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State of Belonging and UnBelonging: A Study of Familial Themes in Major Works of Amitav Ghosh in Reference to Toni Morrison

State of Belonging and UnBelonging: A Study of Familial Themes in Major Works of Amitav Ghosh in Reference to Toni Morrison

Author(s): Dr. Sanyat Sattar
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1.                   The Beginning

In 1986, soon after Amitav Ghosh’s ambitious debut, Ghosh receives high acclaims from none other than Toni Morrison.[1] Indeed for an anthropologist, who has never written a single fiction in his life before, the applaud from a writer like Toni Morrison after his very first venture was a massive espouse. Among the several common-grounds where Morrison harmonizes with Ghosh, the premise that Morrison specifically expresses her union with Ghosh is his nativistic approach in depicting the story. The term “nativism” itself carries a distinct meaning, as Bill Ashcroft defines it as “[a] term for desire to return to indigenous practices and cultural forms as they existed in pre-colonial society” (Ashcroft, 1998, p. 159). In other words, it also means the policy of protecting the interest of native inhabitants against “outsiders” or “colonizers” who emerge as more powerful and oppress the natives in various different forms. In his first novel The Circle of Reason, for example, Ghosh distinctly uses nativistic images to narrate his story close from the native sentiment where the novel contains a number of incidental observations on Indian migrations. Ghosh also provides several instances of internal diasporas in this novel. The people of Lalpukur, for example, had been “vomited out of their native soil” (Ashcroft, 1998, p. 18) in the carnage connected with the partition of India; within the narrative time of the novel they witness once again the spectacle of people being “dumped hundreds of miles away” (Ashcroft, 1998, p. 18) because of the civil war that led to the emergence of Bangladesh.

In this connection, Morrison praises Ghosh’s way of looking closely the metaphors of displacement and migration—something that Morrison herself explores to understand the control of the Black people as significant to the proliferation of slavery.

From his very first novel onwards we see Amitav Ghosh in numerous different areas documenting his fictions portraying the canvas of the socio-political history of Indian Subcontinent. And his interest in getting a closer look on his own people and their histories has grown deeper and stronger from book to book. Ghosh is nostalgic for history and neurotic for the political domination and economic exploitation, as the obscure motives of the imperialist powers in his fictional narratives. He is rhetorical about India’s colonial history, but has an emotional negotiation in the search for a civilizational alterity in its “atavistic” enterprise for a political order. In his fictional maneuver he studies the history of nations, social and political subjugation, domination, diaspora and displacement as the existential problems of his characters in their inbetweenness and mobilization without readiness to accept the psychological damage caused by historical wounds inflicted on them by Manichean structure of colonial culture and realpolitik.

Ghosh’s characters are often autobiographical, torn between the double consciousness of the colonial past and postcolonial present. In his discourse on “appropriation” and “abrogation” in history, anthropology, political economy and cultural particularities his characters strive for the culture of gripe and grievances in his anthropomorphological study of migration, movement and settlement. Ghosh’s characters experience the real-life drama occurring around Ghosh’s own native cultural identities on which Ghosh always feels connected with. His distinct purpose of writing makes him unique among other Indo-Anglican writers.[2] And this distinctiveness of Ghosh was rightly identified and lauded by Toni Morrison—far before Ghosh even thought of the plot of his second novel. To add here, Toni Morrison’s novels, themselves, are rich in Black female experiences where her writings aim to represent Black culture inside the White domination. In her novels she attempts to redefine the position of the African Americans in the U.S. and uses native African traditions to highlight the true colours of being African American in the midst of the context of “White” superiority. Both Morrison and Ghosh are, henceforth, deeply involved in documenting stories of their own people.

However, it is astounding to find that no critic has so far initiated of reading Morrison and Ghosh side by side. And no literary study has been taken place reflecting on the linear perception of Morrison and Ghosh’s fictional or theoretical approaches. Hence, this research will try to find a whole new avenue to read Ghosh with the reference to Morrison from an unmarked area. Nevertheless, it is to be mentioned here that this research is not a comparative study of Ghosh and Morrison. Rather this study focuses on some major works of Amitav Ghosh; and some of Toni Morrison’s writings are insinuated here as a device to facilitate the inquiry.

Rootedness and exclusive native representation that both Morrison and Ghosh have been repeatedly employing in their writings denotes two remarkable notions of states: Belonging and UnBelonging—states that are deeply related with people’s attachment or detachment with their native environments and comfort-zones respectively. The experience of Belonging and UnBelonging might occur for various different reasons. For Morrison and Ghosh these states are, however, stained with the struggle in families, communities, societies and races. All these institutions are often shackled by political means and to elaborate those means, history is reinterpreted and re-carved by both of these writers.

In the background of socio-historical mêlée, we can see that Ghosh’s novels recurrently circle round familial themes and settings. His characters are common people representing a certain sect or a group in the society. In such families—rich or poor, high or low, Hindu or Muslim—there is a common essence of struggle in manifold areas, and characters of such families are constantly in the quest of Belonging. From an essentialist perspective, finding oneself dislocated and torn apart from families and from the familiar environment where one is born and grown up, from the community where one’s ancestors has deep connections and ties, and where one feels that one Belongs, is difficult to deal with. The objective of this study, therefore, is to locate the striking distinctiveness of the notion of Belonging and UnBelonging, mainly as profusely represented in Amitav Ghosh’s works, and in this regard several of his major novels are dealt and researched vividly to recognize the conception. To get a deeper understanding of these issues and to see how Belonging-UnBelonging functions in various other spheres of struggles, some selected works of Morrison are also been referred here in this study. By reading Ghosh’s adaptation of the notion of Belonging and UnBelonging from his Indian setting and at the same time scrutinizing Morrison’s use of the similar concerns from her African American milieu, will help this research to find components of Belonging and UnBelonging from a multi-dimensional comprehension.

In this research the recurring word “Belonging” is capitalized, highlighting the appellation of the state and its significance—and not just simply using the term as an uncountable noun. Also, opposite to Belonging, the repeated expression “UnBelonging” is written in a specific uneven way to draw attention to the pronounced sensation of “Belonging” and then to make a visual disconnection to that, hence the second irregular capitalization.

Again, the pictures that are used in this study are applied here to highlight a specific situation or an event related to the issue discussed inside the text.

2.                   Defining Belonging and UnBelonging

Before getting inside the research some terminological clarifications are required to understand the basis of this study. “Belonging” refers to the state in which an individual, by assuming a role, is characterized by inclusion in the social collectivity, which is exclusively a Gemeinschaft. The dimension of Belonging relates to any form of social collectivity, whether predominantly expressive or predominantly instrumental. Strictly speaking, the status of Belonging concerns only the symbolic dimension of human and social relations and interactions.

The distinction of Belonging to the social collectivity (particularly the Gemeinschaft) introduces the fundamental question of the structure of Belonging and the relations among its main components, which from an analytic and multidimensional perspective include “attachment”. The structure of Belonging can be described by starting from the relations among the four chief components that define it as such: attachment, loyalty, solidarity, and the sense of affinity or we-feeling.[3]

To be more specific, “Belonging” indicates of being part of a community of individuals or of making something (particularly a place) one’s own—that implies crave for a native surrounding where one can assert one’s own identity. Such a notion, although an abstract one, can be a weighty one with concrete ramifications. The notion of Belonging is a central aspect of how we define who we are. We consider ourselves to be individuals, but it is our membership of particular groups that provide a sense of native attachment and is most important in constructing a sense of identity. Social identity is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human.

Belonging can also be linked with the notion of the affective—that is, those emotions that connect us with people, places, and thoughts. This implies that Belonging can be understood by taking into consideration the emotional links that underpin such an abstract notion. One feels one belongs to a certain community, because one is emotionally connected to it. In this light, the processes related to changing borders and political communities become invested with a particular relevance. Although physical borders inscribe material boundaries between states and peoples, it is their affective character that speaks of the contradictions of Belonging. With the intensification of globalization processes, and concomitant socio-political implications (such as changing borders or leaving the comfort zones), the senses of Belonging that pertain to individuals and groups are profoundly impacted, causing UnBelonging. The relationship between loyalty, sentiment, and place needs to be constantly contextualized and understood in its profound contingent and historical character. While the nation-state as a form of political community is only a fairly recent one, with its artificially constructed borders, such borders constitute cultural practices as much as they are constituted by the cultural practices they enclose.

UnBelonging, on the contrary, is the feeling of lack of identity when a person feels lost, out of place, alienated, ostracized and exposed to hostility.[4] A person who is in the state of UnBelonging can be considered as a “marginal man”,[5]5—an individual who, although he or she aspires to join a particular group, does not fulfill the requirements or does not have the capacity to fulfill the requirements to be part of it. In other words, the UnBelonged person drifts around the social groups and tends to occupy not the center but the margins everywhere. As a consequence, s/he is not fully accepted anywhere. More precisely, this individual is abandoned from his/her membership group, leaving its institutionalized value patterns and norms behind, but is unable to Belong to the new group to which s/he aspires even if s/he has already absorbed its values and norms to some extent. As a result the UnBelonged person can end-up in hostility or extreme vulnerability for not being able to assert a Belonging.

The notion of Belonging is diverse in this twenty first century. Citizenship does not necessarily represent where we live. Scholars, educators and activists argue about the diverse notions of Belonging in the postcolonial, diasporic and multicultural world. These notions are presented through the description of the transnational subjects such as the migrants, the exile, the refugee, the nomad, and the hyphenated people.6 Within the context of today’s flows of transnational migration and displacement, Belonging becomes a particularly salient issue, invested with political implications and other factors that can instigate UnBelonging. But people who have left their country or displaced from their native environment, tend to organize themselves around those particular core elements relating with nationality or ethnicity, in order to recapture their feeling of Belonging. However, the question of identification to the homeland or home related to Belonging is rather a complex one.

More often than not, a sense of Belonging to a nation or a community has been deemed or imagined positive. While on the other hand, the state of UnBelonging is accompanied by liminality and demetaphorization that forms an unidentifiable relation, or at least living with the “other” with whom no identification can take place. Senses are then the very matter of sharing and division, attraction and repulsion, and the decision to be part of collective sensual labour. Commonality can only be found then as it is sensed as coming undone through non-identification, demetaphorization, unworking, and the sense of the liminal.



3.                   The Research Map

In this section the focus and prospect of each chapter will be elaborated. In each chapter a new mode of Belonging and/or UnBelonging has been revealed, showing how individuals in such circumstances act or react, or what might lead people towards those circumstances. The research is divided into two parts and the first part is entirely concentrated on Amitav Ghosh where three of his major works are analyzed from varieties of familial perspectives. In the first chapter the study is based on The Shadow Lines. In this chapter the emphasis has been given to “Spatialised Belonging”—a belief where Belonging is based on territoriality along with superficial thoughts and ideas, rather than concrete realities. The idea of national and cultural unity can be deeply problematic notions if defined from the point view of Spatialised Belonging. In this chapter these issues are being tracked by the trajectory two of its central female characters who are seemingly opposed, but ultimately similarly responses to the problems inherent in the idea of the singular nation-state and the individual’s Spatialised Belonging in it.

The next chapter deals with Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide and locates another aspect of Belonging. This chapter examines how the idea of Belonging is rendered as a utopian myth in an environmentally hostile settlement, where directly or indirectly the members actually find their Belonging with each other and are united with a transcultural union. However, this Belonging can be shackled by political notion of nation-state. In this chapter it has been questioned whether Ghosh’s depiction of a utopian dream-land in The Hungry Tide is actually feasible concept or whether it is simply a fallacy in the world where political sentiments are stronger than emotional attachments.

Chapter III ponders on the importance of cultural legacy and expressions and their relation with individuals’ sense of Belonging. This chapter focuses on Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and explores how colonial interest, migration, caste crisis and forced-exile separate people from places and make conception of ethnicity less static and more mobile, fluid and hybrid as they are subject to a greater variety of cultural influences. However, these conditions also raise the question of the relationship between culture and self, and feeling bound to a place remains an imperative for some, particularly if the separation from homeland and/or home is traumatic. While situation of displacement often fosters survival through cultural adaptability, in the context of traumatic exile a lost home can remain not only psychically embedded as a place of origin and identity, but also of an anguished dissolution of self. However, in Sea of Poppies we can see that the conditions that facilitate and organize the characters’ cultural associations and Belonging, impinging upon and situating them as individuals, are never engaged in isolation. Even in stages when political and mercenary priorities occupy centre-stage, traces of one’s cultural location surface and help the individuals to embed into a certain Belonging inside a communal structure.

Part two comprises Chapter IV and Chapter V, and in both of the chapters some additional features of Belonging and UnBelonging as portrayed by Amitav Ghosh will be analyzed, bringing some textual references from Toni Morrison. The aim of this part is to identify some additional indicators of Belonging and UnBelonging from varieties of perspectives and environments of Amitav Ghosh alongside with Toni Morrison. This will help us to expand the understanding of the issues.

Chapter IV is a study of the emotional strife that is caused due to UnBelonging. This chapter unfolds the melancholic effects as projected by Ghosh in his The Shadow Lines alongside with Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This chapter talks how the lovelessness can equally be a cause of UnBelonging where melancholy or sadness appears as a metaphor. Both in The Bluest Eye and in The Shadow Lines the sadness stems from the loss of definite, practical things, like the loss of life, places, memories, identities, reverences, love—all that put the characters into the hot-seat of being UnBelonged.

The final chapter is concerned with communal harmonization that Ghosh has portrayed in In an Antique Land. This chapter talks about the mutual coexistence from various aspects along with Morrisonian denotations about the idea. This chapter will conclude this dissertation in a positive note where both Ghosh and Morrison opine that in the midst of various differences among the races, cultures, nations, castes and religions; mutual harmony and a healthy communal coexistence is the only way to find a Belonging in this crucial, multicultural, globalized world.

4.                   Findings

In almost every work of Ghosh dealt in this research there is an evidence of diaspora, displacement or movement of the people, connoting a troubling familial picture. Ghosh describes the feeling of displacement and constant movement as a form of banishment. It is a severing from one’s homeland, a rift between here and there, a longing unsoothed, creating the terrible sense of UnBelonging. This research explores the spatial conceptualisation of the themes of diaspora, displacement and desire related to people whose Belonging is put into question. Here the sites of multiple UnBelongings have been interrogated locating how notion of identity are displaced and disrupted by geopolitics. Combining all these episodes of Ghosh and additional instances from Morrison we can come to this resolution that the craving for Belonging and the suffering from UnBelonging are common phenomena in families and communities where struggle and/or inequity is involved. To add, both Belonging and UnBelonging can lay deep impacts both in physical and emotional faculties on individuals, and for some people the effects can be even permanent. There are several reasons behind an individual to feel UnBelonged in a certain environment. As pointed earlier, among these reasons the critical ones are: political, economical, social and racial.

Due to the imperial attitude of the colonizers, added with economic purposes, people have been forced to move and migrate and change their locations crossing the borders and settle in complete foreign lands. This causes UnBelonging on the displaced people who are constantly in search for a sign of Belonging, but can never acquire one. At the same time, due to similar economic lusts, race has been put into question and again people suffer from UnBelonging as they are also mistreated and dislocated. To add, social norms can also cause UnBelonging in a prejudiced caste-oriented social structure, where a certain class in the society is considered as an “outsider”, while another as the “kin of God”. 

Even though women are always thought to be the easy prey, UnBelonging is not only centred round women; but men, children, or even an entire family can also be a victim of it. Reading from Ghosh supported by Morrison, it is evident that the evils of colonialism and racism play an important role on certain group of people for losing their sense of Belonging. But in this study it is also evident that native communities, religious and social groups, or even own family members can equally be responsible to trigger the sense of UnBelonging on individuals. The effect of UnBelonging can be intense sadness and melancholia. Melancholia, as suggested in this research is a neurotic and even a pathological development. It blocks the vitality of the mental faculties, diverting it into morbid feeling of UnBelonging and other dead ends for which identity supply the watchwords.

Again, the universal craving for Belonging is also an interesting feature to identify. The search for a Belonging from all the negativities around, is a universal tendency and people are constantly involved in this process regardless to caste, creed, language, race or religion; and this search and crave have been uniquely established in this study—be it in a wild jungle, or in a vessel, or in a small remote community with varieties of people living together—people create or recreate their own Belonging to survive from the dilemmatic crises. Inside those “alternate” communities people connect themselves with cultural ties or with a mutual inter-dependency. These communities ultimately project a ray of hope for Belonging for the distressed UnBelonged inhabitants.

5.                   Concluding Remarks

The search for Belonging is an on-going phenomenon. Our world is suffused with expressions and images of “finding one’s self” and establishing one’s “space”. Often we view this search as an age-old concern so that across the spam of human history, both oral and written discourse, appear to speak to a desire for a fully realized identity and place. In short, our lives and literature, both past and present, have been frequently defined by the desire to create ourselves and our places within and without the human community.

What becomes clear is that the sense of Belonging in the postcolonial diasporic and multicultural world constantly shifts and changes as the migrant, the exile, the refugee, the minor, the low-caste, or the black more transnationally and transculturally. Ghosh in his pedagogic writing show diverse ways of displaced national, cultural and ethnic boundaries by writing from a shifting perspective and position. Ghosh, who was born in India and now lives in the United States moves mentally beyond the boundary of nation-states. The shadowy borders of national identities become rather superficial notions for Ghosh to rely on for Belonging. He positions himself as a gleaner and reuses historical events to re-examine the concept of Belonging. He gleans elements from various social, historical and cultural premises to the reconstruction of the home in a globalized world.

This research significantly scrutinizes Amitav Ghosh’s depiction of Belonging and UnBelonging from varieties of perspectives related to familial themes and recognizes Toni Morrison’s ideological interest in interpreting these notions. This way the research assists in finding a range of components of Belonging and UnBelonging from two completely different socio-political settings. Even though Ghosh and Morrison are very much different in their individual approaches, there remains a connection between the two—connection that pertains not only to nativistic themes, but also to a shared world view in each author’s oeuvre.


[1] See Freeman (2008, July 6) p. B3.

[2] It was in late seventies that a new breed of Indo-Anglican novelists and writers started to come on block. The writings of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Dominique Lepierre set the literature world on fire. In recent times, the position of the Indian writer writing in English has undergone something of a transformation. By the time Arundhati Roy won the Booker in 1997, the 1980s era of welcoming postcolonial “difference” had been replaced by an unease that postcolonial writers, rather than being marginal “others”, had become the shrewd profiteers of a global economy. Institutional recognition of Indian English writers in the West is at its pinnacle. However, Amitav Ghosh set out to present a history of India in the twentieth century from an Indian perspective that evokes ideas of homeland, rootedness and his own personal feelings towards his native land. Meenakshi Mukherjee in her essay “The Anxiety of Indianness” articulates a characteristic skepticism towards the perceived globalizing trend in post-colonial Indian writing saying that “[t]he Indian novelists to be taken seriously are the ones not conditioned by the pressures of the global market” (2009, p. 36). She nominates Amitav Ghosh, however, as a writer who is different from the rest and who will survive “the boom”.

[3] See Parsons (1999), p. 66.

[4] I would like to refer here the definition of “UnBelonging” (spelled differently) by Germaine Greer as she has pointed out in the preface of her book The Pain of Unbelonging Alienation and Identity in Australasian Literature:Unbelonging hurts right enough; it hurts whether you’re European woman in a southern country whose nightly dreams all happen under a paler northern sky or a descendant of forty thousand years of free-holders locked out of the land that it is your duty to cherish, watching it blow away because it’s been eaten out by an interloper’s sheep. I imagine it would be pretty grim being an earthling on Mars, or a Martian wandering the crowded surface of this mismanaged planet. There are those who will tell you that it is human destiny to unbelong, because we were designed for heaven. All human life is exile, as far as such believers are concerned (2007, p. ix).

[5] See Merton (1963), p. 102.

    Dr. Sanyat Sattar is a renowned academician of Bangladesh, researching especially in the field of postcolonial studies, gender and cultural studies. In 2011 Dr. Sattar received his PhD from Osaka University, Osaka, Japan, being the first ever Bangladeshi student to receive the prestigious Japanese Government “Monbukagakusho Scholarships” in the field of English Literature from Bangladesh. He also served as the Chair of the Department of English at Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, Bangladesh for three consecutive years. He is currently working as an Associate Professor in the same Department.


    Dr. Sattar is also a short story writer, a playwright and a musician. He has received numerous national and international awards for his short stories. Many of his stories and plays have also been televised on national television.  Dr. Sattar is also renowned as being the pioneer musician in the genre of techno-house-trance music in the region of South Asia.

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