Home-Ground and Foreign-Territory: A Study of Non-belongingness in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

Sutapa Roy,  the University of Gour Banga

The sense of nostalgia and non-belongingness is unavoidable in the life of those people who are separated from their birthplace. The nostalgic craving for home is a feeling that hovers over an individual’s life. This often leads individuals to build an imaginary picture of joyful past that makes them unable to relate to the present condition in which they find themselves. This imaginary picture of past home becomes a powerful motivation that drives and controls the action and feelings of an individual and his/her relationship to others. The depiction of the unnamed narrator in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and the portrayal of Thamma’s character in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines bear this sense of dislocation and non-belongingness that is inevitable to them because of their situation. Margaret Atwood in her novels like Surfacing, Bodily Harm, or Survival captures the general outlook of life through the collective consciousness of the individual. The portrayal of the unnamed narrator in ‘Surfacing’, who has spent her childhood in northern Quebec like the author herself; brings the sense of alienation and failure to recognize the place, where she has spent her childhood, when she returns to the place after nine years. Similarly Amitav Ghosh’s famous novel The Shadow Lines presents the same sense of alienation and displacement of individual through Thamma’s character. Ghosh’s characterization of Thamma as a historical witness who had gone through the experience of leaving her home in Dhaka and making a new home in Calcutta during independence, gives Ghosh a scope to bring out this essential human feeling of dislocation and non-belongingness. This paper intends to explore this inability of individual memory to cope up with the present reality, which leads the individual to ‘romantic exile’, for one can never return to the place in memory. Though the background and circumstances of the two women (Thamma and the narrator) are different, they witnessed the parallel experiences which come to surface by a perusal of their journey to the home-ground.

At the beginning of Atwood’s Surfacing, the unnamed narrator-protagonist is back to the place where she had lived with her family in her childhood. She is shocked to find what Americans have done to the idyllic tourist spot of northern Quebec, after the Second World War. Her feeling of shock is same with Thamma’s shock when she finds her birthplace utterly changed, during her journey to her home to bring her uncle to India with them. The narrator in The Shadow Lines describes Thamma’s horror:

“My grandmother thrown into a sudden panic began to protest. This couldn’t be it, she cried It can’t be our lane for where is Kana-babu’s sweet shop? That shop over there is selling hammers and hard wares, where’s the sweet shop gone?” (206)

Dhaka was for Thamma –“the city that had surrounded their old home” not the real Dhaka which is the capital of Bangladesh after the Partition. Thamma is represented as carrying the greatest burden of historical dislocation. She is born in Dhaka and separated from her birthplace by a history of bloodshed and lines on a map. Returning to Dhaka years after, she was completely unprepared for

“the bare glass-and-linoleum airport, so like the one she has just left.” (193)

Her inability to relate and recognize her birthplace is emphasized in her repeated question –“but where is Dhaka? I can’t see Dhaka”. This question of Thamma has a similar reflection of the protagonist feeling in Surfacing, who regrets for not bringing a map with her, in her journey to Quebec with David, Anna and Joe. She feels,

“Now we are on my home ground foreign territory, my throat constricts as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing.” (9)

She longs for the nostalgic feeling but fails to get it, even she fails to recognize the place as in her own words-

“Now I’m in the village walking through it waiting for the nostalgic to hit for the cluster of the non-descriptive buildings to be irradiated with inner light like plug-in-crèche as it has been so often in memory but nothing happen.” (17)

In her visit to the ice-crème parlor or in Paul’s house where she often used to go as a child, surfaces this same sense of non-relativity that gives birth within her a kind of anger. She is annoyed with the feeling that she lacks the power to bring everything back in previous condition and this leads her to feel that she never belongs to the place,

“Nothing is the same; I don’t know the way anymore, I slide my tongue around the ice-crème, trying to concentrate on it. They put seaweed in it now but I’m starting to shake. Why is the road different he shouldn’t have allowed them to do it. I want to turn around and go back to the city and never find out what happened to him. I’ll start crying that would be horrible none of them would know what to do neither would I.” (10)

A desire to retreat takes place within her and she feels like crying.

Although the feeling of Thamma is not so poignant and painful but her condition is more pathetic. The grandmother’s non-belongingness is a product of her circumstances. She is perplexed at the history that had led “her place of birth to be so messily at odds with her nationality”, that has made her a foreigner in her home-town Dhaka, when she visits it again. Her alienation is the inevitable result of her diasporic existence. Throughout the visit Thamma searches for pre-partition Dhaka of her childhood and youth, is projected as a nostalgic return to home. Despite her naturalization as an Indian citizen her strong loyalties and affiliations to the city that surfaces during this return permits Ghosh to investigate the conflicting claims of roots and belongings, nation and boundaries in the Indian mind. As Anjali Gera has pointed out in her essay ‘Des Kothay? Amitav Ghosh Tells Old Wives Tales’, Ghosh has explored the disjuncture of multiple constructions of nations in the Indian imaginary. Ghosh has waved an alternative history through such individual experiences and family chronicles that diverts the master narrative of pre-conceived history of imperialism and nationalism. Thamma’s experience points to the inherent irony of the situation where she realizes that the legacy of her birthplace is not separable from her sense of herself as a citizen of India. Her realization mocks the limits of our political consciousness and imagination. The image of the house that she has in her memory is never the same with the concrete existence of the house. Therefore, Thamma’s experience seems one of dissatisfaction and disbelieving that made her feel something uncanny, like the unnamed narrator of Surfacing’.

This alienation in Thamma’s experience is the contradiction between her local and national identities. Thamma’s experience mirrors the experience of massive immigrants during and after partition. “Thamma bears the brunt of displacement as her old place-ness comes into conflict with the new sense of place”—as Subir Kaul has pointed out in his essay ‘Separation Anxiety1. The irony of her alienation in her homeland comes home to her only when Tridib teases her –

“but you are a foreigner now. You’re as foreign here as May.” (195)

That leads her to realize –

“Yes I am really a foreigner here—as foreign as May in India or Tagore in Argentina”. (195)

and increases her alienation. “But whatever you may say, this isn’t Dhaka”. Like the feeling of the narrator of Surfacing in the motel when she finds the women who –“with brassiere-shaped breasts and a light auburn moustache, her hair is in rollers covered by a pink net and she has on slacks and sleeveless jersey top” was selling hamburger. The appearance of the women and her American accent lead the narrator to realize the utter destruction of previous conservativeness where

“shorts were against the law, and many of them (women) lived all their lives beside the lake without learning to swim because they were ashamed to put on bathing suits.” (27)

The Americans accent of the women increases her sense of uneasiness and non-relativity and leads her to feel: “But this isn’t where I lived”.

The narrator in Surfacing who is more complex in nature than Thamma, is introspective and contemplative about her feeling that leads her to examine her feeling of non-belongingness –

“The feeling I expect before but failed to have comes now, homesickness for a place where I never lived.” (39)

She is aware about her feeling of cut-of-from surrounding that makes her an essential recluse; she is alienated from her friends. Unlike her, Thamma is perplexed by situation and she fails to conceive the burnt in which she was inwardly burning. She didn’t perceive it like the narrator in ‘Surfacing’, but that doesn’t lessen her sense of alienation in a place that once was her own. Both for them home are only imaginative community not a geographical place. We can find a similar reflection of this in Salman Rushdie’s “Imaginary Homelands”, where Rushdie raises the fundamental question –“Does India Exists”? Their ‘home’ only remains in memory. As the narrator in The Shadow Lines has pointed out-

“because people like grandmother who has no home but in memory learns to be very skilled in the art of recollection.” (194)

The only way left to them is recollection.

Works Cited:

  • Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. London: Virago, 2009. Print.
  • Kaul, Suvir. ‘Separation Anxiety’ in TheShadow Lines. Educational Edition New Delhi: Oxford U P, Print.
  • Khain,Tabish. Amitav Ghosh a Critical Companion, India: Permanent Black, 2003.

Sutapa Roy, PG Student, Department of English, University of Gour Banga. Contact: roys9241@gmail.com

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