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Identity SL

Identity SL

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Published by Sukanta Das

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Published by: Sukanta Das on May 26, 2010
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Beyond the Frontiers: Quest for Identity in Amitav Ghosh’s
The Shadow Lines 
Sukanta Das*Amitav Ghosh stands unique among the generation of Indian writers engaged increative writing in English following Rushdie. Ghosh’s writings, which resist genericdivisions, deal with the effects of colonialism, and problematize the dominant discourseof history. Though generically and thematically diverse, one of the persistent tropes inGhosh’s writings is the in-betweenspace. Evidently Ghosh contests theconstructedness of various borders segregating nations from nations, people from people,culture from culture etc. The revisionist approach to history, destabilization of borders,exhumation of the individual voices suppressed/elided by dominant ideology point to theuniquely Ghosian way of quest for identity. Incidentally the issue of identity is bothcontentious and complicating because of its use and abuse in various discourses, rightfrom that of politics to ordinary human life. The debate over identity spins round both itstheoretical and practical fields making sometimes mutually contradictory propositions.The theoretical debate about identity revolves not only round its nature, process of formation, but also raises important existential/ontological questions. However there aretwo major dominant theories about identity, namely the essentialist and the postmodernist. The essentialist concept of identity focuses on the single aspect of one’sidentity (say, gender) and holds it essentially true. The essentialist notion of identitytherefore prioritizes one aspect of numerous social, cultural, political affiliations of anindividual and emphasizes on some essential core. The postmodernists, on the other, are basically skeptical about identity since the language, through which experience isinterpreted, is essentially unstable and therefore identity is epistemically unreliable.Unlike the essentialists who believe in the singular affiliation of an individual’s identity,the postmodernists deny any such identity. However the ‘strategic essentialism’, firstformulated by Gayatri Spivak, deploys identity strategically for specific political purposes. Understandably the invocation of identity is doubtlessly important andeffective in achieving the desired result particularly in the case of a group or community.Thus even though the supporters of strategic essentialism are aware of the falsity of identity and illusion of purported homogeneity, they nonetheless invoke it in order toobtain something for the community. However the strategic essentialism is flawed andquestioned on the ground that it leads to a kind of elitism among the privileged class of agroup identity. While the “knowing” theorists who deploy identity strategically may beaware of the illusoriness of identity, the “unknowing” activists continue to believe inidentity. But the crux of the matter is that unless something as important as identity istaken seriously and used only strategically, the project will not be viable in the long run.However contentious and problematic it may be, identity remains one of the mostimportant –as well as hotly disputed–topics in literary and cultural studies. Whileexperience plays an important part in the formation of an individual’s identity, itsinterpretation involves much theoretical complications. An individual’s understanding of himself/herself –who is s/he?–is likely to be influenced by and in turn influences his/her social location. The postpositivist realist theory of identity, as postulated by Satya P.Mohanty and et al, involves a theoretical understanding of the social location to which anindividual belongs. Unlike the postmodernists, a realist theory of identity does not take“experience” to be meaningless and unreliable. These theorists do not see experience as
essentially misleading for, experience, if properly interpreted, can yield real epistemicknowledge about identity. Even the seemingly personal experience is socially andtheoretically constructed and therefore proper understanding of experience can be a clueto the interpretation of an individual’s identity and his/her location in the world. AsMohanty says, “…Identities are ways of making sense of our experiences.”(Mohanty, 43)Significantly identities cannot be merely wished away for what we are inevitablyinfluences our social, political, cultural activities and vice versa. An individual’s sociallocation plays an important part in the formation of his /her identity. The social locationon the other hand is formed by the real–justifiable or unjustifiable– social categories likerace, class, gender, sexuality etc. What is important here to note is that even though thesevarious categories are open to contestation and subversion, they are nonetheless capableof creating real material result. For example, even when we may question the validity of asocial category like class/caste, we cannot deny the obvious result emanating from such acategory. When we talk of an individual’s identity we have to take into account at leasttwo aspects of an individual’s identity, namely one’s public identity and private identityor lived sense of the self. Simplistically speaking public identity refers to an identitywhich one has in a public space and by which one is known, hailed, referred to andcategorized. This is the third person view of an individual. But even though there remainsa gulf between one’s public and private identity, one cannot deny the consequence of one’s public identity in the sphere of one’s identity to oneself. The problem with one’s private identity is that it cannot be communicated to and used in the public sphere.Interestingly an individual has multiple identities which are formed as a result of numerous social, political, cultural affiliations. Thus even when one may like to beknown as Indian, his/her affiliation to a particular religion might be extremely importantunder certain circumstance which may render his/her desire to be identified as Indianinconsequential. Hence the issue of freedom in one’s choice of identity is also an integral part of the process of formation of one’s identity. Whether we are ‘free’ enough to chooseour identity or identity is formed by process to which we have limited control is acontentious issue in the discussion of identity. Even when reasoning is important in theselection of a particular identity, one cannot but take into account the social context at thetime of choosing an identity. As Amartya Sen argues, “Not only is reason involved in thechoice of identity, but the reasoning may have to take note of the social context andcontingent relevance of being in one’s category or another” (Sen, 28). Private identity or one’s daily self focuses on one’s personal understanding of oneself. What an individualunderstands about himself/ herself may not be personal even in his /her own personalspace. The so-called “inner” emotions we feel are not necessarily personal for they areevoked by certain context created by the social discourse. However the split between private and public identity of an individual is not permanent for there is alwaysconnections and negotiations between them. In fact one’s ‘internal’ identity is constitutedwithin ‘external’ identity which in turn is conditioned by subjective negotiation. Henceidentity is not only multi-faceted but also involves continuous interaction and negotiationwith one’s location in the world.In
The Shadow Lines
Amitav Ghosh investigates the notion of identity and showshow the dominant discourses play significant part in the formation of one’s identity. Theidentity of Thamma, the grandmother of the nameless narrator, offers an important study
of how the discourses like that of the nation and nationalism create identity of the personconcerned. From the very early period of his life the unnamed narrator is urged by hissomewhat queer uncle Tridib to create his own story lest he may get trapped in other’sstories (“…we would never be free of other people’s inventions” (
The Shadow Lines
investigates how the prevalent/dominant discourse is to be resisted in order to hear ‘other’ voices waiting to be heard. Thamma evidently believes in the dominant rhetoric of nation and nationalism as she is trapped in the dominant discourse. She believes in thecorporeal reality of nation and believes strongly in its territorial boundary. BenedictAnderson defines nation as “imagined communities” with all probable nuances of theterm. Even though the idea of the nation is predominantly political, it goes beyond thatand comes to represent consciousness built by the emotional responses of the people in it.In other words the members of the given community mutually come to share the basiccharacteristics of a community–race, language, history, myth, religion, territory etc.Ernest Renan emphasizes the unstable nature of nations which are always on the point of collapse in multiple divisions within the community. Evidently in Renan’s scheme of things nations are not “natural” entities and their instability points to their socialconstruction. Nationhood therefore is a myth sustained by ideology perpetuatingnationalism which creates homogenizing national tradition. But in practice the discourseof nationalism fails to take into account and therefore is unable to represent the trulydiverse culture of a nation and ultimately upholds the views of the dominant, privilegedgroup. Therefore the idea of nation with its fixed territorial boundary is sustained by thedominant discourse of nationalism. In
The Shadow Lines
Amitav Ghosh problematizesnationalism in his search for identity. The constant urging to the narrator on the part of Tridib to invent (hi) stories–use imagination with precision–may be taken as a key notonly to the thematic core of the book but also to the inquiry of various identities formed.The grandmother of the narrator–Thamma– fails to invent her stories rendering herself getting trapped in the available dominant discourse of nationalism. Her idea of the nationand nationalism is very categorical, one-dimensional and plain. She is visibly caught bythe euphoria of nationalism which champions the internal solidarity within the boundaryand focuses on its difference from those lying outside the frontier. The dominant idea of nation focuses on the territorial boundary as well as on its discrete distinction from thoseacross the border. In other words while the idea of nation is constituted by ahomogenizing zeal among the people within the border, its identity is also affirmed by itsdistinction, separateness, difference from neighbours .Thamma wants to contribute to the building up of independent India for which she advises her grandson to build a strong body in order to build a strong country. Thamma is caught by this dominant discourse of nation. As a believer in the reality/sanctity of borders separating one nation-state fromothers, Thamma wants to witness the territorial boundary separating India from EastPakistan from the plane. She is elated at the prospect of watching borders while going bya plane towards Dhaka. Her desire to witness the border is not just the naïve innocentwish for she believes in the discourse of nation emphasizing the territorial discreteidentity. She is certain of some concrete demarcating lines—“…surely there’s something-trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of lands”(
151). She defends her conviction by announcing: “But if there aren’t anytrenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean where’s the difference then? Andif there’s no difference both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before,

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