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Animesh Bag & Gobinda Banik: Restless Hollow in The Circle of Reason

Amitav Ghosh. Image credit- Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia

Restless Hollow: An Introspection of the Peripatetic Humanity in The Circle of Reason of Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is a post-colonial, Indo-Anglian novelist whose major novels- The Circle of Reason, The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land, The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium and Discovery centre around multiracial and multiethnic issues. The wandering cosmopolitans rove around the world and Ghosh weaves polyphonic stories with them. Ghosh sets this thematic inclination from his first novel The Circle of Reason. The narrative can be read as a travelogue, a detective story and a novel of ideas, or as a plea for humanistic camaraderie. But a mere peripheral outlook will give only the glimpse of a picaresque tale. Actually Ghosh, here, with his meticulous skill of weaving paradoxes is able to emanate restlessness with extreme equilibrium. The story has a non-heroic hero and his adventures, rather misadventures accompanied by a cast of various characters whom he meets along the way. Although the writer through this simple tale knots us with many strands: the social, the political, the cultural; still it demands a deeper level- the metaphysical. The struggle that befalls the protagonist stresses on one level the conflict between capitalism and socialism; at another level it depicts a rootless man’s attempt to ground his own identity. This is, in fact, the story of everyone in the contemporary milieu where “[……] Things fall apart; the Centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (Yeats, W B, The Second Coming, 1921).

In modern Indian literature Girish Karnad has successfully moulded mythical elements to reflect contemporary domain. What Karnad does in plays is done by Ghosh in this novel. The real name of Alu, the pivotal character, is Nachiketa Bose. And Nachiketa, in mythology is the boy who waits at Yama’s door in obedience to his father. Waiting at Yama’s door implies waiting at the door of death. Nachiketa is sage Uddalaka’s son. He is known for his perseverance. In his pursuit of true knowledge, Nachiketa incurs his father’s displeasure. In a fit of rage, Uddalaka curses Nachiketa to go and suffer in the neither world ie, Yamaloka (the world of the death God, Yama). Yama, on his part, is also the embodiment of righteousness. His work is such that he just cannot afford to be unjust. Nachiketa sincerely pleads with Yama to give him divine knowledge about the true nature of Brahman (Brahmagyan) from Yama. As the myth goes, the young sage is lured by Yama into the pleasures of heaven. But Nachiketa refuses to go to heaven. As he has learnt the true nature of being, he knows Brahman is all pervading. Moreover Agni (fire) is a purifying agent. Fire, even in hell does the work of cleansing. Nachiketa Bose, the protagonist of The Circle of Reason also waits; he waits for a secure shelter, his own identity and the true knowledge of life. But his waiting does not have an end. He only receives an endless journey. He rushes madly to and fro in this world with a policeman, Joyti Das in pursuit, for being falsely accused of Maoist activity.

From the age of eight, he is being reared by his uncle, Balaram Bose and his aunt, Toru Debi after his parents passed away. At Lalpukur he is transformed into Alu, a nickname given by Balaram for his extraordinary head, “a huge, several times too large for an eight year old and curiously uneven, bulging all over with knots and bumps” (Ghosh 1986: 37). A “big spectacle shaped lump which covered a large part of the back and sides” was a sight of wonder for the villagers. The name ‘Alu’ is a kind of metaphor here. It refers a rooted leafy starchy crop, whereas Alu floats all over like reeds in the air. Like Nachiketa he receives brahmagyan when “a massive building called ‘the star’ collapses and traps Alu in a very narrow furrow beneath the heaps of concrete. Strangely, as if his aunt were looking out for him from on high, two Singer sewing machines prop the concrete slab up” (Hawley 2005: 51). Most people think Alu is dead. But when he emerges from the debris, we see the rebirth of Alu. He seems a reincarnation of Gandhi or Balaram. Alu, all of a sudden, starts talking, though he was a silent man so far. He speaks about cleanliness, dirt and litter. And strangest of all, he calls for the urgency of a war against money. But everything is short-lived. Only infinite transience is factual. He has started his hurtle again.

A few historical events, such as the Indian nationalist struggle of 1930s, the Bangladesh war of 1971, and the international tide of migration to the Middle East of the 1970 onwards, are foregrounded in The Circle of Reason. In an interview with Michelle Caswell, Amitav Ghosh asserts: “….the novel is a metaphor that transcends the boundaries that circumscribe other kinds of writing, rendering meaningless the usual workaday distinction between historians, journalists, anthropologists etc.” (Hawley 2005:166). In The Circle of Reason all the characters and situation also become a kind of metaphor. Ghosh entwines ideas and metaphors through magic and irony to develop his fictional motif – the idea of rootlessness.

Migration, whether forceful or willful, diasporic feeling, alienation, expatriation, exile, restlessness are the recurring themes in the novels of the post-colonial writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, V S Naipaul, Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, Salman Rushdie and so on. Ghosh follows this current stream too. But isn’t it inevitable at present time? That time is lost when everyone knows each other. Now every relationship becomes virtual and volatile. There is only fear to be lost. In fact, ‘home’ as a metaphor has been lost. The native village is home; mother’s lap is home; father’s angry brows are home. Now one does not know as to where is home. Therefore, every artist is trying to depict this fear and loneliness in his/her canvas. Everyone understands as what it means to be alone in the crowd.

The human race is represented in the novel as a fugitive on this planet. There is nothing called home here. The initial hurly–burly takes place at Lalpukur which goes back and forth from Bangladesh to India. The village is settled by refugees from East Pakistan after the formation of Bangladesh in 1971. Thus the village, apparently a symbol of traditional India is itself a product of diaspora, a perfect embodiment of heterogeneous language, race, nation and culture. The people of Lalpukur were “vomited out of their native soil years ago and dumped hundreds of miles away….borders dissolved under the weight of millions of people in panic-stricken flight from an army of animals” (Ghosh 1986:59-60). So, the canvas on which the story is depicted and plotted has no essence. It itself totters in its existence. Then the action moves to the Middle East, Al-Ghazirain the Persian Gulf which is an oil-rich state. But it also does not have a discrete culture rooted in one nation as the state is a blend of Persians, Zanzibaris, Arabs, Omanis and Indians. A close scrutiny of the characters living there reveals Ghosh’s negation of borders in terms of culture, nation, language and even profession. So, like the village of Lalpukur, Al-Ghazira does not represent a stable authentic culture but a network of a vast rootless region. The last location, the Algerian desert is again noteworthy as a desert is all but a shifting sand dune. One has to cop up with this pace and uncertainty of the narrative as the atmosphere and location are ever–changing. Even the most basic element of coherence, time, is not properly to mirror restlessness and fickleness.

The Circle of Reason has three stories interlinked with Alu’s life. In the first section, Alu is brought up at Lalpukur by Balaram Bose, a phrenologist, idealist and a devotee of Louis Pasteur. There he begins to learn weaving at Sambhu Debnath. Balaram runs a school named The School of Reason at Lalpukur. Bhudev Roy, an affluent brat becomes a political bully in the remote village, hiring thugs to enforce his policies in the school and elsewhere. The two men become enemies, competing for the minds and hearts of the villagers. In the course of the rivalry, Roy and his men, one day, set a fire to the house of Balaram. In the resulting conflagration Balaram, Toru Debi, Maya, their daughter and Rakhal, son of Sombhu Debnath, are all killed. Bhudev then drives Alu out of the village by assigning him guilt to terrorist activity and set his motion of his flight from Northern India. The young man is relentlessly pursued by Joyti Das in a pointless misidentification of ‘the bad guy’, reminiscent of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

The second part is about the transition of Alu all the way from Lalpukur to Al-ghazira with a former prostitute, Zindi-al-Tiffaha. There she sets sail with all sorts of refugees. Among her recent breed, besides Alu, there are a professor, Samuel, a young woman named Kulfi with buck teeth and apparently newly widowed and Karthamma who gives birth to a boy on board, named Boss; also a travelling salesman, Rakesh. In ‘The Severed Head’ or ‘The Ras’ of Al-Ghazira, they meet with the other denizen of Zindi’s tiny globe including Abu Fahl who drinks too much; Forid Mian, an old tailor; Jeevanbhai Patel by far the richest merchant in the area; handsome Zaghloul the Pigeon; and Mast Ram, who falls in love with Kulfi. But Alu’s mystical renunciation to the pay dirt policy sends Zindi into paroxysms of concern. Then, echoing the inferno in which Roy had destroyed Balaram’s world, the conspiracy of Joyti Das and the local magistrate brings down the power of law on a gathering of those who subscribe to Alu’s communist doctrine. Hajj Fahmy, Rakesh, Karthamma, all are killed, akin to Balaram’s episode. Once again, a migration is called for. Zindi leads Alu, Kulfi, the baby boss, Abu Fahl and Zaghloul, to her native village.

In the final section of the story, we are introduced to a small immigrant community: Mr & Mrs Verma (a microbiologist), Dr Mishra, a surgeon and his wife, Miss Krishnaswamy, a nurse, Alu and Kulfi in disguise of Mr & Mrs Bose. As the story progresses it turns out that Joyti Das is now the guest of the Mishra’s and inevitably meets Aluand his company. Then the stories of others like Hajj Fahmy, Professor Samuel, Chunni, Rakesh and all are revealed. Another sojourn is over. But “the queue of hopes stretches long past infinity” (Ghosh 1986: 409). Alu, Zindi, and the baby Boss carry on their migration to the west, at least as far as Tangier, where they bid Joyti Das farewell as he heads to a new life in Europe. They, then turn happily back towards Al-Ghazira.

This bildungsroman charts the geographical and ideological journey of Alu. But the journey does not bring any kind of satisfaction or success. The nomadic soul strives hard to find a refuge. It is all like an arch in the horizon. One comes nearer but it recedes back further and further. His peregrination only celebrates the sense of unquiet wandering like the tireless waiting of Nachiketa. Like Alu every human being goes on and on searching a vision suitable for present times; but it is nothing but the chasing of a phantom that ultimately vanishes into the thin air. Only the journey is the end.

In accordance with Samkhya (that which sums up) philosophy, there are three gunas (fundamental forces) that have always been continued to be present in all things and beings in the world. These three gunas are called: sattava (goodness, constructive, harmonious), rajas (passion, active, confused), and tamas (darkness, destructive, chaotic). The interplay of these gunas defines the character of something or someone. The Circle of Reason can be said to have the trilogy of Sattava: Reason; Rajas: passion; Tamas: Death. What Ghosh tries to show here is that life is a restive journey that goes through these gunas.

As GJV Prasad points out:

The Circle of Reason is not merely circular but a finely patterned novel and when seen as a whole displays the intricate buti work (work with a detailed description) of a master weaver in the making. The journey from Satwa through Rajas to Tamas, the three parts of the novel is not a straight forward narrative but one full of resonances harkening back and forth like an unfolding Raga circling and repeating notes and sequences of notes, each contextually different. And like a singer, Amitav Ghosh points to and expects appreciation of the subtle variations, the nuances, the resonances, the patterns in the rendition, and hence the whole narrative structure” (Prasad 2003: 59).

The first part entitled Sattava: Reason has its certainty as apotheosised by Balaram Bose. Beauty is truth, truth beauty and the beauty of truth (sattava) is hoisted by the plight of reason. After working under Bhudev’s thumb for sixteen years Balaram discovers himself with the help of reason. Louis Pasteur and his book give him courage to fight against Bhudev and his power of money. Balaram starts his campaign of purification by spraying carbolic acid throughout the village, disinfecting everyone and everything. In this process he completely disrupts Roy’s political gathering. It brings down catastrophe upon him. Thus, the reason proves to be self-destructive too. Even the caution of Toru Debi or Sambhu Debnath comes after Balaram’s obsession. It rightly reflects in Sambhu’s words: “Balaram- babu, you’ll destroy everyone without even stopping to think about it you are the best Sadhu I have ever known, Balaram-babu, but no mortal can cope with the fierceness of your gods” (Ghosh 1986: 142). The sattava, then, degenerates into passion (rajas) in part II. In Al-Ghazira the dancing, gossiping, fighting and intriguing Ras people, the reincarnation of Alu, his socialism, his confrontation with the lust of money, his effort to create a lust free and germ free society, everything is marked by passion. And it ultimately leads into tamas (Death) in part III. But the death of the reason is not the pessimistic view of life. Through Mrs Verma, Ghosh points out, “if there’s one thing people learn from the past, it is that every consummated death is another beginning” (Ghosh 1986: 414).The journey accomplishes its circle. It takes birth, grows and dies but its death heralds the birth of a new journey. Ghosh here is able to seize the very naked truth of the world and the humanity in the light of Joyti Das as he walks and his “face was radiant luminous, as though a light were shining through him…Hope is the beginning”(Ghosh 1986: 423).

If we trek back to the 90’s of India when Ghosh was writing this novel, one can witness one of the most turbulent periods in Indian history. The separatist violence in Punjab, militant attack on a Sikh temple of Amritsar, the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, the riots that broke out after the assassination were major social and political turmoil of the period. People were haunted by the nightmare they receive about their future. India was deeply shaken by its political and economic condition. Thousands of men and women were migrating in a tide to the oil state of Middle East Asia in search of an alternative and viable future.

In this novel, Alu’s journey across the Indian Ocean on a mechanised boat allows Ghosh to depict the risks endured by thousands of Indian who leave their native land in search of a prosperous life. With Zindi, people from all the strata of society are present there to migrate to Al-Ghazira. Among the passengers of the boat, there is a professor, a doctor, a travelling agent and also women, one of whom is even pregnant. Ghosh, here, emphasises the desperation and dreams that move these people. For instance, the pregnant woman is lured to Al-Ghazira as someone has promised a bright future of her child and moreover the baby will be Ghaziri by birth.

If we consider the archetypal nature of the journey, we will see a boat bearing some rootless hopefuls. This has been done by all the boats beyond time by carrying multitudes of wanderers towards their dream destinations. But, do the human beings find their roots, economic security or good future? – Certainly not. Al-Ghazira is a phenomenon that fascinates the people of the third world for a long time. Many parts of this quintessential boom city have the cosmopolitan din and bustle that resembles none but contemporary Vanity Fair. Although all the faces and places have filled the desert of Middle East, they are not able to convert it into a home. It does not matter how many years they are living there or how much they have been paid there. Foreign places remain foreign and they remain immigrant, physically and mentally.

All the characters in the novel are caught up in a futile circle. Alu’s and Maya’s non-productive love for each other, Mast Ram’s one-sided love for Kulfi, Kulfi’s and Abusa’s love for each other; Jyoti Das’s infatuation for Kulfi and Alu and Karthamma’s love, all affairs are failures. Balaram’s school of reason, Zindi’s attempts to purchase Durban tailoring house, Ghaziri people’s zealous mission to bring sewing machines and the desire to get rid of money, Jeevanbhai’s cunning attempts to establish Malik’s supremacy and consequently his own and Mrs. Verma’s plan to put up Chitrangada are utter failures .Jyoti Das chases Alu but himself is suspended. All the characters are trapped in an unproductive circle and reap nothingness. But still hope never dies as the novelist himself says that hope is the beginning.

So, in this apprehensive domain, we have all become ‘Alu’; In this desolate land, our striving to find a refuge and explore the charm of happiness and peace only plunges us into the queue of endless frustration and uncertainty. But life is a restless travelling and “[…] Travel is a spiritual quest, a quest for narrative design, for personal significance in a meaningful world” (Hawley 2005: 54).

References & Bibliography:

  1. Bose, Brinda. ed. 2003, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspective, New Delhi: Pencraft International.
  2. Chambers, Claire. 2003 , ‘Historicizing Scientific Reason in Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason’. In Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion, ed. Tabish Khair. (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2003) 36-55.
  3. Chambers, Claire. 2006, ‘Representation of the Oil Encounter in Amitav Ghosh’s The Circle of Reason’. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 41, no.1 (2006): 33-50, accessed on January 02, 2015.
  4. Choudhury, Bibash, ed. 2009, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Essays. New Delhi: PH Learning.
  5. Dalal, Meenakshi. 2011, ‘Thematic Patterns in the Novels of Amitav Ghosh’. Ph D dissertation, Maharshi Dayanand University, 2011.
  6. Dixon, Robert. 2003, ‘Travelling in the West: The Writing of Amitav Ghosh’ in Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion, ed. Tabish Khair (New Delhi : Permanent Black, 2003 ) 9-35.
  7. Gandhi, Leela. 1999, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. New Delhi: OUP.
  8. Ghosh, Amitav. 1986, The Circle of Reason. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal / Permanent Black.
  9. Ghosh, Tapan Kumar & Prashanta Bhattacharya. 2013, In Pursuit of Amitav Ghosh: Some Recent Readings. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
  10. Hawley, John C. & John Charles Hawley. 2005, Amitav Ghosh: An Introduction. New Delhi: Foundation Books.
  11. Huttunen, Tuomas. 2000, ‘Narration and Silence in the Works of Amitav Ghosh’. Journal of Postcolonial Writing 38, no.2 (2000) 28-43, accessed on January 06, 2015, doi : 10. 1080/17449850008589326.
  12. Khair, Tabish. ed. 2003, Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Companion. New Delhi: Permanent Black.
  13. Mukherjee, Meenakshi. 1971, The Twice Born Fiction: Themes and Techniques of the Indian Novel in English. New Delhi: Heinemann.
  14. Prasad, G.J.V. 2003, ‘Re-writing the World: The Circle of Reason as the Beginning of the Quest’. In Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspective, ed. Brinda Bose. (New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2003) 56-66.
  15. Tiwari, Subha. 2003, Amitav Ghosh: A Critical Study. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Dist.



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