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by – Pooja Narain, Issue XV, April 2016

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Introduction to the Author:

Pooja NarainPooja Narain is pursuing Ph. D. (2013-2016) from Amity University, Noida. She is working as a research scholar under the guidance of Dr. Walunir (Amity University, Noida) and Dr. Dhananjay (JNU, Delhi), in AIESR department.

She has also worked as an Assistant Professor (Communication Skills) for six years. Her workplace was Krishna Engineering College (AICTE approved), Ghaziabad.





In this article an attempt is made to reconnoiter the inquisitive concern for identity in Amitav Ghosh’s novels. The identity relates to the various arenas of an individual in the form of race, culture, class, gender or origin. Amitav Ghosh has projected his characters who are searching for their identity. Their concern for identity is allied to diasporic identity, cultural identity, national identity and subaltern identity, referred as thematic considerations. They are not totally independent but the interrelated terms and must be seen in reference to each other. These thematic considerations have been dealt in the form of quest for identity, identity crisis/ transformation and colonial or postcolonial identity in the form of ‘self and other’. Alienation, struggle for existence, dilemma of dual identity, sense of belonging and nostalgia are several constraints that have been exemplified through the well-defined characters of his novels. At the other side, the longing for developing a new and transformed identity and acceptance of other’s culture and changing themselves with time and place are the attributes reflected by his characters. This paper is an inquisitive attempt for exploring the element of Identity that prevails in the novels of Amitav Ghosh.


Key words: identity, diasporic identity, cultural identity, national identity subaltern identity, quest, crisis, transformation, and Amitav Ghosh.


Identity, in itself is a varied phenomenon. Identity, today, has become a major concern not only for social scientists and psychologists but also for the common humanity as well. Identity includes in itself the psychological, cultural and sociological aspects of individual. Identity phenomenon is not a fixed aspect of personality. It is always in the flux and therefore evolving by nature. With this effect, one cannot essentialise or fix its position in any context in particular and in general. That is why, the possibility of reconstruction, regain and renovation is very much present in identity.

‘Identity is not as transparent or unproblematic as we think. Perhaps instead of thinking of identity as an already accomplished fact, with the new cultural practices then represent, we should think, instead, of identity as a “production”, which is never complete, always in the process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation.’ (Hall 222).

This definition of Hall truly resembles with Amitav Ghosh’s notion of identity. Amitav Ghosh, as an anthropologist, deals mostly with the journey, displacement or the relocation. Identity as the resultant issue has been covered by Ghosh. In his novels, his approach towards identity can be dealt as: diasporic identity, cultural identity, subaltern identity and national identity. These approaches of identity have been formularized by his characters.


Diasporic identity:

Since the time of colonization, there has been an increased mobility of people across the globe. In the postcolonial era, the world has seen unprecedented movements of people, wealth and expertise, culture and religion. Consequently, people of different cultures and religious background began to mingle and mix and thus creating new spaces of identity and value systems. The question of self and identity has been augmented by displacement and migration or exile to different parts of the world. Thus, over the last few decades, there has been a transformed inquisitive of the self to redefining and relocating the identity due to globalization, cultural homogenization, hybridity and ethno-cultural and religious migration.

Diasporic identity can be defined as the mutable and adapting depending upon the circumstances and the situation an individual is facing while displaced from his native land. Diasporic person is always in transition, trying to balance between the new scenario and the place as well as the life behind, that is his homeland, resultantly making diasporic identity always in flux. They are adaptive and collaborative migratory birds, who form new culture but their relationship is ambivalent. Hall observes:  ‘Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew through transformation and difference’ (Rutherford 235).

The main theme of Amitav Ghosh’s novels are concerned with the displacement, be it diaspora, migration or exile. The different issues and problems associated with the displacement also occupy the center stage. Among the several issues, identity is the most prominent one. While being displaced and disillusioned an individual encounter identity crisis, or quest for identity that reveals conflict of values and identifies the emotional perspectives involved in it. Alienation, ambivalence, nostalgia, and belonging nowhere, predicament of dual identity and identity regain are some of the issues that are associated with diasporic identity. In his novels, he has narrated the story of the persons who are displaced and forming the diasporic identity.

Amitav Ghosh writing focuses on the diasporic experiences of alien land where they are coping with the new circumstance and involve in a sincere quest for identity. The novels echo an arbitration of identity which fluctuates between acculturation and in-betweenness which is a characteristic feature of all his literary works. In his novels, Ghosh illuminates the quandary of his characters forming a unique diasporic identity. Ghosh’s background itself made him diasporic and is the quintessence of diasporic identity. He travelled a lot and come across with different cultures. Thus, consequently, his novels narrated the story of those individuals encountering with different culture and indulge in negotiation of a diasporic cultural identity.


Cultural identity

Before going deep in the various aspects of cultural identity, it is inevitable to go through the concept of culture. The word culture in itself is a very vast and complex phenomenon. Culture can be defined as the cohesive form of discerning, understanding, valuing and communicating that designs a people’s way of life. Values, norms, symbols, language and knowledge (facts, beliefs, and skills) are the fundamentals of culture. Culture is a social group in which one lives and this group determines the role of individual which is the root of identity. Cultural identity is shaped by a complex set of factors which are associated with the process of evolution and beliefs of people.

My analysis of cultural identity has particularly been enabled by the works of Stuart Hall, Homi Bhabha, and Said.

Cultural identity is not a fixed essence at all, lying unchanged outside history and culture. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history and culture….Identities are names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past. (Hall 236-37).

Hybridity the concept generated by Homi Bhabha refers blend or contamination of cultures knowing that no culture is really pure as at any point of time they may have come in contact with the other culture. He states that the cultures are not distinct phenomena, but being always in contact with one another, we find impurity of cultures. For Bhabha, diasporization is one of the essential attribute of culture. He writes:

Culture as a strategy of survival is both transnational and translational. It is transnational because contemporary postcolonial discourses are rooted in specific histories of cultural displacement … The transnational dimension of cultural transformation–migration, diaspora, displacement, relocation -makes the process of cultural translation a complex form of signification. (172)

More or less, Said also inscribed that the origin is not that important as the continuity because a person in displacement takes an adaptive approach and try to adjust with the new situation. According to him, it is ‘continuities’ that matter and not beginnings, or origins, because ‘continuities … go cheerfully forward with their beginnings obediently affixed.’ (77) Said himself belongs to the hyphenated identity as a Palestinian-American that in-between space which celebrated heterogeneity of cultural identity. In his own won words, ‘No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian … or American are no more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind.’ (407)

Cultural identity is thus dynamic, receptive, questioned and arbitrated as it is expressed and enunciated in relation to power, through regular practices and involvements. Thus perceived, cultural identity is not something that already exists, transcending place, history and culture but the concept which is taking shape as per the time and place.

For Ghosh, whose life has been marked by multiple movements across geographic, linguistic, national and cultural boundaries, diaspora offers a valuable ‘transnational’ perspective from cultural boundaries, diaspora offers a valuable ‘transnational’ perspective from which to destabilize homogeneous conceptions of culture and identity. His embrace of the diaspora aesthetic is evidenced in his fundamental rejection of the purity of cultural identities. He stated, my formulation of diaspora, then, as a hybrid, transnational space offers a framework in and through which to view cultural identity as always moving, never arrived at, as existing in tension and mediation between roots and routes.


Subaltern identity:

The other form of identity that is related with subaltern also has a prominent place in Amitav Ghosh’s novels. Ghosh strongly believes that the grand canvass of any incident most of the time overlook individualistic experience during the colossal sweeps of historical, social or political turmoil. So, Ghosh in his novels deals with the characters taken from lower strata of society forming subaltern, fit them into the historical events and express their sufferings and fight for the survival in respect to that event.

The meaning of the word, subaltern, itself reflects the issues associated with it, be it the issue of survival, issue of identity or the issue of representation as having less access to the social, political or cultural aspect. Subaltern identity echoes the unrepresentation of the subalterns. Spivak asks what nomenclature can resolve such a space. The distinguished critic of subaltern, Spivak whose crucial line is completely relevant ‘Can the subaltern Speak?’ She thinks that for the true subaltern group, whose identity is its difference, there is no un-representable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself. Ghosh also joined Spivak in her struggle to give the voice and to empower this group. It is these unrepresented and sidelined groups that Ghosh adopted to provide them center stage. Amitav Ghosh works strongly adhere to the concept that the subaltern can speak, if given a proper opportunity and with an apposite engagement of the discourse. Ghosh purposefully brings subaltern characters into stories and focuses on personal histories of these individuals. The marginalized characters of his novels help us perceive life, events and issues from their point of view. Ghosh characteristic as subaltern writer is marked as,

Ghosh reinvents paradigms in order to surmount the theoretical and philosophical problems involved in the methods of retrieving, representing, and articulating subaltern consciousness… a novelist with an academic background in social anthropology, He resists the urge to make visible these otherwise invisible characters, communities, consciousness at the expense of those who have traditionally been visible in dominant discourses. (De, Ghosh, and Jana 109)

The issue of subaltern in his works is to be studied in two manners: first the meaning of subaltern as an affected practice, kind of parallel practice that existed during colonial period but never taken note of, as meant by Subaltern Study Group and reflected in his works where the author talks about the alternative histories and practices of people. Secondly subaltern as an approach that takes marginalized beyond the inability to speak and empowers them to represent the marginalized people and their issues.

To sum up, his portrayal of the notion subaltern generates following points: the enquiry of and conception of foundation, to trace their societies and identities to their innate position, an engrossing conformation of center and margins, involving of cultural identities , intricacy of the nucleus shift, a belief of the fact that the subaltern can speak for themselves or their position can be illustrated either through making them speak their stories or by creating stories on and around them in his writings. Thus, his writings are a demonstration of implications and manifestations of the term subaltern in contemporary writings.

With the above discussion, it can be manifested that Amitav Ghosh sense of identity is guided by the mentioned thematic considerations of identity. His characters did not reveal the anguish or pain of separation but they are more and more adoptive and adaptive. They easily adjust with the new situation and new place. They fit themselves according to the time and place.




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