Narrating Alternative History in Amitav Ghosh's works

Master's Thesis, 2016
100 Pages, Grade: 15/20






Chapter 1: Questioning History and Historiography
What is History?
How is History Written?
History as a Western Construct
Translating Texts into Power
Representing the “Other”

Chapter 2: Migrating across Borders and Boundaries
Mapping Movement of People and Knowledge
Drawing Borders and Boundaries
The Creation of Binary Opposites and the Crisis of Identity
The Decreasing Permeability of Borders
Moving Across Oceans
Connecting Through Differences and Boundaries in Amitav Ghosh

Chapter 3: Historical Imagination: The Imagined Past in Amitav Ghosh’s Works
Criticizing the Western Intervention
Recovering Lost History
Charges of Nostalgia
Towards a Redemptive Future
The Vestiges of Western Influence in Contemporary Times




I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Mam Stephane Jousni for guiding me through my work and giving her valuable time and critique. I also thank my friends who read and reread my work and stood by my side through this project.


illustration not visible in this excerpt


The need to revise history is underlined by the fact that, with the passing of time, new facts and interpretations continue to come to the surface and demand integration. Revisionist historians use them to question or challenge the epistemological status and cultural function of historical thinking. The main purpose is to be able to give a new perspective on the nature and function of historical knowledge. The enterprise of revising history may follow a somewhat visionary path in its aim to search for newer perspectives, but it has nonetheless a historical basis. Departing from the said basis, the author-historian seeks to question, deny or challenge a historical event or its narration, and contravene the collective memory of society.

Hayden White opines that, in the twentieth century, many historians and philosophers have “cast serious doubts on the value of a specifically ‘historical’ consciousness, stressed the fictive character of historical reconstructions, and challenged history’s claims to a place among the sciences”[1]. In other words, the objective truth in history has come to be taken as a result of subjective representation. With political, economic and military dominance, the West overtook the world and initiated an era of imperialism. The imperial regime had created a divide between the East and the West through the latter’s patronizing attitude towards the non-Western subject. This had amalgamated with the practice of Orientalism, wherein the West had taken on representing the non-West through its own discernment and at its own terms. According to Edward Said, “Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles”[2]. The West is accused by Said and other postcolonial scholars and thinkers, including Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak among others, of taking over the literary agency of the non-Western subject and misrepresenting or under-representing it in its historical narrative. Through the West’s dominance in world affairs, it could use this agency to promulgate its superiority over its binary opposite. The postcolonial stance questions and challenges the position of the West along with the legitimacy of its history. “Postcolonial studies place particular stress on questions of power and knowledge, and on cultural and intellectual domination.”[3] The term ‘postcolonial’ “can also be used to describe the concurrent project to reclaim and rethink the history and agency of people subordinated under various forms of imperialism”[4]. But the enterprise of reclaiming and rethinking history has been criticized by Robert Dixon, for example, who feels that postcolonial revisionism of history has the tendency of investing in a utopian past by painting a nostalgic image. The element of nostalgia in postcolonial literature is often seen as a tool used to evoke nationalist feelings. According to Dennis Walder, the elements that qualify in postcolonial literature as being nostalgic include “struggle for identity, a yearning for the homeland, an idealization of the future, a witnessing of trauma, a rewriting of bitter histories of civil conflict and mass killings, or a historicizing of the present”[5].

Even though Amitav Ghosh does not consider himself as a postcolonial writer, his works nonetheless problematize the dominant position of the West and offer a possibility to construct an alternative history. Like revisionist historians, he bases his works on actual historical facts that form part of collective memory. He inserts the part of history that has not been deemed to be important by the Western historians.

In In an Antique Land, Ghosh writes about the letters he discovered while studying Social Anthropology at Oxford University. The letters were taken out of the Geniza[6] in Egypt during the pillaging of the region by the West. Upon studying the letters, Ghosh observed vestiges of connections across the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. The world perceived through these letters is one that is in a constant state of flux owing to commercial and cultural exchanges, especially between India and Egypt. This is understood through Ben Yiju’s marriage to his Indian slave girl Ashu, his thoughtful mentioning of his slave’s name in his letters to his friend in Egypt, and the variety of articles traded to and from each country. Understanding the history of trade across the oceanic worlds will not only throw more light on the notion of transnational connections but also on the fluidity of boundaries that permitted a better mobility as compared to contemporary times.

The notion of modern borders and boundaries is criticized more rigorously in The Shadow Lines. The novel narrates the story of a Bengali family through a nameless narrator. Ghosh incorporates the lives of three generations of the family in order to show the many socio-political changes in the country over a period of several decades. The characters are shown to have a direct relationship with the aforementioned changes. Ghosh attempts to highlight the micro or private histories of characters and include them in the grander historical discourse. For example, the novel depicts several political upheavals in India and Bangladesh and shows how an individual life is affected in the process. Despite the fact that the author does not maintain a linearity, neither in the text nor in the chronology of the said historical events, there is nonetheless an interconnectivity between the events even though they occur at different times in history.

The Ibis Trilogy includes Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015), and is an attempt to intervene in the long historical narrative of Europe’s globalization. Once again, Ghosh presents the Global South with its rich interconnections and fluid mobility of its people until the West forced more aggressive forms of trade policies and rigid notions of borders. Sea of Poppies is set before the First Opium War and recounts the life of Deeti and her lover Kalua belong to the caste of untouchables. Kalua saves her from the Hindu practice of sati. The two sets aboard the ship Ibis to escape the terror of their village in the state of Bihar in north-east India. Through non-linearity of the novel’s narrative structure, we learn about the lives of Zachary Reid, an American sailor, Neel Rattan, a rich prince who has lost his wealth and status, among other characters who all set for a difficult and violent journey aboard Ibis towards Mauritius. After much bloodshed on the ship, the second book – River of Smoke, opens in Mauritius where the characters have reached, and traces the changes that take place in their everyday life in terms of traditions and lifestyle. The main plot is set in Fanqui, a town that was the hub of opium trade between the Chinese nationals and foreigner merchants. Ghosh describes the trade conditions as they take place a year before the war starts. New characters are introduced in Flood of Fire, as Britain finally declares war on China to restore the opium trade. Kesri Singh is one of the Indian soldiers who is sent from the British Indian army to participate in the war. The book describes the Opium War in great detail, challenging in its description the colonial version of history.

Taking into consideration the fact that the West took over the East’s literary agency with its Orientalist practices, Ghosh gives representation to the subalterns[7] who have been eliminated from European historiography as their inclusion was deemed to be unimportant. By recounting their private histories alongside consequential historical events, he draws a parallel history in order to better understand the dominant Western historical narrative. Ghosh compares through his works the very notions of European cosmopolitanism with the ones that had already existed before the arrival of the West.

The aim of this thesis is to study Ghosh’s works and see the extent to which they question the traditional historiographic discourse and provide with an alternative method and purpose. In other words, the question that is raised is whether fiction associated with historical revisionism can provide traditional historiography with a sense of objectivity that can be agreed upon by he-or-she who represents and he-or-she who is represented. Moreover, the objective is to see if Ghosh is successful in putting back the discipline of history among the sciences while highlighting the complexity of identity in the modern-day nation states.

The first chapter will present the traditional view of historiography and how it has been interrogated by modern author-historians such as Ghosh. The second chapter will lay focus on how the notions of borders and boundaries as represented in the Western historical discourse are questioned. The final chapter will take into consideration Ghosh’s texts and see to what extent they make possible the narration of an alternative history.

Chapter 1: Questioning History and Historiography

The representation of history in Amitav Ghosh’s works is an act of subversion against the existing Eurocentric historical narrative. As an anthropologist, the author collected historical and ethnographic data and has conflated it with a parallel historical narrative that is non-Eurocentric in its approach. Such a narrative juxtaposes the past and the present with the intention of questioning their interrelationship and how this act can affect our future. Ghosh’s works resonate with the idea that there is a multitude of possible historical narratives depending upon who is narrating them, and that absolutism in terms of their content is impossible to achieve. Historiography so far has not only depended upon the source of the historian’s claims but also upon his position. The power dynamics that have existed between the East and the West have so far not provided the East with this position to be able to take charge of its own literary agency. Writing as he does, Ghosh has dismantled the East-West binary opposition in order to question our relationship with the past so that we can review its influence on our present and be able to reimagine a different future. He has done this by employing a narrative that is fluid is its movement and that moves along lateral lines in time. This multi-temporality has replaced the otherwise linear trajectory in the olden historical narratives while also challenging the teleological progression upon which historiography had so far been based. His narrative is therefore extremely essential in its construction to study this relationship between the past and the present.

It is also, at the same time, equally important to learn of the tradition of historiography to be able to clearly understand the notion of multi-temporality in Ghosh’s works and how they destabilize the teleological view of history. Another thing that the author does in his works and that this thesis aims at showing is not only the temporal movement in European historiography but also a movement of knowledge, and the people who carried that knowledge. In other words, that knowledge moved from East and South towards North and West. In In an Antique Land, the author provides a narrative that focuses on a movement that is primarily South-South. Such a movement is exterior to European historiographic framework and its content. This chapter will therefore also take into consideration the form and content of alternative history as portrayed by Amitav Ghosh in order to challenge the European view of history. Centre to this study will be how modern critics like Hayden White and Alun Munslow have defined and used the term 'history'.

What is History?

There is immense disagreement regarding the definition of history and its content. What actually qualifies for a historical event? And who has the authority to write it? History is, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, “a written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events.” This definition can pose several problems for pre-contemporary critics for its inclusion of the term narrative because it implicates the telling of a story. The significance of the term was adjudged by Roland Barthes who remarked that narrative “is simply there like life itself…international, transhistorical, transcultural” (Barthes 79)[8]. This suggests that a narrative structure is essential in human existence if their reality in terms of knowledge or events is to be transmitted from one epoch or culture to another. Barthes also establishes that between the events that take place and our attempt to describe them in language, it is narrative that substitutes meaning in what is recounted. And refusing or rejecting this narrativity would mean refusing or rejecting any or all meaning in the recounted event. This idea resonates with White’s division of history as well. In The Content of Form [9] , White postulates that the representation of history can be divided into three types, namely: the annals, the chronicle and what he calls “history proper” (White 4). All of them are historical records of important public events but White maintains that it is only the narrative structure that can distinguish between the three: “The events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence” (White 5). Needless to say that both annals and chronicles are non-narrative in their forms. The former, White confirms, “consists only a list of events ordered in chronological sequence,” while the latter, “by contrast, often seems to wish to tell a story, aspires to narrativity, but typically fails to achieve it. More specifically, the chronicle usually is marked by a failure to achieve narrative closure” (5). On several occasions, White has emphasized the importance of narrative’s relation to the very notion of what is real when it comes to represent the past. He opines that “the very distinction between real and imaginary events that is basic to modern discussions of both history and fiction presupposes a notion of reality in which ‘the true’ is identified with ‘the real’ only insofar as it can be shown to possess the character of narrativity” (White 6). The narrativist thinker Jerome Burner suggests that, in order to represent reality, “narrative is a form of cognition (knowing), one that is particularly applicable to story-telling disciplines like history” (Munslow 16)[10]. It is this linguistic turning of a past event into an ''emplotted'' narrative that gives it its meaning. Therefore, the significance of a narrative structure holding together historical facts is of vital significance.

After establishing the importance of a narrative structure while recounting past events, it is equally crucial to distinguish between “the past” and “history”. In Alun Munslow’s words, history is “an empirical and analytical undertaking- a source-based and inferential activity concerned with the study of change over time” (Where does History come from?)[11] . A plausible explanation as to why there are several versions of the same historical event is because the sources and data collected, used and organized by one historian will ineluctably differ from those used by another. Different sources and materials will bring about a different line of argumentation and hence, a different series of cause-and-effect relationship between past events. The need to place these events in a chronology with a narrative that holds them together creates the site for the historian’s ''emplotment''. The plot is indispensable in weaving the narrativized events so that human beings can make sense of them and understand their own lives and how they change in respect to these events. All of this depends upon the historian whose ideology and social theory preferences will infuse a different explanatory value in his argumentative logic.

This idea, according to which we need a narrative and a plot to make sense of the past, is proposed by Paul Ricœur (who coined the term emplotment)[12]. The aforementioned Munslow’s definition of history echoes again in his distinction between “the past” and “history”. He remarks that the past “is what actually happened but which is now gone, while the latter, although it is a source-based and inferential enquiry, is only ever its narrative representation. History is, therefore, a substitution for the now absent past” (Where does History come from?). The use of the term inferential in both the definition and the distinction made is of much consequence. It is this act of inferring on the part of the historian that brings about relativism in his representation of history. The subjective selecting and processing of historical data by the historian and then their ''emplotting''[13] by him with the help of a narrative also implies that history is in fact a construction. It is the historian’s ideologies, moral position, his theories, arguments and his epistemic choices that infuse the past with any meaning. As Munslow remarked: “History remains a pursuit undertaken by the people in the present. These people know they have to organize the archive in order to make sense of it and they fictively derive its meaning. History is, after all, something we do; it is not an object we observe” (Where does History come from?). What is implied here is that each historian makes a different sense of his archival data and imbues meaning into it.

How is History Written?

Then as a construct, history does share a similarity with fiction. However, historical writing cannot be completely treated as fiction. The author-historian is obliged to base his narrative on historical facts that have been agreed upon. In the same regard, Hayden White said of historiography that it “is an especially good ground on which to consider the nature of narration and narrativity because it is here that our desire for the imaginary, the possible, must contest with the imperatives of the real, the actual” (White 4). Therefore, there is also a clear distinction between history and fiction even though they do share some very significant elements. An author of a fictitious work has the liberty to imagine or invent events if the plot demands it. A historian however “cannot, in this sense, invent the events of his stories; he must “find” or “discover” them. This is because historical events have already been “invented” (in the sense of “created”) by past human agents, who by their actions, produced lives worthy of having stories told about them” (White 173). Historians are, therefore, obliged to respect the archival frame of references while following the chronology of such historic events. Yet, there is another similarity between history and fiction as pointed out by White regarding the “coherency of emplotted stories” (White 173). White draws another parallel between the two by pointing out that for history, akin to fiction, to become proper and make sense to its readers, must provide in their narratives with a coherent plot. White draws on Ricoeur’s argument that “historiographical emplotment is a poetic activity but it belongs to the ‘productive imaginations’ rather than to the ‘reproductive’ or merely ‘associative’ imagination of the writer of fictions” (173). Munslow shares Michel de Certeau’s idea that events worthy of being called historical have already taken place and that they remain inside the composition of history. An author cannot translate or transcribe those events using verbal or written language. He can only transform them into a narrative construction and only through this “narrative turning” can the past be explained and given meaning (Munslow 8). History, like fiction, is therefore “writerly” implying that it is a historian’s imaginative organization of agreed-upon facts.

History as a Western Construct

I would like to go back to the definition of history given by the Oxford English Dictionary. The term “important” in relation to events brings forth a very significant aspect of both history and historiography. It gives rise to questions such as: which historical events are deemed important? Which events merit inclusion and which ones will be excluded? It is the author-historian’s subjective decision that determines which events are or can be given enough importance to write them into history. As a result of this subjective selection, many events considered unimportant by the historian are not included in the historical narrative and are therefore, lost to memory. In order to be able to subjectively decide and select the events about which the author-historian wishes to write, he-or-she either has to be in a position of power or write about events in a way that it will somehow grant him power. The analogy that I wish to make here is that of European historicists who, while writing history, have done so from a Eurocentric and ethnocentric point of view. This has granted their historical narrative substantial power over the subjects they were writing about. An author-historian may be writing about a known event but by changing his mode of representation, he can shift the power dynamics in his favour. Claire Chambers wrote that “at the heart of Ghosh’s corpus is the contention that knowledge is produced by structures of dominance, particularly the military, economic, and epistemic strategies of colonialism” (Chambers 1)[14]. Chambers is referring to the literary agency that was denied to the subjects of colonialism while making epistemological choices regarding the sources of their knowledge acquisition. The term “‘epistemology’ suggests that historical knowledge is acquired through an essentially scientific and rational process that engages in an evidence-based method. This reflects the realist demand that historical statement will correspond to evidence that is independent of mind and culture” (Munslow 10). But this has not been the case as Chambers marked out. There have been structures of dominance that have been deciding as to what will be included in history. European historiography has therefore been portrayed by Ghosh as subjectively selecting the events and narrating them from a biased mode of representation.

Coming back to the idea that history is, in fact, a construct derived from archival and other relevant sources also infers that it is not an exact imitation of the past. The decision-making authority as to which past events will merit inclusion in the historical narrative remains at the disposal of the author-historian. History is that supposedly important part of our past which we choose to recount in order to derive some meaning out of it and be able to cogitate about our present position in the world. Munslow provides with an intelligible difference between ‘the past’ and ‘history’. The former, he says, is something that “once was, is no more and has gone for good. History, on the other hand, is a corpus of narrative discourses about the once reality of the past produced and fashioned by historians” (Munslow 9). In other words, history is merely a representation of our past. Munslow calls it a “semiotic representation” where, through language, a reference is created to the bygone event and through its narration, a meaning is instilled into it (Munslow 9). It is through this referentiality, says Barthes, that the meaning is created. The same meaning, however, is not the absolute truth, which is unattainable. Each historian employs a different signifier to refer to the signified (the representation) and “in the so-called ‘objective history’ the ‘real’ is never more than a nebulous signified, hiding behind the all-powerful referent” (Munslow 10). Munslow argues that there is no one history of anything as the tools used by each author-historian to represent the past will differ. Barthes calls it “the referential illusion” wherein all with which we are left is a multitude of historical representations and no absolute truth. Munslow further strengthens the idea by giving the example of the Eiffel Tower saying that “the narrative description of the Eiffel Tower is not the Eiffel Tower no matter how detailed is our description of its dimensions and structure. This category mistake leads to the referential illusion if we believe that a history narrative and the past can correspond at any level beyond simple sentence length statements that refer to the available evidence” (Munslow 9-10). Because of the differing signifiers used, the power of the author-historian is limited to the fact that history is no longer capable of knowing the past in its exactitude; it can only enquire about it. The resulting differences in the authorial representation of history is also due to what White sees as the story space. In the story space, the author decides which part of history he would like to represent and what sources he will employ during the process. There is a preferential handling of the epistemological references and the meaning that the author-historian chooses to infuse in it. Munslow opines that:

The story space clearly references a part of the once real world, but in that reference the historian chooses to invoke who said what, who did what, assumes there are mechanisms which will explain to us why they did it, what agencies and structures operate(d), what events were significant and which were not, and which theories and arguments will be applied to explaining the meaning of it all. Moreover, new information can be added and old information reconsidered (18).

We have, therefore, multiple story spaces embedded in the same history. These story spaces are also prone to use the same historical data and be revised. To explain this, Munslow cites John Patrick Diggins who created two separate story spaces for two separate editions of his book The Rise and Fall of the American Left[15]. Munslow also remarked that “none of this has anything to do with the events of the past per se, but everything to do with the decisions that went into creating a fresh story space within which the past can be put to new uses” (19). What is interesting here about Munslow’s remark is that the actual events are willingly and voluntarily subdued by the author’s desire for new meaning. It may very well be the case that this desire is driven by political reasons, for example. At this point, I would like to interpolate a point that I think is of much consequence: there is clear distinction between revising the existing historical data for new meanings and narrating alternative histories. Revising historical data is to satiate the need and desire of the author-historian for newer meanings and to be able to look at past historical events under a new light. Narrating alternative histories, as does Amitav Ghosh, is to create a parallel narrative to the one that is already standing in order to view it in the light of the “other”. Narrating alternative histories is not challenging the historical narrative that is already written and exists but instead, it seeks to question the authority and the perspective behind its writing.

In an interview with Claire Chambers, Ghosh showed his dislike at being called a post-colonialist writer. His writings do deal with the subject of colonization, but from a fair distance. What he is actually concerned with is, Chambers remarks, “highlighting filiations and connections which go beyond the (neo) colonial relationships, such as the persistence of the pre-colonial trade connections between India subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula […]” (Chambers 1). Through his works, Ghosh does not criticize the (neo) colonial rule; instead, he weaves a narration that shows the impact of colonialism upon its then and even its post-colonial subjects. His oeuvres work like a mirror; they take a historical image that is evidently grounded on some evidence and then imagine a story of ‘what would have been’. Ghosh is not writing back to the Empire. Instead, he is writing about the history of ordinary people’s lives that were deemed too insignificant to merit inclusion, as is the case with the Ibis Trilogy.

The trilogy is a historical dialogue inserted in the one that already exists wherein Ghosh gives voice to the many voiceless figures from the past. The author represents the neglected “other”. It is only when we have heard their story “[that history will] be appreciated in its entirety” (Dkhar 42)[16]. The “other” should not in fact be taken as subdued and voiceless; they were not mere marionettes with absolutely no volition of their own. Indubitably, they were more of spectators than participants as both their personal and political life were decided by external forces, but that does not render their stories unimportant. Ghosh, like other post-partition Indian writers like Salman Rushdie, Shashi Tharoor and Khushwant Singh, has produced works that portray the struggle of these neglected figures in their daily lives. As in The Shadow Lines, we see these figures amid the ramifications of post-partition and also portray protagonists fundamentally opposite to historical figures. Their characters are ordinary, easily identifiable people eager to raise voice against any injustice meted out on them and react against any atrocities that may come their way. They are not passive individuals but active participants (Dkhar 43).

In the same book, the author shows the need and the desire of the individual to be heard in the ongoing political upheaval. And Ghosh does this by narrating such consequential politico-historical events through the eyes of ordinary people. He captures their reactions and their voices that will no longer be silenced. As earlier quoted by Munslow, it is the past that is a repertoire of content (real events), history is merely its expression, its narrative representation. Thus, the past of a nation is “a subject matter that belongs to one and all- the powerful and the weak, the rulers and the ruled alike” (Dkhar 44). And therefore, the need to understand the role played by the so-called less active historical figures is as important as the one played by the more active ones. For this, history does not necessarily need to be challenged but revised and re-imagined as done by Ghosh. To achieve this, it is imperative to bring towards the center the stories of the “other” that have been, until now, lingering on the periphery. What is most remarkable about such kind of historiography is that the historical episodes remain more or less the same. But what changes very is the voice that recounts them; and the momentous change it brings about is that it aligns the history of the masses alongside that of kings and queens. These characters may not be exemplary historical figures like Thamma in The Shadow Lines, but she too had played a role in the ongoing political unrest. She may be considered a plebeian by most of the historians but she too was a “patriot and an active participant in the history of the country” (Dkhar 45). It is through this unwillingness on Ghosh’s part “to compromise private histories for public histories” that he re-examines the discipline from a completely non-Eurocentric point of view (Dkhar 45). The aftermath of such kind of writing is that the subaltern is indeed speaking, as if to reply to Gayatri Spivak’s[17] question.

As Dkhar remarked that “only public history has been found worthy of record while private history of an individual and family is conveniently sidelines”, the idea becomes more coherent that a large portion of history has been ignored (45). It is to bring this section of history to the surface that Ghosh presents an alternative narrative of history. It is most commonly said that history is written by the victors.[18] I am assuming here that the saying refers to not only public history but the public history of the winners. And, if it is indeed the victor who writes the history then it is not wrong to presume that the literary agency of the ruled population to write their public history, was not the only thing taken away from them but also their private history. What I deduce from this is that by giving no importance to the public and private history of the colonial subjects in their historical narrative, the West has actually committed what the British social anthropologist Jack Goody called “the theft of history”[19]. I will come back to Goody’s eponymous work later in this chapter.

As discussed before, it has been out of his own volition that the author-historian chose the events he would like to dedicate the story space to. This has left many factions of the past unrepresented; and what was never said was never argued. One of the least represented factions is that of women. Because women formed more a part of private life that their political impact was undermined and therefore deemed unworthy of representation. Ghosh’s writings disprove this assertion. In both The Shadow Lines and the Ibis Trilogy, we see that the role of women, however minimal, has been granted representation. The author “gives his female characters a platform to voice and exhibit their views and priorities” (Dkhar 48). Dealing with notions as substantial and convoluted as borders and boundaries, Ghosh turns to Thamma, the narrator’s grandmother. It is through the eyes of this ordinary character that the author questions and challenges the idea of maps and borders. Thamma is at a loss to understand how the land can be divided when there is no visible line. Dkhar writes of her:

Thamma is concerned about the liberation of her country from the clutches of the British rule and subjugation. She is fascinated by nationalism and freedom of her country even as a young girl in college. Her nationalistic passion and love for her country is seen in her deep-rooted desire to work with the freedom fighters, to cook for them, to wash their clothes, to run their errands, in fact to do anything that would be of help to them. Thamma finally donates the only treasure, her cherished gold chain gifted to her by her husband on their first wedding anniversary. “I gave it away, she screamed. I gave it to the fund for the war. I had to, don’t you see? For your sake; for your freedom. We have to kill them before they kill us; we have to wipe them out” (Ghosh 237) (49).

The political awareness of women then must not be undermined and therefore, merits representation. Melinda Zook, talking of women’s history, says that the discipline’s prime goal is “to restore women to history in order to gain a more perfect picture of the past”[20]. In Ghosh’s works it is exactly what is done. In the Ibis Trilogy, it is Deeti who records the story of the clan in the form of cave engravings. Ghosh is clearly interested in making visible and concretizing the role played by women in world history. While doing so, he “does not question the accuracy of conventional history, he certainly questions the lack of incomplete representation of the insignificant, the powerful and the weak alike” (Dkhar 48). It should be noted here that many of the referring sources that Ghosh mentions in the prologue to The Flood of Fire include western historians. To this, he also adds references from Indian and Chinese historians as well to give a balanced and fair position to his account. History should not be merely about the glories of the rich and the powerful. It should include all and sundry. It can no longer focus at the western sources alone; it needs to provide, or very well imagine, the account of the “other” as well. This alone can help us re-interpret the existing historical narrative. By giving voices to his female characters, Ghosh enlarges our (alternative) vision of the past. Dkhar asserts that “his women characters may not come through as protagonists of the novels but they do play roles that are crucial. They cannot be suppressed nor can they be ignored” (49).

What is then of utmost significance in modern-day understanding of historiography is the power dynamics involved in the process. In other words, there is somewhere a social investigator who is vested with the power to decide upon the events he would like to write about. Only these events would be called “historical” and eventually become a part of the historical narrative. White remarked that “it is obviously better to make history than to have been made by it” (White, “The Historical Event 2)[21]. What this statement implies is that it is the author-historian who is, not just writing about the other person, but is actually forming his entire representation in the narrative. And he/she can only perform that if he/she has the power and capacity to do so. White calls the person who has the authority to write an agent (maker) of history while the person being written about a commodity or a patient. He comments upon this relationship of power dynamics in this manner: “For to be a patient of history, to be or to have been “made” by it, entails the risk of being “unmade” by it as well and worse, the possibility of not having been noticed at all (Historical Event 2). This means that the author-historian can freely exercise his preferentiality over the story space he/she is writing about. Once again, this shows that history is, in fact, a human construct. White opines that for any past event to become “historical” it is “awaiting the investigator of the evidence of its occurrence to give it a name” (“The Historical Event” 5). Therefore, with research and investigation, new historical facts can be unearthed. It only requires a social investigator who has the authority in the discipline to study the evidence and christen the event. But what of the commodities or patients of history? White argues that:

From the perspective of groups claiming to have been excluded from history, history itself is seen as a possession of dominant groups who claim the authority to decide who or what is to be admitted to history […] and that even scientific historiography can serve ideological causes by simply excluding from the normative historical narrative of a complex group any subaltern or minority fraction that does not “qualify” as an active participant in the making of the dominant group’s version of its own history (“The Historical Event” 5).

At the time of its conception in Greece, history merely meant an inquiry into the past “and then, by metonymy of result for the activity that produces it, come to mean the “findings” resulting from the inquiry and, beyond that, by synecdoche, become a name- the history” (“The Historical Event” 17-8). But White has gone one step further to actually call history an invention of the West, a cultural value that “was invented and cultivated as a learned science in the West, is based on specifically Western, aristocratic, racist, gen(d)eric, and classist preconceptions and is no more “universalist” in its applicability to other cultures than Christianity or capitalism” (Historical Event 6). It is important to deal with these definitions because they not only show the power dynamics but also relink historiography to fiction. This idea is further corroborated by Linda Hutcheon who sees them as a dyad of activities that complement each other given the fact that they both “share the same act of reconfiguration, of reshaping our experiences of time through plot configurations”[22]. She also remarks that both fiction and historiography are “porous genres” (Hutcheon 104) given the constructed representation of history and fiction’s proclivity to ground itself on history.

What fiction written by the likes of Ghosh does is that it indulges in an interrogation of the past. The author in this case has the added advantage of a story space wherein he can, without the worriment of respecting historiographical conventions, investigate the existing historical narrative. Writing fiction provides absolute freedom to its author to explore how a historical event is represented in the discourse. Using narrative analysis, and without the imperative to cling on to factual information, a historical event can be used to challenge the representation of a historical event. It allows itself the power to challenge, or even subvert at times, the most dominant of historical discourses and question the representation of past events as historical facts. Isabel Hofmeyr remarked that “the language of fiction is particularly well suited to this task of navigating contradiction. Since fiction is a form of simultaneous knowledge, it can explore contradictions in a way that expository prose cannot. Fiction has a way of being one step ahead of historiography”[23].

Translating Texts into Power

Another mode of traditional historiography is through the translation of texts written by the “other”. I would like to draw on Paul de Man and his work on Walter Benjamin entitled Conclusions. De Man opines that the language used in translation of a text creates a disjunction “between the symbol and what is being symbolized, a disjunction on the level of tropes between the trope as such and the meaning as a totalizing power of tropological substitutions”[24]. In Munslow’s words a trope “is a figure of speech that works by developing words in such a way they create and change meaning” (Narrative and History, 145). In Western Historiography, therefore, there has been a trend of using a singular trope as “a figure of perfect synecdoche in which the partial trope expresses the totality of a meaning” (Conclusions 89) and hence presenting it as an “objective” representation of the “other”. This type of translatorial authorship over the literature of the East and the South in the past has also given the West another platform to reduce the position of the East (and the South) and reaffirm their own as more modern and dominant. Before I share an example by Edward Said, I would like to draw on Benjamin’s remark on translation as to how the language used therein “envelopes its contents like a royal robe with ample folds” (“The Task of the Translator” 258)[25]. When taken from the point of view of Eurocentric Historiography, this implies that the language used for translation evidently holds more power over the content which is being translated. Once again, the subjective selection of such tropes from the literature of the “other” and then their subsequent translation in Western languages has been used to strengthen the position of the Western historical discourse. Linguistics play another crucial role in this. Benjamin strongly argued that “no translation, however good it may be, can have any significance as regards the original” (Benjamin, 254). This is primarily because each author-historian will employ a different set of signifiers to recreate the literal image of the signified in the language in which he is translating. And in case the word is not translatable, the author tries to find a signifier closer to the one that is actually non-existent. Derrida said that “the written signifier is always technical and representative. It has no constitutive mean-ing”[26]. The repetition of the word “representative” is a constant reminder of how history is a representation. When Derrida says that “the notion of the sign always implies within itself the distinction between the signifier and the signified […]”, it explains that even in the same language there is a dilemma to represent the thought in words; there is a split in the same thought and its linguistic representation. Translating, therefore, the written word opens a broad spectrum where the author-historian can indulge in figuration which will suit his end.

In Siting Translation, Tejaswini Niranjana suggests that In a post-colonial context the problematic of translation becomes a significant site for raising questions of representation, power, and historicity. The context is one of contesting and contested stories attempting to account for, to recount, the asymmetry and inequality of relations between peoples, races, languages. Since the practices of subjection/subjectification implicit in the colonial enterprise operate not merely through the coercive machinery of the imperial state but also through the discourse of philosophy, history, anthropology, philology, linguistics, and literal interpretation, the colonial “subject”- constructed through technologies or practices of power/knowledge- is brought into being within multiple discourse and on multiple sites. One such site is translation. Translation as a practice shapes, and takes shape within, the asymmetrical relations of power that operate under colonialism. What is at stake here is the representation of the colonialized, who need to be produced in such a manner as to justify colonial domination […].[27]

Even though in her book, Niranjana shows an example of such a domination by translating a work from Kannada (a South-Indian language) into English, there is also equal stress on the translation of philosophy and culture among other fields. She elicits a revision of translation “as an ideological and political issue in language that draws our attention to the irreducible complicity between colonial domination and traditional notions of representation” (The Journal of Asian Studies, 122)[28]. I have already mentioned the distortion involved when dealing with re-presentation. Also, there will be a desire to create new meanings, which will create new story spaces every time the task is attempted.

Representing the “Other”

I will now draw on Edward Said and to his book Orientalism[29]. It will strengthen the idea as to how the ‘sign’ (the Orient) was seen and how it was “signified” (re-presented) by the West to substantiate its own position by characterizing aspects of the Orient as primitive and backward. Said remarks that “the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (Orientalism, 1-2). Orientalism for Said, is therefore “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made by between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident’” (2). Rooting the idea of this kind of thinking in the eighteenth-century, Said provides another meaning of Orientalism as something that “can be discussed and analysed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient- dealing with it by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Pivotal to this is the presence of power dynamics involved in the process. Under the hegemonic model of colonialism, “[t]he Oriental is given as fixed, stable, in need of investigation, in need even of knowledge about himself” (308). Accepting this as the moral duty of a colonizer, the Orientalist writes about and represents the Oriental. This relationship, Said exclaims, “is radically a matter of power” (308). To create the Orient was not an indispensability; the relationship between the Orient and the Occident is “of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony […]” (5). Niranjana agrees that such a re-presentation “produces strategies of containment” (3) thereby restricting and limiting the growth of the subject that is represented. A suitable example has been provided by Said validating the idea that

The Orient was Orientalized not only because it was discovered to be “Oriental” in all those ways considered commonplace by an average nineteenth-century European, but also because it could be- that is, submitted to being- made Oriental. There is very little consent to be found, for example, in the fact that Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her (6).

Once again, there is a teleological pattern of history that presents the Oriental dogmas as mediocre and the Occidental as superior, stronger and the dominant one. In this dominant mode of historiography, the West has denied the literary agency to the Orient while rendering them at the same time as simply “representations, or objects without history” (Niranjana 3). And this is inextricably linked to the Orientalist’s translation of not only non-Western texts but also of non-Western culture and other philosophical dogmas. Orientalism was not the sole school of thought that believed in a like teleological progression of history. Reverberations of such a thinking were also present in the theory of world history written by Hegel. That the two meet at a crossroad in the way they make postulations is no coincidence.

One of the prime tenets of Hegelian theory of history was that “Reason is the Sovereign of the World” and that “the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process”[30]. By “rational process”, he implies that there is a teleological movement in the history of the world. In his theory, he divides the world in a way that it represents the movement of dominance from the Oriental world to the Greek world and, finally to the German world. He remarks that “the History of the World travels from East to West, for Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning” (103). Without further acknowledging the role played by the East in Western thought, he claims that the East can make no further contributions in this teleological movement of history even though Sanskrit was only recently discovered by the Occident towards the late eighteenth-century by The Asiatic Society. Its influence upon Latin, Greek, Germanic, and Celtic languages were recognized by Sir William Jones, which led to the beginning of a research that “played an important role in the development of Western Philology, or historical linguistics”[31] (Müller, 1). According to the Hegelian philosophy of history, historicism, therefore, is a teleological line of progress from the East to the West which underlines the West’s version of history, and if the East holds an inferior position, it is only a well-founded assumption. The aim of modern historians is to challenge this very foundation of Western historiography because when put to the test of historicity, it fails to hold much water. I would like to corroborate this claim by what Jack Goody claims in The Theft of History, how a modern critique of the Eurocentric version of history is important and how it affects not only our present but also our (collective) future.

[…] Europe has not simply neglected or underplayed the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which it has misinterpreted its own history, but also how it has imposed historical concepts and periods that have aggravated our understanding of Asia in a way that is significant for the future as well as for the past (8).

It is, therefore, imperative to disassemble the idea that history has a teleological progression because the Western historical narrative has been constructed on biased parameters. When the representation of the “other” in history has proved to be inaccurate, then the grounds on which the West posits its teleological ends also lose their tenability.

To delve deeper into the idea of representing the “other”, I will, once again, draw on Said’s Orientalism to explain the notion of discourse that he borrows from Michel Foucault. Said strongly argues that the West’s knowledge of the East is based on generalized antithetical tropes that are tactfully applied to all that is non-European. By doing so, the West has not only pooled together all the Eastern societies using a common denominator, but it has used this to define its own position as well. Said emphasizes that “Orientalism expresses and represents that part culturally and even ideologically as a mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles” (2). By portraying the Orient as representative of a mode of discourse for the West, Said implicates a specific set of rules and codes that will be unique to itself. Said then links this with Foucault’s work on discourse. In his essay What is an Author?[32] Foucault questions the position of the subject in a discourse and by following what rules it performs its function. He conceives the idea of “initiators of discursivity” or of discursive practices (Foucault 12). By citing Marx and Freud as examples, Foucault distinguishes these authors from novelists whom he says are “nothing more than the authors of their own texts” (10). Foucault gives these “initiators of discursivity a higher realm in which “[t]hey are unique in that they are not just the authors of their own works. They have produced something else: the possibilities and the rules for the formation of other texts […] they have established an endless possibility of discourse” (10). Said links this idea with the authorial works of the Orientalists. He gives the example of Flaubert and the information he deposited about the Orient in his catalogue of idées reçues. Referring to Napoleon and de Lesseps, Said remarks that

Everything they knew, more or less, about the Orient came from books written in the tradition of Orientalism, placed in its library of idées reçues; for them the Orient, like the fierce lion, was something to be encountered and dealt with to a certain extent because the texts made that Orient possible. Such an Orient was silent, available to Europe for the realization of projects that involved but were never directly responsible to the native inhabitants, and unable to resist the projects, images, or mere descriptions devised for it (Said 94).

It was by persistently presenting the Orient by the Western author-historians as a binary opposite with characteristics and values inherently different from their own that the latter did reinforce their own position. Said borrows Foucault’s binary construction of heterosexuality and homosexuality as a form of hegemonic structure in which the power is bestowed upon the heterosexual by mis-representing the “other”. Said argues that the relationship between the Occidental and the Orient is much the same. He borrows another of Foucault’s proposition that it is possible to study a discourse’s “modes of circulation, valorization, attribution, and appropriation” (13). Foucault argues that it is possible to understand the norms, functions and the modes that are present in the discourse, which can eventually show how power spread during a time period. Agreeing with Foucault, Said remarks that “without examining Orientalism as a discourse one cannot possibly understand the enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage- and even produce- the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period” (3).

Another argument that history has been written from an equivocal and a dubious position is echoed by both White and Goody. Western historiography, in its teleological progression, has operated on not just the form of its historical discourse but also on its content. And this was possible owing to the West’s economic, political and military dominance over the rest of the world. “One of the basic assumptions of much Western historiography”, says Goody, “is that the arrow of time overlaps with an equivalent increase in value and desirability in the organization of human societies, that is, progress” (24). Goody further explains that “what we define as progress is reflective of (western) values and which are of relatively recent date” (24). It is suggested here that, for the West, their notions and values were applied in a universal context in order to define what progress really meant. In other words, if a country does not possess or follow these notions, then it cannot be a part of what Goody calls “European exceptionalism” (28). Here Goody claims a link with the “invention of Antiquity” which “fits neatly into place in a progressive chain of (European) history” but it “had to be radically distinguished from its predecessors which characterized a number of mainly Asiatic societies” (26). White in fact challenges the Western historiography over its claim of ranking “events in terms of their world-historical significance” (9) when in fact they are “simply Western European, representing a tendency of modern historians to rank events in the record hierarchically from within a perspective that is culture-specific, not universal at all” (9-10). A lot was due to political reasons. Goody explains that “[O]ne of the first subjects of Greek writing was the war against Persia which led to the distinction made in evaluative terms between Europe and Asia […]” (27). Goody claims that the Greece’s characterization of Persia as “barbaric” was a “purely ethnocentric judgment” (27) despite the fact the “Persians were the main way in which knowledge coming from literate Ancient Near Eastern societies was transmitted to the Greeks” (27). The Greeks won the war and endowed the title of ‘tyrants’ upon the Persians thereby elevating their own political model of democracy, which was in fact based upon slavery. Through this example, I attempt to prove the point that through political and economic power, western author-historians not only strengthened their position in the historical discourse by dictating their own stories and history, but also disparaging, modifying or even eliminating the history of their opponents. Theo D’haen postulates that the West has undone the history of the East by imposing their own version of it and by indulging in a historicism that rendered (a lot of) the Eastern history as myths and legends. This rendition led to the sole (and dominant) historical account of the East. The East’s history was written “as subsidiary to the history of the victor with the latter henceforth providing the telos of the former”[33]. This means that the West not only took the authority over the East’s historical content but also the freedom to consign any part of it to the realms of fiction. What this also means is that they rendered parts of the East’s history as non-historical, and did not accord them the significance of being world-historical. It is, therefore, a capital interest of authors narrating alternative histories, to imagine a history that is more universal in its significance. D’haen calls it an “un-writing of ‘history’ as Western discourse of truth” and presents it as “self-legitimizing record of progressive history” (D’haen 213).

One of the cardinal characteristics of alternative history is its structure. By not conforming to the Western model of historiography, it moves away from the teleological stand upon which the same has so far been based. To accomplish this end, the author rejects a linear movement in the text and creates a multi-temporal and multi-spatial dimension. By doing so, the author implicates that the past always remains an open entity. Through means of a lateral movement between the “then” and the “now”, it is possible to interrogate the past so as to be able to understand and reconfigure the present. Linda Hutcheon in A Poetics of Postmodernism relates this to her fusion of historical fiction and metafiction as historiographic metafiction. She makes an association with mostly postmodern works of literature that are “both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (Hutcheon 5). She implies that it is possible to construct a historical memory to fill in the gaps left out in western historiography and “that to re-write or re-present that past in fiction and in history is, in both cases, to open it up to the present, to prevent it from being conclusive and teleological” (Hutcheon 110). Tim Woods remarked about alternative modes of writing history, as seen in Ghosh’s works, as imagining the past “as a form of counter-history that subverts false generalization by an exclusionary ‘History’”[34]. I would like to reiterate here the example of Greece’s account of Persian history was a political act of dominance over their representation. Woods argues that “memory and history form part of a literary politics of identities” (Woods 13). He further explains that this politics is fought in the written account of history in a way that the dominant party can elevate its own position in the discourse while deprecating or belittling the “other”. Therefore, by reconstructing our memory of history, as done by Ghosh, it is possible to refute the dominant authority in the West’s account of history “or its possibility by counteracting the traces of colonial and precolonial sociality within the postcolonial” (Woods 13).

Premising the past as an entity open to examination prepares the ground for the implication that the past is connected to the present. This idea has been presented by Walter Benjamin in his work Illuminations[35]. Benjamin is of the view that there is a non-linear but a complexly dynamic connection between the past, the present and the future which is to be constructed and re-constructed by the author-historian. The non-linearity achieved by placing the past along the same lines as the present renders the text more lucid in its movement while at the same it gives more command to the author to be able to objectively criticize the historiography of a given period. Benjamin perceives this connection as an astrological constellation in which the historical events, linked with the help of a narrative structure, are presented to have been connected with each other.

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time. (Illuminations 263)

Benjamin depicts the notion that events, like stars in a constellation, are scattered around in space and are connected in time. He further argues that it is not enough to understand a past event in its own context alone. Peter Osborne remarked that Benjamin’s work “problematizes existing formulations of the concepts of history and historical origin. In line with his discussion of the Idea, the concept of historical origin should not be reduced to the causality and actuality of the empirically factual, nor should it be regarded as a purely logical and timeless essence”[36]. The representation of a given past event must also take into consideration its impact on the “now”, the present. Therefore, an interrogation in the past can help understand and remodel a different present.

Iain Chambers refers to the Eurocentric version of world history and argues that the “ordered archives”[37] can no longer maintain their mandate as the polyphony and non-linearity of alternative histories have fractured the narrative. The project is highly political, agrees Chambers, who nonetheless believes that as the “other” gains political power to insert their version of history, the western historiographical framework had to give way.

For this is not simply to propose the heroic space of the counter-narrative that offers the promised homecoming of an alternative history, identity, and autonomous sense. Here the divisions between the colonizer and the colonized, the hegemonic and the subaltern, the victors and the victims decline into a more disquieting critical complexity that frustrates all unilateral desires to complete the picture. Encountering voices, bodies, and lives that exist beyond the official accounts supplied by both colonial and postcolonial power, we are drawn into dissonant narratives. Here the continuum of history fragments under the pressure of the unassimilated, and the resulting remains are worked over in a poetics that punctuates and exceeds the narrow logic of an inherited political view. The tale is perpetually interrupted or broken, and through the resulting gaps the silenced and the marginalized intercede in the telling of the world (I. Chambers 59).

It was crucial to lay bare the practices of western historiography for the purpose of discerning the “other’s” need or desire to imagine an alternative history. It is only with a clear understanding of Western historiography that we can understand the standpoint of authors like Amitav Ghosh. The attempt is not merely to attain an independent literary agency but to also explain how and why that agency was taken from the “other” in the first place. Reading the West’s ethnocentric account of world history, the role played by power is ineluctable. Its form must be corrected and its content must be reinterpreted because “history does not arrive bleeding facts, dripping truths, flooding of the past. It is elaborated, articulated, represented in language, organized in discourse, disciplines in institutions, relayed by authorities” (I. Chambers 25-6). Ghosh’s works do exactly that: they do not look for truths or facts in the existing historical discourse, they do not challenge any institution, and nor do they seek to deny West’s version of history. Their most consequential part lies in “reworking the historical archive in all its cultural complexities and details that further prospects have to be promoted in order to evade a colonization which, seeking to control memory, puts its claim on life yet to come” (I. Chambers 5).

Chapter 2: Migrating across Borders and Boundaries

There has since the beginning of human existence always been movement, migration and settlement in new areas; for as long as is known and in most parts of the world, individual places have been open to, and partly constituted by, their contacts with “outside”. Interconnection is not new, and diasporas are certainly not only a feature of the recent past.

─ Doreen Massey and Pat Jess . A Place in the World: Places, Cultures and Globalization.

It is not a chance error that the Roma people, who migrated to Europe from the Punjab region of Northern India between the eighth and tenth centuries of Common Era, are more commonly known as “Gypsies” because “Europeans mistakenly believed they came from Egypt”.[38] This example may seem less consequential given the erring nature of man, but it is one of the many instances where the West had appropriated, and often imposed, its own understanding of the non-Western subject. I do not cite this example as a generic statement in a way so as to make a post-colonial attack on Western historiography (even though the time of its occurrence is important in a way that it happened before Europe took over the world stage). But it is, nonetheless, a veritable example of a paradigm that will repeat itself unnumbered times during the centuries that will follow.

There has been a strong propensity in Western historiography to proliferate the notion that movement around the planet is prominently a Western phenomenon; and that it could only materialize by the West’s expansion into the rest of the world. But when studied more closely, the West’s claim does not seem credible because the world has been, for many millennia, in a state of flux. It is a historical fact today that sits on archeological evidence. However, in spite of that, the Western historical discourse has continued to acquire the dominant position in world history. It is to challenge this equivocal notion of the West that contemporary authors, like Ghosh, use the realms of fiction to question, not just the content of Western historiography but also its framework. Interestingly, the five books in the corpus exhibit a chronology of sorts in their events. In an Antique Land provides us with glimpses into the peace and tranquility of the pre-colonial world, the Ibis Trilogy encompasses the tumult and chaos under colonialism, while The Shadow Lines offers a perspective on postcolonial times. In all these works, like in much of the rest of the author’s works, the idea of migration and border-crossing is very much conspicuous in its prevalence. Ghosh himself has led a characteristically peripatetic life. He was born in the city of Calcutta and grew up in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and currently lives in New York with his author spouse Deborah Baker. He has studied in Delhi, Oxford and Alexandria. He has had a prolific career having published several novels, namely, The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988), In an Antique Land (1992), The Calcutta Chromosome (1995), The Glass Palace (2000), The Hungry Tide (2004), Sea of Poppies (2008), River of Smoke (2011) and Flood of Fire (2015). In addition to this, he has also published several compilations of essays including Dancing in Cambodia and at Large in Burma (1998), The Imam and the Indian (2002) and Incendiary Circumstances (2006) among others. The recurrent theme that echoes throughout his bibliography is history and border crossing, both literal and figurative, by writing a text that allows for interrogating a relationship between both time and space.

Professionally trained to be a social anthropologist, Ghosh told Claire Chambers in an interview the reason why he diverged from his field to become a novelist was because “anthropology was creating a kind of hegemonic voice”[39]. Ghosh shared in the same breath his experiences involving his ethnographic research in the Egyptian villages of Nashawy and Lataifa while working on his thesis. He continued that his field of study was creating an authoritative voice- the voice of an observant ethnographer- but that he could never feel that sense of authority while in Egypt, essentially because he is Indian. This confession is pertinent because the Western model of historiography that Ghosh seeks to question through his work has been irrefutably casted by past authoritative Orientalist ethnographers.

This chapter will lay focus on mapping movements of both people and knowledge, especially in the Global East and South to be able to show that the world was already in a state of motion prior to the West’s arrival on the scene. This arrival was more of an intervention in the existing cordiality between the other parts of the world. I will discuss the notions of borders and boundaries that were the outcomes of the aforementioned intervention. I will also argue that Western historiographers have omitted substantial amounts of information that existed outside their domain and that this knowledge was able to flow much more fluidly through the easy and unrestricted migration of people all across the Global East and South. These same ideas also form the nucleus of most of Ghosh’s works. The notions of migration and border-crossing can be very well observed under different lights when reading In an Antique Land and the Ibis Trilogy as if forming an inverted mirroring image. It is important that I mention here that this idea of border-crossing is both literal and figurative. Ghosh persistently questions the rigidity of borders and sees them as “artificial boundaries” (Chambers 10) and modern human conceptions. Chambers stated that “Ghosh’s novels often challenges the conceptual boundaries that have been erected to separate academic disciplines or schools of thought from one another” (2). Talking about fiction and nonfiction, Ghosh shared in another interview with Frederick Luis Aldama that he doesn’t “think of them as separate genres in some way”[40]. For him, “[i]n the end it’s about people’s lives; it’s about people’s history; it’s about people’s destinies. When I write nonfiction, I’m writing about characters and people, and when I’m writing fiction, I’m doing the same thing” (86). Ghosh believes in the power of novel as a genre in a way that it can allow him “to explore something with a richness of sense and context” (Chambers 9) without having to conform to the rules of a particular disciplinary study. In yet another interview with Michelle Caswell, Ghosh opined that he sees the novel as “a meta-form that transcends the boundaries that circumscribe other kinds of writings, rendering useless the usual workday distinctions between historian, journalist, anthropologist etc.”[41]. It is, therefore, in the garb of novel as a genre, that Ghosh coalesces the fiction and the nonfiction to question the content of the Western historical discourse. Ghosh often draws characters from actual archival records (Neel Rattan in the Ibis Trilogy for example), and using historical imagination, conjures up their lives so that the reader can empathetically view the past through their perspective. At the same time, the author refrains from delivering any judgments; he remains as much a spectator to the imagined characters as the reader. This is achieved by employing Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of polyphony, or multiple voices. I will also include in my study the notion of sea as it is used in the historical narrative constructed by Ghosh. The study of sea, or oceanology or thalassology, as it is also called, which is extremely vital in the study of borders and boundaries. Considering the individual titles of the Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, Flood of Fire) , the importance of sea can be surmised as an entity that does not comply to the rigidity of man-made borders and boundaries on land.

Mapping Movement of People and Knowledge

Maps have a special signification in a way that they allow man to know his place in the world. It is also an indispensable tool for navigators while traversing the stretches of their imagination. Topographic maps, for example, provides much beneficial information regarding the natural structures and terrain. In other words, maps are also like yardsticks of information and knowledge. Their precision, therefore, is of vital importance. I use the term “mapping” in a figurative sense because a map is not just a terrestrial representation of the world but also a mirroring witness of past events. I interpolate the idea of maps because it was an Arab cartographer by the name of Muhammad al-Idrisi of Alexandria who, in the year 1154, drew a map of Eurasia and North Africa with remarkable exactness. Scott commented that “al-Idrisi incorporated the knowledge of Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Far East gathered by Islamic merchants and explorers and recorded on Islamic maps with the information brought by the Norman voyagers to create the most accurate map of the world in pre-modern times […]”[42]. The map Tabula Rogeriana was widely used owing to its precision, transcending its Western versions in terms of the information that it provided. The Egyptian cartographer had borrowed the idea of a spherical, instead of a flat world from other pre-Islamic scholars from the Middle East whereas the idea of a spherical earth surface was accepted much later by the West. It clearly implies that vast reserves of information were available outside the Western domain of knowledge, and that that knowledge, in this case largely through Muslim merchants, could freely travel in the global East and South. Scott remarked that “[t]he compilation of Idrisi marks an era in the history of science. Not only is its historical information most interesting and valuable, but its descriptions of many parts of the earth are still authoritative. For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration. The relative position of the lakes which form the Nile, as delineated in his work, does not differ greatly from that established by Baker and Stanley more than seven hundred years afterwards, and their number is the same” (Scott 462).

Interestingly, Idrisi’s maps were later used by Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama during their expeditions as well. A special feature about al-Idrisi’s map is that it is oriented with South at the top so as to favor the position of Mecca as central. It is a riveting fact as it reflects the political structure of those times. The book containing Tabula Rogeriana “incorporates exhaustive descriptions of the physical, cultural, political and socioeconomic conditions of each region and each of the seventy sections has a corresponding map”[43]. As I have mentioned earlier, Ghosh’s works are evidently political in both their content and objectives; my intention is to allegorize the literal “mapping” by al-Idrisi in relation to the figurative mapping of the past centuries by Ghosh in his works in order to cast a relationship between the past and the present.

Here, I will attempt to make a linear flowchart to explain the many rings used in chaining alternative histories. First, it is essential to look at the notion of borders and boundaries in order to understand how Ghosh uses them to imagine a different past. The arrival of the West on the world scene changed the way in which borders functioned; they became much more rigid and much less fluid. This rigidity affected the movement of both man and knowledge thereby becoming more controlled. Through hegemonic practices, the West forced their respective ideas of modernity over the rest of the world and took the power to appropriate their own understanding of the non-West, creating the erstwhile non-existent entity of the subaltern.[44] The subaltern lacked absolute voice and was completely silenced while his history was being written by a foreign agency. The absence of his account of his own history has rendered modern historians leery of the West’s account of world history. Historiography, therefore, comes under attack by writers like Ghosh who, in his works, “demolishes the cliché that cosmopolitanism is the exclusive fruit of European expansionism”[45].

Another consuming fact is that when European cartographers were making updated copies of Tabula Rogeriana, they had not only oriented the North at the top but had also placed Europe at its center to show their position of dominance over the world. Jack Goody informs us that “when Britain became internationally dominant, the co-ordinates of space turned around the Greenwich meridian in London […]” (20). Goody likens the beginning of European domination to mercantilism during the Renaissance period and eventually through conquest and colonization. “Its expansion meant that its notions of space, developed in the course of the “Age of Exploration”, and its notions of time, developed in the context of Christianity, were imposed upon the rest of the world” (Goody 21). In his book, Goody has used the term “theft” most extensively and applied it not only to institutions, towns, universities, but also to civilization. The last one is of particular interest to me as Goody unveils its ethnocentric signification for the West.

Civilization is a word used in a variety of ways. It is widely employed in contrast to barbarism, both concepts that take their particular form in the Greek world and its view of its neighbours in the north, in the south, and in the east. The latter term began life as a highly ethnocentric notion for the despised other but it also had a more solid rationale since the inhabitants of cities (civis, a citizen) used the term ‘barbarian’ for those outside its walls, with more rural practices. Eventually the pair of words got taken up by western anthropologists and archaeologists without any element of moral evaluation to refer to the ‘culture of cities’, civilization, to complex societies based on plough agriculture, artisanal production, and the use of writing that emerged in the Bronze Age around 3000 BCE and barbarism to those practising a simpler, hoe agriculture (154).


[1] WHITE, Hayden, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in the Nineteenth-Century Europe, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014, p. 1-2

[2] SAID, Edward W., Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, p. 2

[3] HEAD, Dominic, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 3rd edition (2006), p. 887

[4] IVISON, Duncan, “Postcolonialism”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. (1st September 2015)

[5] WALDER, Dennis, Postcolonial Nostalgias: Writing, Representation, and Memory, New York: Routledge, 2011, p. 16

[6] Geniza was a room inside the synagogue of Ben Ezra where religious and other documents were stored.

[7] SPIVAK, Gayatri, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 430. The subaltern, as defined by Spivak, is a person “removed from all lines of social mobility” i.e., the subaltern is deprived from accessing any or all public resources that would allow for an upward movement, out of extreme poverty and into political visibility.

[8] BARTHES, Roland, ''Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative'', Image, Music, Text, trans. by Stephen Heath, New York: Fontana Press, 1977, p. 79

[9] WHITE, Hayden, The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and

Historical Representation, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987

[10] MUNSLOW, Alun, Narrative and History, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007

[11] MUNSLOW, Alun, “Where does History come from?”, History Today, 52.3 (March, 2002)

[12] RICOEUR, Paul, “History and Rhetoric”, Diogenes, 42.4 (1994), pp. 7-24; The term was initially coined in French as “mise en recit” then as “narrativization” in English.

[13] WHITE, Hayden, “The Historical Text as Literary Artefact”, in The History and Narrative Reader, ed. by Geoffrey ROBERTS, London: Routledge, 2001 (1st edition: 1978), p. 223; The assembly of a series of historical events into a narrative with a plot.

[14] CHAMBERS, Claire, “Anthropology as Cultural Translation: Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land”, Postcolonial Text, 2.3 (2006), p. 1

[15] DIGGINS, John Patrick, The Rise and Fall of the American Left, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992, in MUNSLOW, Alun, Narrative and History, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 19

[16] DKHAR, Jenniefer, "A Re-Reading of History in the Novels of Amitav Ghosh", Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies, 4.7&8 (2012), pp. 41-56

[17] SPIVAK Gayatri Chakravorty, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary NELSON and Lawrence GROSSBERG, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988

[18] The saying is indecisively attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli and Winston Churchill among several unknown others. What is humorously ironic here is that the actual history of one of the most historical sayings is unknown.

[19] GOODY, Jack, The Theft of History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006

[20] ZOOK, Melinda S.., “Integrating Men’s History into Women’s History: A Proposition”, quoted in DKHAR, Jenniefer, "A Re-Reading of History in the Novels of Amitav Ghosh", Journal of Literature, Culture and Media Studies, 4.7&8 (2012), p. 48

[21] WHITE, Hayden, “The Historical Event”, Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 19.2 (2008) pp. 9-34

[22] HUTCHEON, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory Fiction, New York, Routledge, 1988, p. 98

[23] HOFMEYER, Isabel, “Africa as a Fault Line in the Indian Ocean”, in Eyes Across the Water: Navigating the Indian Ocean, ed. by Pamila GUPTA, Isabel HOFMEYER and Michael PEARSON, Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2010, pp. 99-107, p. 104

[24] DE MAN, Paul, The Resistance to Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986, p. 89

[25] BENJAMIN, Walter, Selected Writings, 4 vols., Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002 (1st edition: 1996), I, p. 258

[26] DERRIDA, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty SPIVAK, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997 (1st edition: 1967), p. 81

[27] NIRANJANA, Tejaswini, Sitting Translation, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992, p. 1-2

[28] YUE, Ming-Bao, “Reviewed Work: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context: Siting Translation, by Tejaswini Niranjana”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Association for Asian Studies, 52.1 (Feb., 1993), p. 122

[29] SAID, Edward W., Orientalism, London: Penguin Classics, 2003 (1st edition: 1978)

[30] HEGEL, Georg W.F., The Philosophy of History, trans. by J. SIBREE, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991, p. 9

[31] MÜLLER, Friedrich Max, A History of Ancient Sanskrit Literature So Far as It Illustrates the Primitive Religion of the Brahmans, London: Williams and Norgate, 1859, p. 1

Primitive Religion of the Brahmans, London: Williams and Norgate, 1859, p. 1

Primitive Religion of the Brahmans, London: Williams and Norgate, 1859, p.

[32] FOUCAULT, Michel, “What is an Author?”, lecture presented to the Societe Francaise de philosophie, Paris, 22 February 1969

[33] D’HAEN, Theo, “‘History’, (counter-)postmodernism, and postcolonialism”, European Journal of English Studies, 1.2 (1997), pp. 205-216, p. 213

[34] WOODS, Tim, African Pasts: Memory and History in African Literature, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012, p. 13

[35] BENJAMIN, Walter, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1968

[36] OSBORNE, Peter, and CHARLES, Matthew, "Walter Benjamin", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford: Edward N. Zalta eds., (Fall 2015)

[37] CHAMBERS, Iain, Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008, p. 58

[38] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Introduction to the Holocaust”, Holocaust Encyclopedia, <>

[39] CHAMBERS, Claire, Interview, 1 May 2005, p. 5

[40] ALDAMA, Frederick Luis, “An Interview with Amitav Ghosh”, World Literature Today : A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma, Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, 76.2 (Spring 2002), pp. 84-90, p. 86

[41] CASWELL Michelle, “An Interview with Amitav Ghosh”, Asia Source, (6 September 2004), cited in the European Journal of Academic Essays, 1.3 (2014), pp. 15-19, p. 18

[42] SCOTT, S. P., History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, 3 vols., Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1904, III, pp. 461-462.

[43] BACHARACH, Jere L. and MERI, Josef W., Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 140

[44] I argue through Ghosh’s works that our modern-day notion of oppression and slavery does not apply to the same in olden days as seen, or imagined, in In an Antique Land. Ghosh imagines that slavery was, in fact, a career, without any power relations.

[45] ROY, Binayak, “‘Tiny Threads, Gigantic Tapestries’, Amitav Ghosh’s In an Antique Land”, Journal of Postcolonial Cultures and Societies, 2.3 (2011), pp. 58-80, p. 66

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Narrating Alternative History in Amitav Ghosh's works
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