Assistant Professor of English,
NM Institute of Engineering and Technology
Homi K. Bhabha in his ‘Introduction’ to The Location of Culture (1994) writes:
What is theoretically innovative and politically crucial, is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or process that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences. These „in-between‟ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself. (1994:1-2)
The postcolonial writers, using the technique of revisionist history writing, attempt to fill up the “spaces” in nationalist histories by telling alternate revisionist stories suppressed by nationalism‟s dominant discourse. This argument, I propose, is most directly addressed in the works of the Subaltern Studies group and the historiographic fictions of Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Kiran Desai.
In his novel Midnight’s Children (1981), Salman Rushdie, tries to frame the notion of nation and national identity in a hugely heterogeneous postcolonial society. The narrator of the novel Saleem Sinai begins by describing the moment of independence, and this historical event creates a new meaning as he attempts to fuse his own and his nation’s birth: I was born in the city of Bombay…on August 15, 1947…On the stroke of midnight…at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, I tumbled forth into the world. (Rushdie, 3)
However Saleem’s identity remains a question within this passage, when he describes how he has been called by different names, including “Snotnose, Stainface, Baldy, Sniffer, Buddha and even Piece-of-the-Moon” (Rushdie, 3). No matter what Saleem accepts all his various names, realizing that one of the innate problems of a postcolonial society is the crisis of true “authentic” identity.
By blending memory and recorded fact, Saleem re-imagines his past and brings in a new reality from fragments of memory. In relating the history of Bombay, the partialness of memory leaks into individual history, while the new reality remains a “chutnified” mixture of history and memory, merged through re-imagination and encouraged by self-absorbed narrative. In this manner, Rushdie tries to put forth that recorded facts are always reference point for individuals but not absolute truth.
Saleem insists that, “I had been mysteriously handcuffed to history.” However as soon as he begins his history of the new nation, other histories interfere. The rivalry to control the centre is fierce, and Saleem finds himself competing with politicians. The India that Saleem describes is not the India of pure facts, instead, narrative and storytelling takes precedence over historical accuracy. Although this rejection of historical accuracy appears paradoxical, due to the novel’s continued attempts to combine narrative threads in order to create more accurate versions of history, the novel’s relationship with history and storytelling remains incredibly complicated.
Rushdie’s use of magical realism in the novel explores and explains certain events and people more accurately. For instance, Saleem could communicate with the other thousand and one children born at the stroke of midnight. He describes how the “midnight’s
children” must be “both masters and victims of their times.” They remain forever connected to their birth date, the date of Indian independence, and they eventually must “forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes,” preventing them from living or dying in peace. As the novel progresses, it shows how the common people of India evaluate their new identities, but starts narrowing them, limiting more and more their respective concepts of “nation”. Identity of being “Indian” gives way to identification with religious beliefs, ethnic backgrounds and political convictions. And with each new phase of emerging identity, a new differentiation occurs between one another. As these differentiations are further recognized and legitimized, a pattern of hegemony and violence occurs which threatens to tear the new nation of India apart.
Midnight’s Childrens’ importance and significance as a postcolonial text arises from the novel’s ability to expresses the themes of the creation and telling of history, identity, and stories of nation and individuals while simultaneously introducing the problems of postcolonial identity, through connected and dependent forms of hybridity. So, the term hybridity becomes defined as the combination and mixing of multiple, seemingly opposing elements in a manner that maintains the various elemental characteristics. Thus, Salman Rushdie‟s novel Midnight’s Childrens remains an “imaginative” narration of a postcolonial nation that has to negotiate the difficult balance between individual and society, unity and diversity, reality and dream.
Like Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh in his novel The Shadow Lines, presents a documentary of a middle class Indian family in multiple time frames that search for an authentic identity.
The narrator recalls and narrates various fragmented memories and events, some which he has experienced and others he has gathered from his relatives. The novel is set in the backdrops of the Second World War and riots over East Pakistan (now Dhaka). It covers a time span from 1939 to 1964. Though the narrative is based largely across the cities of Kolkata, Dhaka and London, it somehow echoes the sentiments of whole South-east Asia, which Independence and the pangs of Partition had aroused. The boy narrator of the novel presents the views of his family in a well-defined manner. Thamma, narrator’s grandmother, the most prominent character in the novel, is the epitome of Nationalism movement and India’s national identity. Through the character of Thamma, Amitav Ghosh conveys the most prominent and strong message of the novel: the ineffectiveness of creating nation states and the absurdity of drawing boundaries which superficially divide people but their memories remain unbroken.
Being brought up at the time of the freedom struggle, Thamma believed that a nation can be built only when the people are bound to each other by a common sacrifice but could never imagine of fighting men and bombs and bullets being exchanged. All those who have suffered in somehow similar way are identified as “us” and those who have been killed at “our” land are classified as “them”. This differentiation leads to a strong hatred towards “the other”, and thus fuels up the flare of hostility. Thamma is bitterly irritated after her nephew‟s death in the hands of “nationalist” hooligans and thus decides that “we must kill them before they kill us”, and like Thamma every middle class character starts feeling insecured by the wars. They can smell the danger of disclosing their identity on the basis of our nationality.
Tridib, the narrator‟s uncle, is one of the most unique characters of modern times. He travels the world through his imagination. Ghosh, through the character of Tridib, tries to break the myth that boundaries confine because he wants to prove that there are no barriers in imagination. Ila, narrator‟s cousin and childhood love is a portrayal of the dilemma which the people who live away from their native place, harbour and the prejudices they face.
Amitav Ghosh, throughout the novel, constantly contradicts the thought of “the other” by claiming that all are same, irrespective of borders or religion even at the time of war. Both in 1971 riots and the Second World War, the situations reactions of people in England as well
as Germany and Dhaka and Calcutta, are very similar and obvious. And this is why the necessity of boundaries to define ourselves is always questioned throughout the novel, which leads to nothing but wars and bloodshed. As the narrator says, “it is like stepping through a mirror”. Revolving around the theme of nationalism in an increasingly globalized world, Ghosh questions the real meaning of political freedom and the borders which virtually seem to both establish and separate.
Ghosh ends with an ardent appeal for developing may be a hybrid world but unified not merely states or nations. He reiterates that the people of warring nations often are as similar as mirror images of each other and the difference is merely a “shadow”; an illusion and fantasy. He desperately hopes to find “a place where there is no border between oneself and one’s image in the mirror”. The novel concludes that the lines we draw to separate the world into nations merely serve to divide, instead of unite people; serves to develop feelings of hate, rather than desire for peace.
And in the search of diasporic identity in a globalised world we come across another wonderful novel written by Kiran Desai in the year 2006, The Inheritance of Loss. The novel concerns itself with issues of borders, boundaries, homelands, and identity and explores what globalisation means in the real sense. Set in the exotic surroundings of Kalimpong, many of the characters in the novel are displaced individuals who struggle to find a place away from their ancestral homes and homelands.
Desai presents her characters in both collective and individualised manner. The novel begins with a young character, Sai, a teenage Indian girl living with her grandfather. The grandfather, presently a retired judge brings in the English way of life and civilization into the Indian society, blending the new with the old, but his English culture becomes so humiliating and torturous that he remains doubly displaced when he returns home. He is neither European nor Indian, and turns into an immigrant within himself. Sai is also victimized by the bicultural household the Judge creates. Moreover her experience with her tutor, Gyan, seeks attention. Sai and Gyan though Indian, are from separate caste and culture. By birth Sai belongs to upper-middle class. She speaks English, celebrates western holidays like Christmas, eats English food, and lives in a fairly nice home with some modern amenities. Gyan is Nepali and comes from a lower vein; he speaks a different language, and eats more indigenous food.
Gyan and his ancestors represent the loyalty of the Gorkhas to the Imperial Army and their rightful hold in the Indian mainland. Gyan‟s forefathers had left Nepal to work on tea plantations. Although colonialism has officially gone, the Gorkha descendants still live in the border region, but do not enjoy equal rights. This resulted in numerous processions, demonstrations, and some violent riots by these minority groups claiming fair treatment in the border region of India, including Kalimpong during mid-1980s. One of such movements separates Sai and Gyan. At the beginning of their relationship they never noticed that they were different, and the “political trouble continued to remain in the background for them” (Desai, 156). But later, he realizes that such patriotism is absurd. It was “the leaders harnessing the natural irritations and disdain of adolescence for cynical ends; for their own hope in attaining the same power as government officials held now.”(Desai, 157) Another character worth mentioning is Biju, the cook‟s son. He is known as a “shadow class” in the novel Biju stays mostly in New York City, sent there by his father to try and make a better life and become “a finesuited-and-booted-success” (Desai, 90). Biju as “the luckiest boy in the whole world” (Desai, 205) immigrates to the U.S. without a green card. He suffers through years working as an illegal worker at many places and spending his nights sleeping on rat and cockroach-infested floors.
This living “in-between” condition is highly painful for the immigrants. There is yearning for “home,” to go back to “the lost origin” and “imaginary homelands” (Rushdie9–
- are created from the fragmented and partial memories of the homelands. They face cultural deadlock when their cultural practices are mocked at and there is a threat to their ethnic and cultural identity. They stand bewildered and confused, nostalgic and homesick and show resistance also to the discourse of power in various forms. In the following generations these confusions, problems and yearnings become less intense as they get influenced by the culture of that country and also adapt themselves to it.
Thus, throughout the novel human identities and its changing nature according to the demands of life situations puts identity in question. Boundaries change so quickly and people are transported so many times but the problem remains static.
“How can the ordinary be changed? Did their hearts rise and fall to something true? Did they see themselves from a perspective beyond this moment, this unleashed Bruce Lee fans in their American T-shirts made in- China-coming-in-via-Kathmandu?”(Desai, 157)
Given the nature of mobility of people and their cultures across nations, Desai deterritorializes the definite national and cultural identities of India suggesting that individuals cannot confine themselves within the narrow concept of national and cultural boundaries in this globalized world characterized by hybridity, tranasculturation, and migration. In this regard, Desai’s representation of the Indian immigrants in the United States is similar to Arjun Appadurai‟s suggestion that the notions of nativeness and native places have become very complex as more and more people identify themselves, or are categorized, in reference to deterritorialized “homelands,” “cultures,” and “origins” (Modernity at Large 34).
The novel thus finds the real condition of globalisation people face in the midst of violence, frustration, intimidation, racism and other societal questions. But they must transcend these narrow confines to step into a new world order.
It can be traced that while Rushdie unravels the central metaphor of nation’s birth in Midnight’s Children, Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Lines seeks to challenge the given-ness of identity and its inviolability and Kiran Desai in The Inheritance of Loss connects local identity with global contexts. Thus the quest for diasporic identity becomes a quest for self- knowledge about the variety of affiliation to which an individual subscribes to. Even when various socio- political realities operate through silence like the shadow lines, an individual’s perception of the shadowiness of borders constitutes a step toward quest for identities.
Abraham, Abraham P. “Midnight’s Children and the World of Imagi-nation.” The IUP Journal of English Studies 5.3. 2010: 18-23. Print
Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Flow.” Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimension of Globalization. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P,
1996: 27-47. Print.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso. 1992. Print.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.1994. Print. Desai, Kiran. The Inheritance of Loss. New York: Penguin Publications, 2006. Print. Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. New York: Penguin Publications, 1988. Print. Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print..
Rushdie, Salman. “Imaginary Homelands” in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1881-1991.Granta.pp 9-21. 1991. Print.
—Midnight’s Children. Great Britain: Vintage Publication, 2006. Print.
White, Hayden. “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.”Metafiction, ed.Mark Currie, London; Longman, 1995, pp.104-121. Print.