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THE METAPHYSICS OF SILENCE: THE NOVELS

OF AMITAV GHOSH

Thesis Submitted to Jadavpur University


for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy in Arts

By
Sandip Ain

Department of English
Jadavpur University
West Bengal
2010

Synopsis of the Research Report

The Metaphysics of Silence: The Novels of Amitav Ghosh

Thesis submitted to Jadavpur University


for the Degree of
Doctor of Philosophy in Arts

By
Sandip Ain

Department of English
Jadavpur University
West Bengal
2010

Introduction
Amitav Ghosh, the eminent Indian writer of English literature, artfully couches subtle
theoretical issues in the apparently simple narrative of his fictive framework. Ghoshs
own academic antecedents in history, sociology, anthropology et al constitute the basis of
a theoretical background as well as an interdisciplinary groundwork for his novels.
Extensive research work on silence in fields of study as varied as ethnography,
anthropology, theology, linguistics and metaphysics is weaved skilfully into the textures
of his novels. Thus, silence in its myriad perspectives provides an important metaphorical
trope in Ghoshs novels.
In the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition as well as in the philosophical
traditions of the West, silence was often given negative connotations. The use of silence
in Literature and other arts have not been an isolated modern phenomenon. The issue of
silence has been dealt with from several theoretical stand-points. It has been a constant
preoccupation since time immemorial to reflect upon silence as opposed to speech. And,
at least in Western knowledge systems, the word has been given preference to silence.
One of the theorists of silence, Dauenhauer, in his book, Silence, the Phenomenon and its
Ontological Significance, points out how Oriental philosophies, especially in Indian and
Chinese thought, have a long tradition of paying attention to silence. Silence, in these
philosophies, constitutes an entire way of life. Silence, in Eastern philosophy, is not
placed in opposition to speech or language as such; but rather silence and language are
taken to be integral to the understanding of the central tenets of religion and philosophy.
Silence then, like speech, provides a different way of understanding the world.

The Argument
In this dissertation, I would like to analyse the silences in Amitav Ghoshs works. My
discussion would not be restricted to an analysis of silence as opposed to sound, noise or
word; rather I will approach the many silences that we deal with in everyday life in terms
of inter-disciplinary perspectives. There have been considerable efforts to establish a
theoretical paradigm for silence in other disciplines, like anthropology and philosophy,
the influence of which can be felt in Ghoshs works. Silence, in this thesis, would be
treated as a metaphysical and an ontological category having a significant influence in
our lives. Silence is important in Ghoshs work in four major ways. Firstly, his novels
show how history and politics manipulate the various types of narrative silences, as it
interferes with its primary intentions. I would like to suggest that Ghosh addresses the
generic silences by, first, preferring the fictional form and, secondly, by experimenting
with the form, so that generic boundaries seem to dissolve and coalesce in his works. It
is, for example difficult to ascertain the manner in which history or ethnography becomes
fiction in his works. Secondly, his characters affirm the significance of silence in human
relationships, suggesting at times that the truest part of communication goes on in the
silent dialogue. Thirdly, I will like to deal with the notion of violence and how Ghosh
addresses the issue of violence both in his fictional and non-fictional works. Here, I will
deal with silence as an ethical imperative on the part of the author, when he is faced with
contemporary violence. Fourthly, I will explore how Ghoshs novels make use of silence
as a religious and a metaphysical priority. Silence, in his works, is depicted as a form of
alternative method of acquiring knowledge. Lastly, I will try to figure out how his novels

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make use of silence linguistically, whereby the word fails to signify a particular meaning
within and outside a particular cultural context, especially in cases of translations from
one language to the other.

Chapter Division
Besides the Introduction and Conclusion the dissertation has been divided into the
following five chapters.
1) Silence and Ethnography
2) Silence and History
3) Silence and Violence
4) Silence and the Other Arts
5) The Metaphysics of Silence
I have also been fortunate to be able to have an opportunity to have a discussion with
Amitav Ghosh along with Mr. Sajal Bhattacharya. The discussion forms an important
aspect towards the development of the argument of this dissertation so I have included it
as Appendix I and Appendix II

Silence and Ethnography


In this Chapter, I have argued how Silence becomes important in Ghoshs works
not only from the thematic point of view, but also in the formative aspects of the novels,
whereby in choosing to write in the fictional mode, he is addressing the generic
limitations of subjects like Anthropology and History. Anthropology as a subject
emerged with the colonial expansion of Europe in the non-Western world. The
anthropologists were participants in the colonial system in defining the differences

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between the Western and the non-Western. There are inherent biases in the setting up of
the object and subject of studies, since both the subject and the object are human beings.
The biases involved are also related to the methodological procedure of anthropology,
which poses to be an objective field of study. The relation between the agency of the
anthropologist and the subject he studies involves complicated equations of power.
Anthropology as a subject became a tool for the self-understanding of the Western man
based on the creation and absorption of the other, which, in this case, is the nonWestern subject preferably defined in terms of the primitive. Postcolonial anthropology
thus tries to escape from its colonial past through self-examination as well as through
critical examination of the methodology which is implicated in the colonial bias and also
by questioning issues related to gaze, agency and power. The insider/outsider perspective
has also been questioned, as there are extensive anthropological research works being
carried out by ethnographers and anthropologists in their own society today. Ghoshs In
an Antique Land is, in this sense, a revolutionary work, where we find a third-world
anthropologist, who has been trained in the first-world academies, is carrying out his
ethnographic work in another third-world country, so that the privilege of position that an
anthropologist usually enjoys is problematised. In anthropology Silence thus becomes an
important methodological apparatus, whereby the looked upon forces itself back to the
narrative by constructing its own agency within its own epistemological framework.

Silence and History


History has also been complicit in creating the grand narratives and writing about
the people in power. There has been several attempts post-1950 to change the way history

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has been written. Sometimes in the mid 1970s, an important shift took place in the
discipline of history. The shift was mainly based on philosophical theories that inform
history. Ghosh has also been influenced by the writings of the subaltern group of
historians. The representation of the agency of the subaltern forms an important
preoccupation in most of Ghoshs novels. It is difficult to restore or recuperate the
subaltern agency through the methodology of conventional historiography, because the
West remains an inevitable referent in every such attempt. The history of the subaltern
would then be inevitably filtered through the lens of European knowledge and, therefore,
would be appropriated or silenced. Moreover, history is too preoccupied with claims to
truth and claims to objectivity, as are the claims of anthropology. History also provides a
particular perspective to things by giving priority to a particular type of archive and this
reduces the possibility of multiple perspectives. Although history informs, and is the
starting-point of, all of Ghoshs novels, he prefers the fictional mode because it allows
him to tell many stories from different perspectives. In a way Ghosh does history in
trying to recuperate stories that have been silenced by the meta-narratives of history as
well as that of anthropology.

Silence and Violence


Ghosh, on the other hand, tries to represent the other stories that have been silenced in the
historical narratives. The stories of violence, however, require a cautious approach and
telling. It is in itself difficult to come to terms with such violence and give it a voice. It is
also difficult to write about such violence and not to valorise it. Violence also requires
many voices and many stories, for one voice might seek to appropriate all the other

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voices and thus actually do violence to the other stories. Throughout Ghoshs fictional
and non-fictional works, we find an attempt on the part of the author to represent the
violence as well as to seek out ways and means of coming to terms with that violence. It
is often difficult to represent such violence in terms of language, as any simple causeand-effect relationship would fail to describe it. Silence and violence thus share a strange
relationship with each other.
Silence, in Ghoshs works, is not perceived in terms of dichotomies. The world
perceived in terms of binaries, Ghosh suggests, is what creates so much discord and
violence. Silence, in Ghoshs novels, also forms an important tool of communication.
Silence is here perceived as something that is creative: it is not merely opposed to
language or speech; but rather assists them in order to add meaning to them. Silence by
itself acquires the dimension of language, as it requires a staging and a telling. There are
many characters in Ghoshs novels who are characterised by their silence. They do not
speak too much in terms of language, for language often carries the weight of an
embedded violence.

Silence and the other Arts


Silence, in Ghoshs works, is not perceived in terms of dichotomies. The world perceived
in terms of binaries, Ghosh suggests, is what creates so much discord and violence.
Silence, in Ghoshs novels, also forms an important tool of communication. Silence is
here perceived as something that is creative: it is not merely opposed to language or
speech; but rather assists them in order to add meaning to them. Silence by itself acquires
the dimension of language, as it requires a staging and a telling. There are many

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characters in Ghoshs novels who are characterised by their silence. They do not speak
too much in terms of language, for language often carries the weight of an embedded
violence. The purity of silence in the non-elite subaltern gets reflected in their deep
emotional attachment and human understanding. There are times and situations when one
feels the necessity of creating ones own language, as, in those circumstances, the
language meant for social interaction becomes insufficient to express his feelings. Thus
this language, through which a man develops his bonding with nature, his association
with his artistic or professional activity, or his relationship with his near and dear ones, is
more honest, more sincere and more intimate than the established social codes of
communication. It is through the formation of this type of communication, much of
which goes on in silence, that a man develops his world-views.

The Metaphysics of Silence


In this chapter I would like to primarily focus on how Ghosh does history in The
Calcutta Chromosome and then tries to restore the subaltern agency, as Ghosh does in
most of his novels, and in that process I would try to find out how he explores issues
related to language and communication a concern that has been predominant in
postcolonial literature as well as in the social sciences. Secondly, I would like to analyse
how, by bringing in theosophical studies and occult religious studies, Ghosh constructs an
entire metaphysic of silence which, in a way, shows us the possible limitations of the
hegemony of Euro-centric knowledge. This is a novel where Ghosh is eloquent about
silence; and silence is here posited as part of alternative metaphysics as well as an
alternative epistemology. Ghosh here uses philosophical discourses and religion to

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suggest that silence can be a part of the epistemological prerogative and that it is often
difficult to comprehend different forms of knowledge systems within the theoretical
parameters of Western epistemology, or within the formative limitations where
everything is perceived in terms of Manichean binaries.

Conclusion
In Marlene NourbeSe Philips novel Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence the
traveller travels to several places in order to explore the knowledge about the past. The
places where she travels are named with anagrams of silence CESLIENS, NEECLIS,
LENSECI, SCENILE etc. Silence thus becomes a subject; it becomes nature, becomes
people, becomes place and becomes language. NourbeSe here subverts, deconstructs and
reconstructs the idea of silence: the idea itself becomes the metaphor for the polyphony of
voices. Silence is here not equated with absence or lack of speech; rather it becomes a
language in itself. Looking for Livingstone subverts the Western assumptions about the
silence of indigenous peoples. In Ghoshs works as well as in NourbeSes novel, we
find this ever-present anxiety about maps, about language, about silences and about
history, where European epistemologies have hegemonised all other forms of alterity.
Both the authors try in their own ways to recuperate that alterity and to suggest as well as
acknowledge the presence of other forms of knowledge. My exploration of Amitav
Ghoshs novels in my research has been to seek out those various types of silences
CESLIENS, NEECLIS, LENSECI, SCENILE, and, in that process, to discover for
myself my silent past. The exploration of silence is, as in NourbeSes work, not perceived
as a lack in terms of binaries; but it is considered as something that can be present and

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absent, destructive and creative all at the same time. In my exploration of silences in
Amitav Ghoshs works, I have not limited myself to any particular theoretical approach.
The silences that I have explored in his novels have both positive and negative
connotations. I had started my investigation by trying to find out how Ghosh addresses
the generic silences with regard to disciplines like history and ethnography, and how the
rigid methodologies, which often have the pretension of being objective, ultimately
acquires a hegemonic voice and seeks to silence any other alternative forms of
knowledge.
In this dissertation I have tried to figure out how Ghosh explores the silences of
such genres (history, anthropology and ethnography) by preferring the fictional mode of
writing. I have pointed out in one of the chapters, how Ghosh does history. He addresses
the silences of history by inscribing in his fiction the narratives of the family and placing
them parallel to the narratives of the nation. He uses imagination with precision in the
way the historical setting is rendered through meticulous research; with his characters we
seem to relive the past. I have also explored the notion of silence with regard to the
representation of violence. In this continuously violent world, where almost everyday
acts of violence like terrorism, riots, civil war, ethnic cleansing, racial discrimination are
taking place, it becomes extremely relevant to find out the ethical imperative of a writer
in regard to his social responsibility. In that respect, I have explored the relationship
between language and silence in regard to the characters and the art of characterisation.
Non-verbal communication becomes an important aspect of Ghoshs characterization and
these silent characters, in a sense embody, an entire metaphysics. Non-verbal
communication as well as deep communication between the characters also suggests that

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there are other forms of knowledge, which cannot be perceived by applying only the rigid
methodologies of European knowledge system. In The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh
particularly explores the possibility of alternative knowledge systems, where silence and
secrecy constitutes an entire way of knowing the world. Silence, for Ghosh, is that
element of communication which provides the inviolate and inviolable space of intersubjective interaction through the knowing of each other. Through silence Ghosh
preserves the uniqueness of our knowing each other as well as knowing the world.

Methodology
I have studied the primary works pertaining to Ghoshs fictional and non-fictional works
as well as several interviews and discussions that have helped me to formulate my
argument. I have also used several secondary works related to critical texts on Ghoshs
works as well as other critical works ranging across disciplines, like philosophy,
anthropology, history, photography etc. which have helped me to understand and evaluate
Ghoshs works. I felt that reading texts belonging to different disciplines have helped me
to do justice to Ghoshs works, as he himself comes from a multi-disciplinary academic
background. I also believe that the fictional mode of writing incorporates a whole way of
life, and so, only such a multi-disciplinary approach would enable me do justice to the
text. Finally, I would like to say that I have never believed that any final word on
literature can be said, so my dissertation only formulates one of the many possible stories
that can be developed on Ghoshs works.