosh's Fiction


Aatreyee Ghosh

PhD defended at: 

Jawaharlal Nehru University


South Asian Fiction in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has undergone numerous changes as theories and philosophies of power and its appendages have been re-configured with the birth of new nations, the death of older superpowers and the fluctuating contours of History and politics, all converging together into a problematic synthesis. While the question of imagined communities and how they shape the nation space has been one of the primary questions to be explored in the fiction from the subcontinent, post the 1980s there has been a shift in the lens of the investigation as the postcolonial self no longer remained interested in answering back or questioning the colonial narratives at face value, constricting themselves into the binaries of us and them. Amitav Ghosh with both his fictional and non-fictional work is one of the major proponents of this concept of the new postcolonial self who desires to read against the grain of archival history, bringing to light the myriad stories and narratives which have been lost in time, falling through the cracks of causal historical documents. Ghosh’s novels, eight of them to be exact, have all critically engaged with the questions of belonging, the power of the state, the element of statelessness that haunts the disenfranchised in the political sphere and most importantly, have tried to envisage new ways of inclusive policies which will bring in the un-accommodated stories of all those who have been forgotten or forcibly withdrawn from History into the arena of the seen and the remembered.
The thesis in question, ‘History, Memory and the Immemorial: an Analysis of Amitav Ghosh’s Fiction’ aimed to read Ghosh’s works through the lens of not only the three concepts as enlisted in the title but also ideas which would put them under scrutiny and try to answer the question as to how much has he been successful as a chronicler of forgotten pasts, bringing them into the purview of the historical and if such an act falls into the same traps that History has been guilty of indulging in. Exploring how place and space politics play a role in determining one’s understanding of history as well as creating sense of identity and belonging, the chapters in this thesis take up each of his novels and study them through the tenets of place, language used, representation of the other and finally the role of the author-historian. The thesis then tries to prove through myriad examples taken from the novels how Ghosh as a narrator indulges in those same parameters of selectively choosing and representing pasts which fit into the narrative of colonial binaries which he ironically ends up championing. While certain aspects of the analysis may seem to be outside the purview of the immediate questions that have been raised in this work, they are nonetheless important detours which help in grounding the central postulate that the thesis aims to explore. The chapters are arranged in terms of the ideas that Ghosh has delved into, beginning with migrant minority voices and the importance of space politics in such conditions, moving on to the use of familial memories as a form of counterbalance to the historical rhetoric and finally a reading of the colonial mission and the first movements of migrants as different forms of the antistory. Each of the chapter indulges in the most important tenets of how antistory reveals itself through Ghosh’s narrators’ endeavours and it is only in the final chapter that we look into the possible pitfalls of Ghosh’s project and what that entails in terms of the identity politics that he as a writer aims to examine and decipher. The immemorial as a project is one which is always in the process of becoming and therefore it is important to realise that it morphs itself into different forms of study rather than being a linear idea which follows the exact tropes of the archival project. The pitfalls therefore become important markers in our understanding of the basic truth that the archival process however well-intentioned and careful will always privilege one version over the other and can never really represent the immemorial antistory in its entirety. This thesis realises this and through an understanding of the possible setbacks that a project like Ghosh’s may have, tries to find out ways in which these problems if not completely eliminated but can at least be minimised to the best of one’s abilities to bring to light the multi-facets of the antistory.
The most important concept that this thesis aims at grounding is that of antistory. Antistory defines itself as the present which is endowed with the messianic power, however weak, to grasp upon the vanishing ancient memory in the moment of its extinction. In its epistemological origins, the concept of Antistory is applied to a new kind of post-modernist fiction that subverts our notional understanding of story-telling. First utilised by Philip Stevick for his anthology of experimental fiction, the term Antistory has been utilised to refer to non-normative forms of narratives where the Aristotelian ideas of standard plot structure as well as subject matters have been discarded for avant-garde techniques and novel subject and tones of fiction-writing. I have deliberately chosen this term as the crux of my theoretical framework as it not only carries within itself the tools of subversion of standardized concepts of narration techniques; it also becomes a symbolic representation of the act of representation which lies beyond representation. In other words, it symbolically anticipates the myriad possibilities of ‘becoming’ by unravelling itself to the processes of historical cognition and it is only through such an endeavour of understanding the missed possibilities of the past that happiness, as defined by Walter Benjamin, would become a possibility. It is to this possibility of happiness plunged in the crisis of loss that Antistory becomes a custodian to. Antistory does not only remain accountable to the future towards which its final fulfillment lay, but also to the present Now which contains within itself the messianic power of realisation and action. This present breaks history off from its chained existence and through that opens it up to the claims of the unhistorical, the immemorial; one that lies beyond the realms of lived reality. This present becomes the intentional prophecy of the past, presenting the unrepresentable, voiceless and the muted, fulfilling them away from the unvarying form of the linear continuity. Following Benjamin’s strain of thought, Antistory grounds itself on the fact that the subject of history cannot be the all-encompassing homogenous mankind that automatically progresses towards a historical consent and constant. Rather, the object of history should be a class, which is the class of the oppressed, the ones who have been denied, those deprived of their rights and exploited and such a history cannot be an automatic progression towards a predestined goal, already constituted in time and space, but one which in principle moves towards unforeseen realizations and is forever philosophically open to the whirls of newer interpretations and understanding. It should carry within itself the anxiety and urgency of the messianic power which realizes and remembers the danger of not remembering, that even the dead can be killed off and can stop asserting their claim over the living, that every point of omission is also a point of a loss from where there is no return. It is only when history is in danger of becoming impossible that remembering sets in and it is at this juncture that the messianic Antistory begins its journey.
Each of the novels discussed in this thesis appropriates the antistory through different avenues. In Circle of Reason it is through the voices of minor communities which aim at building a world beyond the space that has been provided to them. In The Shadowlines it lies in the liminal spaces of borders and nations partitioned which keep claiming its due from all those who unwittingly expect the past to obliterate itself and the present to be born out of nothingness. The second chapter, taking into account the next three novels of Ghosh, Calcutta CHromosome, Hungry Tide and Glass Palace look into the arena of personal and familial memories as a repository of alternative histories. The chapter also comments on how memory also works through biases and selections and therefore the author-narrator needs to be weary of the overexposure of memories that he is being subjected to, to overcome the problem of a memory overdrive, one which might end up causing the same harm to the genuine memories which their earlier burial had led to. The fourth chapter takes up the hitherto least explored of Ghosh’s works till date, the Trilogy and tries to under the first movements of globalisation through the opium trade merging together actual historical data and documents with fictional characters. Contrasting the exploitative nature of Free Trade, the chapter delves into alternate modes of exchange with art, nature and language which act as new registers for the antistory to delineate the stories hitherto lost. While each of these chapters delve into the avenues through which antistory reveals itself to the author-narrator in its moment of crisis, the final chapter argues about the various problems that such representations often face in terms of selective remembrances as well as muted voices of the disenfranchised. The final chapter is a review of the pitfalls of the project of memorialisation of the immemorial through the avenue of the antistory. Expanding on it, it is also a critical look into the power-knowledge nexus that always remains at the heart of any discourse.