On Grafting the Vernacular: The Consequences of Postcolonial
Ghosh, Bishnupriya.
boundary 2, Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 2004, pp. 197-218 (Article)
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On Grafting the Vernacular: The Consequences
of Postcolonial Spectrology
Bishnupriya Ghosh
The literary icon Amitav Ghosh has lately acquired the status of elder
statesman among South Asian writers, a political designation bestowed on
him following his withdrawal of The Glass Palace from the Commonwealth
Writers Prize ??????Best Book??™??™ nomination in 2001. In a modulated letter, Ghosh
writes, ??????As a literary or cultural grouping however, it seems to me that ???the
Commonwealth??™ can only be a misnomer so long as it excludes the many
languages that sustain the cultural and literary lives of these countries.??™??™ 1 His
abrogation of the cultural currency of English in the postcolonial world, and
his consequent focus on the vernaculars of that world, hones my perception
of a certain quality in his oeuvre: the stalking of the novel in English by vernacular
Indian fiction. This ??????other??™??™ archive??”a phrase I use deliberately to
capture Ghosh??™s ongoing historiographic projects??”that shadows his novels
generates what can only be called a hauntological literary oeuvre.
Here I speak to the contours of Ghosh??™s literary haunting through
the pursuit of a particular spectacular example, The Calcutta Chromosome
1. See ??????Letter to the Administrators of the Commonwealth Prize,??™??™ posted on Amitav
Ghosh??™s Web site,; my emphasis.
boundary 2 31:2, 2004. Copyright ?© 2004 by Duke University Press.
198 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
(1996).2 It is in this novel that Ghosh most elaborately deploys the tropology
of the specter through his ethical spectrology (ghosting) and epistemological
excavation (grafting), twin processes that can be considered, I shall
argue, key postcolonial imperatives. Haunting is central to the text??™s interrogation
of a colonial truth: Ronald Ross??™s discovery of the cure for malaria.
Versed in medical journalism, Ghosh embarks on an arduous explanation
of chromosomes and their functions. At full speed in this breakneck romp
through medical discoveries, folk rituals, murders, hallucinations, transmigrating
souls, and scary panoptical computers owned by futuristic megacorporations,
we encounter a syphilitic homeless woman, Mangala, an untrained
genius who, in pursuit of the little-known scientific discovery that
the malaria bug could be used to regenerate decaying brain tissue in the
last stages of syphilis, stumbles upon a DNA conglomerate that she cannot
name: the ??????calcutta chromosome.??™??™ A chromosome only by analogy, this
genetic bundle, we are told with grave objectivity, would amount to a ??????biological
correlate??™??™ to the ??????human soul??™??™ (206). Residing only in non-regenerative
human tissue (the brain), the ??????chromosome??™??™ survives only through incessant
mutations, recombining the traits designating the uniqueness of each
individual. But the ability to cut and splice DNA is precisely one of the pernicious
features of the malaria bug, as Mangala accidentally discovers; and
in the process of cutting and splicing human DNA, the bug can actually
digest (and thus retain) this otherwise untransmissible genetic blueprint. An
infected person??™s brain can thus be rewired to fit an original mold. Material
souls, in this novel, migrate not through but by the transmission of disease.
Hence the scientific ??????discovery??™??™ in this novel is the truth about transmigratory
souls (Mangala??™s practice of corporeal immortality), a ghost story
foisted upon the reader of a medical thriller.
The Calcutta Chromosome is a medical thriller that won the prestigious
Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction Award in 1997, and the project was
soon under a film contract with Gabriele Salvatores. Yet the novel??™s uncovering
of the ??????facts??™??™ leads us to a series of ghost stories that supposedly
explain the puzzle set up in the opening pages of the mystery; these fragmentary
pieces are the ??????Lakhaan stories??™??™ published in an obscure Bengali
literary rag by a local writer, Phulboni. For many, the detective story ends
rather abruptly, unsatisfactorily: the novel fizzles out as a medical mystery.
Said one irritated reviewer for Under the Covers Book Reviews, ??????He [Ghosh]
2. Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium, and Discovery
(Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1996). Subsequent references to this text are cited parenthetically by
page number only.
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 199
veers sharply from the detective mystery format some thirty pages from the
end of the book in that he fails to deliver the promised solution. . . . In the
end he serves to only denigrate the resourcefulness of the human mind.??™??™ 3
But if we take seriously Ghosh??™s postcolonial unraveling of an established
colonial truth, then the very genre of truth-tellingmust suffer. Indeed, a great
deal of ??????resourcefulness??™??™ is required to graft onto the body of a mystery
another manner of telling more capable of visionary praxis; hence the traffic
in ghosts.
The Calcutta Chromosome presents us with a template for understanding
the complex textual mode operative in Ghosh??™s work, one which
explains his literature of haunting. The DNA analogy of grafting allegorizes
the archival search that constitutes detection in the novel: the detective
Murugan??™s suspicion that Ross??™s analyses of the Anopheles mosquito was
rigged leads him to the real architects of the discovery??”a group of folk
medicine practitioners with immortality on their minds and no interest in
the cure for malaria. But this new knowledge comes about through continuous
fragmenting and grafting of hypotheses and speculations: each narrative
about Ross??™s discovery is haunted by the probability of another truth
that confounds its credibility. Then there is the further allegory of cutting,
splicing, and recombining literary genres and traditions: this is a medical
thriller, a ghost story, a murder mystery, a philosophical rumination, and a
historiographic project. And finally, at the metatextual level, Ghosh grafts
a larger vernacular tradition of ghost fiction onto this novel in English in
the fragmented ??????Lakhaan stories,??™??™ vernacular fiction written in the standardized
Indian languages since the inception of colonial-modern cultural forms
(the short story, the novel, the essay) in the mid-nineteenth century. The
??????Lakhaan stories??™??™ appear three times in The Calcutta Chromosome, variously
as events experienced by Grigson (a linguist who suspects Lakhaan),
Farley (a missionary who is killed by the boy ghost), and Phulboni (the writer
who narrowly escapes the ghost); the details of these fragments densely
encrypt specific vernacular ghost stories.
Tarrying with the Vernacular
My critical practice speaks of this ghosted tradition that haunts
Ghosh while writing The Calcutta Chromosome. In a recent conversation,
the author confessed to being in the thralls of Rabindranath Tagore??™s ??????Kshu-
3. S. M. Acton, review of The Calcutta Chromosome, by Amitav Ghosh, Under the Covers
Book Reviews, September 24, 1998, 1.
200 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
dhita Pashaan??™??™ (??????The Hungry Stones??™??™), a short story he had translated for
the journal Civil Lines in 1995 before embarking on The Calcutta Chromosome.
4 This claim finds longer exposition in Ghosh??™s correspondence
with historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, the year after Chakrabarty??™s Provincializing
Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference appeared in
print.5 Disagreeing with Chakrabarty on the valence of Tagore??™s colonial
inscription, Ghosh reads Tagore as a man in ??????crisis??™??™??”the Bengali cosmopolitan
cognizant of his Enlightenment legacies yet also ??????anguished??™??™ over
his imbrication as a colonial subject. For Ghosh, Tagore??™s angst eviscerates
the smoothness of his prose on occasion, with particular instantiation
in ??????Kshudhita Pashaan,??™??™ when the protagonist repeatedly cries out, ??????Its all
a lie.??™??™ In Ghosh??™s reading of the tale, these recursions comprise the colonial
subject??™s glimpse into his own alienation. Tagore tropes the divided colonial
subject, argues Ghosh, in the protagonist??™s obsessive changing of clothes
and switching of identities. And it is a trope that, in my view, Ghosh encrypts
in The Calcutta Chromosome, a novel replete with switched bodies, clothes,
names, and identities.
Speaking to the diverse transformative effects of colonialism, Ghosh
criticizes Chakrabarty??™s emphasis on the ??????discursive and persuasive??™??™ aspects
of colonialism. He insists that the postcolonial intellectual give equal
weight to the record of ??????coercion??™??™??”of racial violence, of population transfers,
and of massive upheavals in the rural.6 Hence, in his own writing of The
4. In February 2002, Ghosh presented a lecture on mourning and ethical mapping at the
University of California, Riverside. I had the singular pleasure of spending an afternoon
with the writer chatting about politics, his travels, and recent work; I took the opportunity
to voice my uncanny feeling about The Calcutta Chromosome, the sense that the novel
drew substantially on Bengali ghost fiction. It was at this point that Ghosh mentioned the
two inspirational fragments integrated in the novel??”the ghost fiction of Tagore and Renu.
And he confessed to be in the thralls of ??????Kshudhita Pashaan??™??™ while he was working on
The Calcutta Chromosome.
5. This correspondence between Ghosh and Dipesh Chakrabarty (simply titled ??????A Correspondence
on Provincializing Europe??™??™), available on Ghosh??™s Web site, was published in
full in Radical History Review 83 (Spring 2002): 146??“72, just as I was revising this essay.
I was immediately struck by the two scholars??™ interest in the vernacular idiom as a central
resource for postcolonial historiographies, an insistence that has earned both the label of
6. One of Ghosh??™s major criticisms of Provincializing Europe is of Chakrabarty??™s inattention
to the question of ??????race,??™??™ that invisible category in South Asian postcolonial explorations.
Ruminating on the shame and anguish of the postcolonial subject (with personal evocation
of his father??™s experience of the colonial military regime), Ghosh returns to Tagore as
the exemplar of the divided colonial subject, Tagore??™s self-reflexivity notwithstanding. Not
a surprising preoccupation, given that race, especially in terms of military experience, had
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 201
Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh represents very different subjects of colonialism:
Murugan is the cosmopolitan from the metropole who develops an
ethics of representation, while the homeless Mangala and the rural migrant
Lakhaan are the colonial/postcolonial subaltern subjects. In such a formulation,
the inclusion of Tagore (the ??????father??™??™ of the literate Bengali postcolonial
middle-class subject with aspirations to continuing cultural hegemony)
is obviously not enough. So Ghosh encrypts another ghost story, ??????Smells
of a Primeval Night??™??™ (1967), this time from an interlocutor of the postcolonial
nation-state, the Hindi writer Phaniswarnath Renu. Known for his literary
depictions of some of the most economically decimated landscapes of
postcolonial India, Renu gave up the Padmashree (a high national award
for cultural achievement) in 1975 to protest what he saw as the dictatorship
of the postcolonial state; and we know that Tagore used his literary stature
in a similar fashion, renouncing his knighthood in 1919 to protest the violence
of the colonial state in the infamous Jallianwalla Bagh massacre. Both
Tagore and Renu saw their literary projects as crucial to the formation of
a national ethics beyond the narrow concerns of territorial governance and
sovereignty; but Renu focused primarily on rural subjects, while Tagore??™s
protagonists often inhabit a colonial metropolitan milieu. No wonder Ghosh
is attracted to these two literary stalwarts in his writing of the postcolonial
diasporic subject??™s struggle to represent the subaltern ??????other??™??™ (note, in The
Calcutta Chromosome, both Antar, the protagonist of the novel, and Murugan
work for the International Water Council [earlier, LifeWatch], a megacorporation).
As we shall see, both the Bengali and Hindi ghost stories are
tales of betrayal, and both writers use ghosts as literary devices for raising
those ethical questions of exclusion and coercion that trouble the (native)
colonial and postcolonial bureaucrat.
By grafting these stories into The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh implies
that Tagore??™s and Renu??™s ethical concerns continue into our contemporary
postcolonial time, only now the progressive intellectual must guard
against a ??????forgetting??™??™ facilitated by the current global hierarchies of knowledge.
For Ghosh, recalling his father??™s shame at a racial slur encountered
while in military service under the British, ??????forgetting??™??™ brings an ??????epistemological
perplexity??™??™ engendering a series of fraught misrecognitions. Both
Ghosh and Chakrabarty agree that this ??????forgetting??™??™ is in part due to the postcolonial
scholar/writer??™s failure to keep alive other ??????critical traditions??™??™ that
received extended treatment in Ghosh??™s The Glass Palace, a historical novel published
the same year as Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference
(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000).
202 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
can be important resources for living: Chakrabarty cites philosophical and
commentarial treatises, Ghosh evokes literary and religious sources.7
In their ensuing exchange, it becomes evident that the linguistic hierarchies
set in motion from the colonial-modern period are largely responsible
for the relative obscurity of these critical traditions (whose texts, more
often than not, are written in Indian vernaculars). Of course, we understand
vernacular not to signal authenticity; the vernacular, in the Indian context, is
always a historical category for the Indian languages and literatures placed
in binary opposition to colonial English since 1813 (the Education Act).8 Nor
are vernacular texts more ??????indigenous??™??™ to the colony; certainly contemporary
Bengali and Hindi literature??”Ghosh??™s two choices for The Calcutta
Chromosome??”are, after all, modern traditions that wrest anew colonial cultural
forms such as the novel or the essay. These vernacular texts acquire
the status of an ??????other??™??™ archive??”??????supplemental??™??™ in the Derridean sense??”
because of their current global invisibility, especially in view of the enormous
cultural capital of the post-1980s??™ South Asian novel in English. Hence
Ghosh??™s caution against ??????forgetting??™??™: bereft of this vernacular writing, we
lose entire ??????epistemologies??™??™ that raise crucial ethical questions about the
past. He dramatizes the dangers of forgetting, willful or not, in The Calcutta
Chromosome, where we encounter multiple levels of lost epistemologies
(counterscientific discourse, folk medicine practices, Spiritualism, and
Hindu popular religion, such as tantra) owned by the phantom presences
in the novel (Mangala, Lakhaan, European Spiritualists, and the maverick
scientists ??????wronged??™??™ by Ronald Ross). At a metatextual level, the writer
Phulboni??™s struggle over representation, and his own ??????silences??™??™ (the ??????lost??™??™
Lakhaan stories), provides a mise en abyme for Ghosh??™s literary project.
In Ghosh??™s letter to Sandra Vince of the Commonwealth Writers Prize
Board, he implies that, in consolidating postcolonial epistemologies, some
energy should be devoted to popularizing these vernacular literatures. He
makes visible to a global market for non-Western literatures that ghostly
body of vernacular writing eclipsed by the glamorous literary stars of his ilk??”
South Asian writers in English. His invocation hails postcolonial literary critics??”
cultural translators for a cosmopolitan audience??”to follow that lead, to
7. Ghosh and Chakrabarty, ??????A Correspondence,??™??™ 160.
8. I will not pursue this point any further here, for it has received extensive treatment in
Gauri Viswanathan??™s Masks of Conquest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
See also Priya Joshi??™s recent work on the vernacular fortunes of the novel in In Another
Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University
Press, 2002).
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 203
spend our (often North-based) resources on excavating those ??????vernacular??™??™
and ??????supplemental??™??™ knowledges that do not endlessly refer back to European
colonial texts.9 I take on that invocation in my critical acts in this essay,
a first stab at a larger project on colonial and postcolonial spectrology.
Practicing Spectrology
The Calcutta Chromosome offers a part-fictive, alternative history of
medicine, one that is traditionally eclipsed in the official narrative of Ronald
Ross??™s romance with the Anopheles mosquito. Mangala stumbles on a process
that won the medical visionary JuliusWagner-Jauregg the Nobel Prize
in 1927??”the process of curing syphilis with the malaria bug. Not only is
Ghosh interested in unearthing these parallel histories, but he sees the
colonial narrative of discovery as an exercise of power. Thus, a mediocre
Englishman enters the annals of history, even though the last and arguably
the most crucial stages of his research on the Anopheles were orchestrated
by Mangala and her associates. But why the need for the puppet discoverer,
Ross Murugan hypothesizes that these folk medicine practitioners needed
specific mutations of the malaria bug to stabilize the transfer of the ??????biological
soul,??™??™ but they lacked the resources to produce those mutations in
a controlled (laboratory) setting. Indeed, by giving us a list of (European)
scientists whose research Ross basically filches, Ghosh exposes the ??????discoverer??™??™
as a charlatan and the act of scientific discovery as a collaborative
and cumulative enterprise often indebted to those on the radical edge of
science. The postcolonial version of this scientific underground, the spectral
corpus, is even more radical in touching upon a matter troubling to our
contemporary moment??”biological cloning (207).
Murugan simulates the task of an archivist in reconstructing this alternative
history, in part garnered from seemingly unrelated medical discoveries,
in part interpreted, and in part hypothesized. Indeed, such imaginative
historiography has been the mark of Ghosh??™s fiction and nonfiction. For one,
archival reconstruction was the motor for the travelogue that shot Ghosh to
9. Vijay Mishra and Bob Hodge exemplify an earlier moment of debate in postcolonial
studies that addressed the bad marriage of the postcolonial to the postmodern. These
debates interrogated the market stipulations that condition the production of postcolonial
knowledge, with progressives crying foul. Mishra and Hodge called for the situated
study of postcolonial contexts and the subsequent consolidation of vernacular
and local knowledges to supplement analyses of postcolonial literatures. See ??????What Is
Post(-)colonialism??™??™ Textual Practice 5, no. 3 (1991): 399??“414.
204 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
fame. In an Antique Land, published in 1993, features the forgotten histories
of Jews, Muslims, and Hindus traversing Egypt and India in the early modern
period. A thinly veiled autobiographical narrator??™s obsessive search for a
slave??™s story, one that would have otherwise remained a footnote in history,
leads him to excavate these histories from equally forgotten archival chambers
(the Geniza).10 The narrator first comes across a passing allusion to the
slave, Bomma, in a letter written by Madmum, a merchant in Aden, to his
friend, Abraham Ben Yiju, from Mangalore; the narrator is further intrigued
by the second appearance of the slave in a letter from S. D. Gottein??™s collection
of letters in the Bodelian Library. Curious about this recurrent trace, and
convinced of the erasure of the ??????small voice of history??™??™??”??????the wazirs and the
sultans, the chroniclers and the priests had the power to physically inscribe
themselves upon time??™??™ 11??”Ghosh plots looping and fragmented journeys
to Lataifa, Nashawy, and Mangalore, seeking Bomma. The narrator??™s geographic
dispersal replicates the scattering of certain ways of knowing the
world, while Ghosh powerfully brings the forces of modern knowledge??”history,
anthropology, philology, sociology, and religion, complete with thirtyseven
pages of documentation??”to bear on his reconstructive project.
On other occasions, Ghosh has been an active participant in an
Indian national spectrology: the obsession with ??????forgotten??™??™ national icons, a
corollary to the ongoing national historical revisions of the 1980s and 1990s.
In the New Yorker issue commemorating India??™s golden jubilee of independence,
Ghosh chose to write an essay on the forgotten history of the Indian
National Army (INA), titled ??????India??™s UntoldWar of Independence.??™??™ 12 A militant
mobilization against the British led by Subhas Chandra Bose and repressed
within statist historical narrations of the nonviolent freedom struggle, the
INA story is a fiercely remembered regional (eastern Indian) struggle reconstructed
in Ghosh??™s commemorative essay. His recounting of those glory
days becomes a political intervention of sorts into the national struggle over
history, the ghost of Netaji (the freedom fighter, Bose) looming over India??™s
celebrated Gandhian nonviolent revolution. Netaji??™s recursive figure in the
10. Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (Delhi: Ravi Dayal, 1993).
11. Ghosh, In an Antique Land, 17.
12. Amitav Ghosh, ??????India??™s UntoldWar of Independence,??™??™ New Yorker, June 23, 1997, 105??“
21. Ghosh starts his essay by evoking popular memory??”the contradictory stories about
this untold war that he received from his parents motivated his historical digging. Popular
gossip in Bengal has it that Bose??™s disappearance was actually a murder covered up by
the British. In politically troubled periods, there were repeated Netaji sightings in Bengal
that record a Bengali desire for lost political national hegemony.
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 205
Bengali imagination marks a desire for the Bengalis??™ lost centrality in nationalist
politics, on the one hand; but, on the other, this ghost demands ethical
redress from contemporary Indian citizen-subjects for the traumas of
the INA soldiers, tried for treason by the colonial state and represented as
betrayers of the nonviolent revolution in ??????official??™??™ nationalist accounts.13
This abiding interest in historically grounded ghosts stimulates
Ghosh??™s literary endeavor in The Calcutta Chromosome. And it is a project
that he shares with Dipesh Chakrabarty, who argues, in Provincializing
Europe, for the sentience of literature in postcolonial ethnography. Chakrabarty
demonstrates the difficulties of translating subaltern lifeworlds (and
the entire belief systems that these narratives carry with them) into the time
of rational history: how does one capture subaltern significations of supernatural
and cyclical time that compel understandings of work and translate
them into the rational abstraction ??????labor??™??™ The problem, argues Chakrabarty,
is perhaps best dealt with in a kind of translation that registers the
shock of the uncanny, keeping faithful to the scandal of incommensurabilities??”
for historians do not have the license available to literary practitioners
to jump the parameters of rational narration. Chakrabarty turns to songs,
idioms, poems, festival rituals, and so on, to provide evidence of ??????other
times??™??™ in subaltern lifeworlds, becoming an ethnographer of sorts; Ghosh
takes on the same role somewhat differently, treating literary practice as an
ethnographic and historical endeavor.
But in their actual tasks of consolidating this ??????other??™??™ archive, the two
scholars diverge. As their exchange in Provincializing Europe indicates,
Chakrabarty is clearly preoccupied with the ??????uncanny??™??™ as an effect of incommensurability;
the condition of disjunctive historical discourses and the implications
of loss concern him greatly. Ghosh sees in the same loss the
imperative for recovery??”an imaginative project that mobilizes literary resources
for its purposes. Hence ??????ghosts,??™??™ for Ghosh, are devices that undo
certain discursive (and generic, in The Calcutta Chromosome) limits; ghosts
therefore occupy a more redemptive place in his oeuvre, in moving us to
those questions of political justice and hope that Jacques Derrida asks in his
elaboration of ??????hauntology and its attendant ethics??™??™ in Specters of Marx.14
13. More recently, Netaji has found literary evocation in Ruchir Joshi??™s The Last Jet-Engine
Laugh (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2001), as a man whose famous disappearance (while
flying to Japan in 1942) continues to plague the regional imagination.
14. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the
New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994), xix. Hereafter, this
work is cited parenthetically as SM.
206 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
The Calcutta Chromosome is Ghosh??™s most sustained engagement with
hauntology, in both its incitement to imagine a radical postfoundationalist
future (Derrida) and its overt staging of incommensurable epistemologies
(Chakrabarty). Of all of Ghosh??™s novels, it is this novel that takes seriously
the undoing of oppositions that is Derrida??™s figuration of the specter. Such
unraveling of literary seams makes for the unprecedented uneven narration,
textual fragmentation, and generic dysfunction that, I suspect, might well
account for this novel??™s unpopularity in Ghosh??™s canon.
More importantly, The Calcutta Chromosome is a literary theater that
extends the ethical implications of the Derridean specter to break new
ground. Since Gayatri Spivak??™s In Other Worlds (1988), and despite her
continuing critiques of Derrida, Derrida??™s rigorous questioning of Western
foundationalism has been critical to the poststructuralist strain of the postcolonial
critique. The ethical turn we witness in The Calcutta Chromosome
shares Derrida??™s perception of ??????haunting??™??™ as inimical to the histories of
trauma and loss, precisely what is occluded in the politico-juridical discourses
of wrong, repayment, and debt. In her remarks on Walter Benjamin??™s
angel of history and Derrida??™s specters as ??????poignant signifiers??™??™ of the
postfoundationalist predicament, Wendy Brown asks, ??????What kind of historical
consciousness is possible and appropriate for contemporary political critique
and analysis, and how can agency be derived to make a more just,
emancipatory, or felicitous future order??™??™ 15 Specters present new possibilities
in undoing the opposition between life and death, presence and absence;
by implication, they collapse the boundedness of present, past, and
future. Specters are, Brown argues, redemptive: they are intangible sites
for imagining a future beyond discredited modernist narratives of progress
and a violent exclusionary metaphysics of presence. Spectrology, in this
sense, is postprogressive history relocating historical meaning to an ??????other
space and idiom??™??™ 16; it imagines political justice in a world that is ??????contingent,??™??™
??????unpredictable,??™??™ and ??????not fully knowable.??™??™ 17 Such Derridean and multivalent
use of specters opens up our reading of Ghosh??™s deployment of hauntology
beyond the staging of the ??????uncanny??™??™ as a figure for the incommensurable.
15. Wendy Brown, ??????Futures,??™??™ in Politics Out of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 2000), 139??“40.
16. Brown, ??????Futures,??™??™ 144.
17. Brown, ??????Futures,??™??™ 145.
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 207
The Ghost
That ghosts bear witness to erasures in the ??????living present??™??™ is, of
course, commonplace in the enormous literature on mourning and memory
work of the last decades.18 Derrida pushes us further, pitching ghosts as
specters of futurity:
If I am getting ready to speak of ghosts, which is to say about certain
others who are not present, nor presently living, either to us, in us, or
outside of us, it is in the name of justice. Of justice where it is not yet,
not yet there, where it is no longer, let us understand where it is no
longer present, and where it will never be, no more than a law, reducible
to laws or rights. It is necessary to speak of the ghost, indeed
to the ghost, and with it, from the moment that no ethics, no politics,
whether revolutionary or not, seems possible and thinkable and just
that does not recognize in principle the respect for others who are no
longer or for those who are not yet there, presently living, whether
they are already dead or not yet born. (SM, 10)
He reminds us of Marx??™s well-known sighting of Communism as a ??????specter
that haunts Europe,??™??™ a ??????phantomic??™??™ possibility of a future socius. Focusing
on Marx??™s injunction, Derrida insists that the specter here is not just in the
domain of ideas (Spirit) but is already materially there in the ??????living present.??™??™
All forces of the law??”the church, the family, the state in nineteenth-century
Europe??”girded themselves against this specter in a willful denial of those
certain others whose promise preoccupies Marx; for him, the counterrevolutionaries
in 1848 thus erase that strangely familiar body but continue to be
haunted by its recursions. In fact, it is this disappeared body of the ghost??”
this someone who looks at you??”that gives these forces of the law their
strength and organization. Marx is therefore critical of spectralization, its
evacuation of the concrete; the ethical task at hand is to bring back the body
proper of the ghost.
We find a precursor to The Calcutta Chromosome??™s spectral ethics in
Ghosh??™s essay on the Delhi riots following the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi,
??????The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi.??™??™ Published in 1995, the year following Der-
18. A majority of scholars recognizes literature as the domain where these specters
of embodied loss roam: for instance, in Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological
Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), Avery Gordon reads that
now-famous ghost in Toni Morrison??™s Beloved as the ??????seething presence of the absent??™??™
(23). For Gordon, ghosts are entirely necessary to grasp the complexities of our social
world, for they speak eloquently of ??????invisibilities??™??™ and ??????exclusions??™??™ (23).
208 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
rida??™s Specters of Marx, Ghosh directly addresses the ethical significance
of remembering violence. As the essay progresses, he jettisons chronological
narration in favor of many interrupted returns to the past, a temporal
idiom he explicitly describes as a haunting.19 Ghosh??™s memory of the 1984
riots while he was working for the daily Indian Express impels him to consider
1947 again. He starts writing The Shadow Lines soon after the Delhi
riots, explaining that this was ??????a book that led me backward in time, to earlier
memories of riots, ones witnessed in childhood. It became a book not about
any one event but about the meaning of such events and their effects on
individuals who live through them.??™??™20 Further along in the essay, Ghosh??™s
account of the pamphlet ??????Who Are the Guilty??™??™??”a tract in which the citizens
of Delhi question possible state participation in violence??”propels him
to consider another violent scene, the Bombay riots of 1992??“93. Moments
of violence, ruptures in the unitary national polity, foreground those ??????certain
others??™??™ (SM, 10) who remain invisible and excluded from national consciousness:
each riot (1947, 1984, 1992??“93) jolts the memory of another specter,
another sighting of unrestful spirits. Ghosh??™s looping narrative in this essay
suggests that the cost of a unified nation has always accrued to those who
do not count in our ??????living present.??™??™ The Calcutta Chromosome continues
this project of speaking to ghosts that is vibrant in his essays on the Delhi riot
and the INA (some of his material on the INA has been fictionalized recently
in The Glass Palace [2001]).
Not surprisingly, almost every character in The Calcutta Chromosome
has commerce with ghosts. A virtual ghost, flashing on Antar??™s screen
and demanding his investigation of Murugan, propels the mystery forward.
Antar is the twenty-first-century protagonist who embarks on finding Murugan,
who had disappeared from LifeWatch. LifeWatch, a dystopian Kafkaesque
panoptical North-based megacorporation with headquarters in New
York but ??????no office in Calcutta,??™??™ initially employs both men. In pursuit of his
Kurtz, Antar learns that Murugan??™s advocacy of an epistemological challenge
led to his ??????ostracism??™??™ from the ??????scholarly community??™??™ and ??????estrangement
from several of his friends and associates??™??™ (31). Much later in the narrative,
we realize that it is not just Antar??™s official assignment or curiosity
about the Ross story that keeps him engaged in the wild chase for Mangala
and her associates but his fascination with his alter ego, Murugan??™s renegade
status in LifeWatch. A glimpse into Antar??™s pre-LifeWatch existence
19. Amitav Ghosh, ??????The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi,??™??™ New Yorker, July 17, 1995, 35??“43.
20. Ghosh, ??????The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi,??™??™ 40.
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 209
in a small village by the banks of the Nile (shades of the narrator in In an
Antique Land) clues us in to Antar??™s sense of loss and his consequent nostalgia
for a simpler life beyond the tentacles of a megacorporation. The virtual
ghost undoes Antar??™s compartmentalized present, instigating personal
anguish and luring him to rebellion??”this time against his omniscient computer,
Ava. Nor is Antar??™s haunting an anomaly. Each major character in the
novel is haunted by a secret that links him or her to the vital calcutta chromosome
mystery: Mangala and Murugan are syphilitics, the glamorous Sonali
is in search of her natural father, Phulboni searches for immortality as a
writer, and so on. The familiar other beckons the detective, the journalist,
the writer, and the missionary to a larger ethical quest.
The Corpse
While the ghost inhabits the seam between the real and the fictive,
the present and the past/future, the ??????corpse??™??™ is its visible presence in rationally
ordered space and time. But Mangala??™s practice of corporeal immortality
troubles the empirical status of the corpse by insisting on a biological
haunting. D. D. Cunningham, Countess Pongracz, and Murugan, among
other characters, are??”medically speaking??”dead or literally have disappeared
into obscurity. Yet they continue to trouble our pseudomedical rationality
by constantly reappearing (being reincarnated) as other characters,
and the novel insists that the philosophical premise of transmigration be
accorded the same empirical credibility that we willingly give (even the most
esoteric) medical discourse on bodies. Such epistemological leaps are necessary
to speak to ghosts in our living present. In fact, Ghosh restores the
corporeal materiality of these ghosts by explaining transmigration of souls in
biological terms??”the lingo of chromosomes, DNA, retroviruses, and mutations
well known to contemporary global cosmopolitan readers. For in Mangala??™s
popular religious medical practice, the transfer of the human soul is
accomplished by the transmission of malaria-infected blood (routed through
the bodies of pigeons, which are used as agar-plates). This drama of corporeal
restoration in the story is homologous to Ghosh??™s (hypothetical) restoration
of a corpus/corpse of indigenous knowledge troubling to the colonial
medical gaze. Scientists, administrators, doctors, missionaries, computer
analysts fall prey to the spectral knowledge that makes their discourse on
health and cures possible but that remains inadmissible in rational discourse.
There are some converts to the doctrine of corporeal immortality,
as we see in D. D. Cunnigham, Ross??™s predecessor, who stonewalls Ross??™s
210 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
search for the malaria bug for almost a year before disappearing into the
steamy underground of soul switchers.
In developing the process of spectralization, Derrida provides notes
on the ghostly body proper that resonate with The Calcutta Chromosome, a
novel about bodies in the present, past, and future. Marx, in Derrida??™s view,
posits the process of ghosting as the de-materialization of the body??”the red
specter that ??????was conjured (away) by the counter-revolutionaries (in fact, by
all of Europe: the Manifesto was yesterday)??™??™ (SM, 117). This violent exclusion??”
dis-incarnation??”of the ghost does not mean that the material conditions
of the specter have disappeared; it is the work of demystification to
restore the body proper to the ghost. Derrida insists on the strange corporeality
of the ghost shuttling between the nonhuman (a thing) and the human
(someone) in the world. In the recurrence of disappeared bodies in The Calcutta
Chromosome, we inhabit this uncanny place, where only by partially
abandoning the proportions of scientific rationalism can we recognize certain
Ghosh deconstructs the rational premises of knowledge production
in focusing our attention on the problem of disappeared bodies: the corpus
of folk and popular religious and medical knowledge becomes invisible,
silent, ephemeral, only when commodified and circulated in colonial modern
practices. These ??????subaltern??™??™ practices??”if we understand ??????subaltern??™??™ to
be a differential relation??”are put to instrumental and quantifiable use in the
colonial regime: the knowledge of possible corporeal immortality is transformed
into the cure for malaria. Looking anew at Marx??™s conception of the
commodity fetish, Derrida notes that it is in the translation of things??”their
coding in systems of exchange??”that they acquire a ghost-effect. The table,
he argues??”continuing with Marx??™s famous example??”is, after all, an ??????ordinary,
sensuous thing??™??™ that has use value, it is ??????human at the bottom??™??™ (SM,
151). In the Derridean landscape of specters, this sensuous thing acquires
the mystical properties of commodity when it enters a chain of exchange:
??????The ghostly scheme nowappears indispensable. The commodity is a ???thing??™
without phenomenon, a thing in flight that surpasses the senses (it is invisible,
intangible, inaudible, and odorless); but this transcendence is not
altogether spiritual, it retains the bodiless body that we have recognized
as making the difference between specter and spirit. What surpasses the
senses still passes before us in the silhouette of the sensuous body that it
nevertheless lacks or that remains inaccessible to us??™??™ (SM, 151). Knowledge
fetishized as ??????medical discovery,??™??™ the conquest of the corporeal, is uncanny
commodity in The Calcutta Chromosome. Mangala??™s insights lose their senGhosh
/ On Grafting the Vernacular 211
suousness in the transfer to Ronald Ross??™s lab and its incumbent colonial
The use value of finding the malaria bug??™s ability to cut and paste
DNA remains mundane in Mangala??™s routine soul transfers, but the malaria
bug is Ross??™s ticket to fame. Hence the discovery acquires mystical value,
his ??????cure??™??™ a treasured commodity in the colonial rationale for government.
Despite his critique of colonial appropriation, Ghosh can, in his fictional
medium, imagine an ??????outside??™??™ to these systems of exchange and commodity
formation: in the secrecy of Mangala??™s rituals, the use value of the
calcutta chromosome retains its materiality, its sensuousness, its silence.
The silence of Mangala??™s occult practices poses a problem for modern
postcolonial historiography. How to speak of this counterscientific knowledge
from the proportions of rational discourse How, indeed, to speak of,
to, and with ghosts This is the classic question of communicability that
haunts all postcolonial discourse, and it is foregrounded as the key problem
among subaltern studies scholars. Chakrabarty poses disjunctive discourse??”
uncanny speech??”as one utopian solution; he asks us to imagine
a subaltern history away from ??????the dream of the whole called a state,??™??™ in
a ??????fragmentary and episodic??™??™ structure of democratic dialogue.21 The historian
enters a dialogue punctured by the other, respectful of the ??????radical
polysemy of languages and practices??™??™ that testifies to the incommensurability
of the worlds that ??????we??™??™ (presumably, Chakrabarty, speaking of the
secular modern subject) inhabit.22 This is precisely the disjunctive discourse
21. See Chakrabarty, ??????Radical Histories and the Question of Enlightened Rationalism:
Some Recent Critiques of Subaltern Studies,??™??™ Economic and Political Weekly of India,
April 8, 1995, 751??“59. Chakrabarty takes on formidable critiques of radical left histories
from more traditional Marxist critics, such as Sumit Sarkar. Sarkar has most famously criticized
subaltern studies scholars for their undermining of the legacies of Enlightenment
rationalism, an underscoring of rationality that celebrates all manner of the affective, the
unsaid, the lived. This includes religious understandings of community, which, in the age
of chauvinistic Hindutva, seem particularly dangerous to the goals of secularism. Chakrabarty
defends his critical engagement with Enlightenment rationalism, which in no way
entails a ??????wholesale rejection of the tradition of rational argumentation??™??™ (752). Rather,
his work rejects the ??????hyper-rationalism of the colonial modern??™??™ that would deny anything
affective??”??????pleasures, desires, emotions??™??™??”as being important to the tasks of historical
22. Chakrabarty, ??????Radical Histories,??™??™ 751.
212 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
we encounter in The Calcutta Chromosome, where the ??????facts??™??™ of science,
requiring communication (the narrative of discovery), are indeed ??????punctured??™??™
by the counterscientific will to secrecy, improbability, and inadmissibility.
In the novel, medical discourse and its attendant literary genres are
contaminated with meditations on religio-philosophical truths. The reality
of transmigration assumes centrality as the protagonist Antar becomes
the John Malkovichian body for the grafting of other characters in the
novel; transmigration is further posited as logically commensurable with our
present-day experiences of living multiple and virtual cyberlives.
We can account, in part, for the secrecy in the practice of corporeal
immortality if we take a closer look at the kinds of religio-philosophical
shenanigans dramatized in the novel. We enter an underground of rituals
and cults, from meetings of spooky syphilitics in forest clearings to Spiritualist
(the European take on accessing multiple souls, equally scorned by
scientists) seances. For we are in the domain not only of religion but popular
religion. The nature of the performances described in the novel??”rituals
with a punchy charge??”refers us to tantra, that Other of Brahmanical Hinduism.
Always seen as a counterreligion, tantra works against the Brahmanical
imperative to control and prohibit desire in order to attain moksha (freedom
from the cycle of death and rebirth); tantric cults deploy desire, and
therefore the body, as a means to freeing the soul. The ecstatic antics of
Mangala??™s followers, their ease with violence and the worship of sexualized
female deities, echo the tantric rites exalting the Kali (a malignant manifestation
of the mother goddess venerated in Bengal).23
In turn, any philosophy of transmigration is posed as the ??????other??™??™ of
Western scientific rationalism, as many of the European characters in the
novel inform us; seen from within epistemological hierarchies, the spiritual
reaching toward the eternal is of secondary importance to the scientific
23. Tantra was most widely practiced by forest dwellers, ??????outlaws??™??™ who worshipped Kali
and were often characterized as dacoits (bandits) in common Bengali lore. The British
abolition of ??????Thugee??™??™ in 1837 attempted to clean up these populations, driving them underground
with their tantric practices. No surprise, given that tantra was always perceived as
popular religion by Brahmanical Hindus. Even more interesting, for our purposes, is the
fact that these bands of thugs acquire heroic proportion as freedom fighters in the fiction
of nineteenth-century novelist Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay (especially enshrined in his
widely circulated Devi Chaudurani). Ghosh is interested in Chattopadhyay because the
latter wrote the first Indian novel in English, Rajmohun??™s Wife, a novel Ghosh reads as a
dress rehearsal for Chattopadhyay??™s more celebrated Bengali fiction. See Amitav Ghosh,
??????The March of the Novel through History: The Testimony of My Grandfather??™s Bookcase,??™??™
reprinted in The Imam and the Indian (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2002), 287??“304.
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 213
hubris of rejuvenating mortal bodies. And from within rational discourse,
spiritual will acquires the shadiness of a ??????counterscience??™??™: the other side of
mortality is inadmissible; it assumes proportion only as occult, as excess.
These alternative medical and philosophical practices, therefore, rely on
secrecy??”the very opposite of communication and/or discovery??”for their
continued transmission: ??????Silence is their religion,??™??™ Murugan explains to a
bewildered Antar (88). Silence is thick discourse in this novel, and it transforms
those who answer to it. Congruent with the precepts of corporeal
immortality, Phulboni imagines silence to be a material thing, a ??????creature??™??™
that haunts the bowels of the city: ??????But here our city, where all law, natural
and human, is held in capricious suspension, that which is hidden has
no need of words to give it life; like a creature that lives in a perverse element,
it mutates to discover sustenance precisely where it appears to be
most starkly withheld??”in this case, silence??™??™ (121).
Literary Tongue
As modern subjects, if indeed we must break the silence, the literary
provides a place for phantomic figurations. Phulboni, the literary visionary in
the tale, is the one most tuned to stealth of the silent underground; his language
eddies around its possibilities. His capable expressivity in the novel
convinces us that Mangala??™s steamy underground cannot be spoken of in
denotative descriptive language; its only tongue is the figurative, the domain
of imaginative work. The argument advances through Murugan??™s progression
from a LifeWatch employee, to detective, to postcolonial archivist. As
the novel proceeds, we are faced with a crisis in narration. The narratives of
several scientists, administrators, linguists, missionaries, doctors, and Spiritualists
are constantly displaced, replaced, cut and pasted. In fact, all major
acts of detection in the novel involve deconstructing existing and discordant
accounts from the colonial era (journal entries, diaries, logs of scientific
research, partially damaged audiocassette narrations, oral memories, letters).
The main pursuers of truth in The Calcutta Chromosome figure out the
puzzle of the counterscientific through filling in gaps, finishing log entries,
or writing in the indecipherable. Soon our main fact finder Murugan??™s epistemological
frustrations give way to an oppositional subjectivity. He rejects
the institutional parameters of discovery, and he begins to supplement the
fissures of the colonial story with fragments of other unconventional knowledges.
For new evidence, he draws on unfinished fragments of records from
other men who come in contact with Ross and his strange crew, Elijah Farley
214 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
and D. D. Cunningham, both of whom traffic in ghosts. So Murugan has
to turn to ghost stories published in an obscure and out-of-print vernacular
magazine to finally understand what ghostly presences are doing in the
narrative of Ross??™s discovery.24
There are three sightings of Lakhaan??™s ghost in the novel??™s denouement,
just as in Phulboni??™s oeuvre the Lakhaan stories circle around different
mutations of the same character, Lakhaan. Murugan??™s love interest and fellow
investigator, Urmila, reads these mutations as a ??????kind of allegory??™??™ (93).
As a journalist/literary critic, Urmila has a quest of her own, one that allegorizes
Ghosh??™s ??????recovery??™??™ (and embedding) of vernacular antecedents to
his novel in English. Urmila seeks the story behind the famous writer Phulboni??™s
spiraling personal decline and his delirious wanderings, which she
ascribes to the ??????mystery??™??™ of the Lakhaan stories. In its ability to figuratively
gesture toward another story that remains silent in the text, literary practice
edges closer to the truth of counterscience than scientific explanation.
By the end of the novel, the vernacular literary tale is the only authoritative
means through which the characters can decode the muddled and untruthful
records of scientific discovery.
Vernacular Sutures
In terms of postcolonial literary practice, vernacular ghost fiction presents
a certain ??????native??™??™ record of the colonial presence, a register of its violence
upon the colonized world. Scattered encryptions of vernacular ghost
stories in The Calcutta Chromosome exert an uncanny pressure on any
reader familiar with traditions of vernacular ghost fiction, a tradition that
Ghosh clearly claims as central to understanding the contemporary postcolonial
scholar/writer??™s ??????epistemological perplexity.??™??™
Even on first read, one is struck by the specific resonances in the
three Lakhaan fragments in the novel. They seem to beckon a corpus of
24. In fact, Ghosh grants equal credence to written facts as he does to lore and hearsay.
His renegade detective, Murugan, wonders if Phulboni wrote the Lakhaan story first and
later ??????heard??™??™ its folk version or vice versa. This confusion of folk versions, literary manifestations,
and hearsay as ??????scientific??™??™ evidence constitutes the new work of the archivist,
Ghosh suggests, an insistence on subaltern knowledges??”myths, folk narratives, and fiction??”
as the ground of rational understanding given the fallen state of knowledge in the
colonial-modern world. The final ??????truth??™??™ must be experienced or performed by the investigator.
Thus, throughout the novel, written and oral traces lead us to performances: of illicit
healing, of unsavory seances, of sexual fusion between bodies.
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 215
writing best described by Parama Roy as the Indian ??????bureaucratic gothic,??™??™25
a genre that figurally records the trauma of modernity in the postcolonial liberal
state. In the case of Bengali literature, I could identify (albeit inexpertly)
antecedents to this genre that date back to literature written under colonial
rule, but here I focus on two memorable examples, Tagore??™s ??????Kshudhito
Pashaan??™??™ and Renu??™s ??????Smells of a Primeval Night,??™??™ which were cited by
Ghosh as inspirational sources for The Calcutta Chromosome.26
Numerous references to these tales find their way into The Calcutta
Chromosome, creating a literary puzzle of sorts: the haunted station is explicitly
named Renupur, and we are told it lies somewhere between Barich
and Darbhanga (Barich is the setting for the Tagore story); ??????Kshudhito Pashaan??™??™
commences with a ghost story told by a tax collector to his fellow
travelers on a train, and in The Calcutta Chromosome, Phulboni hears the
story of Lakhaan??™s ghost also on a train (a classic Indian setting for storytelling,
with the railways symbolizing the reach of the state/empire); the Tagore
story is suffused with the changing and exchanging of clothes, much like
the obsessive changing of bodies in The Calcutta Chromosome; Phulboni
works for a British company when he encounters the boy ghost, and thus
qualifies as a protagonist for the bureaucratic gothic; further, Phulboni chose
his pseudonym??”no doubt playing with the pen name of another famous
Bengali writer, Bonophul??”from the wild Phulboni region in the eastern state
of Orissa, the place of Santhals, who are Karma??™s (Renu??™s servant-boy protagonist)
people. One could go on. But my point here is this: in Ghosh??™s
hands, this vernacular ghost genre becomes the genetic blueprint for the
novel in English. The Lakhaan ghost fragments to which all trails return
are mutations of original vernacular literary fare, perhaps Ghosh??™s elaborate
allegory for the primal scene of postcolonial writing in English.
I would further explain this personal haunting by a quick look at the
25. Parama Roy, author of Indian Traffic, spoke from her new work at the Cultural Analysis
Colloquium at the University of California, Santa Barbara, March 6, 2002. Her talk, titled
??????Figures of Famine,??™??™ presented Mahasweta Devi??™s literary and journalistic ??????accounting??™??™ of
famine, a phenomenon that troubles the postcolonial liberal state and its agents (bureaucrats).
Fiction that captures the shock of this traumatic excess within the bureaucratic
imaginary is what Roy pithily transcribes as ??????the bureaucratic gothic.??™??™
26. Rabindranath Tagore??™s ??????Kshudhita Pashaan??™??™ (??????The Hungry Stones??™??™) was published in
The Hungry Stones and Other Stories (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 1??“15; Phaniswarnath
Renu??™s tale is set in the postcolonial era, and a translation may be found in The Third
Vow and Other Stories, trans. Katherine G. Hansen (New Delhi: Chanakya Press, 1986),
216 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
subject of these two stories (metonymically the subject of the colonial and
postcolonial bureaucratic gothic). The Lakhaan story in The Calcutta Chromosome
is a tale of vengeance, where the boy??™s ghost takes revenge on the
station master who attempts to kill him. The boy is a poor rural migrant who
is violently handled by the agent of empire, the station master, who treats
him as an outcast drifter of suspect parentage. Living in a railway station,
he is caught in the transition between the village and the modern city. He
becomes the recursive ghost of the postcolonial state??”the specters from
the hinterland vibrant in Mahasweta Devi??™s ghost fiction??”who reminds the
liberal urban postcolonial bureaucrat of an ethical failure; the rural or tribal
other is that figure of excess for whom ??????free??™??™ India cannot account and for
whom there are no rights and no redress.27
Almost all these features of the Lakhaan character are mutations of
Karma, Renu??™s protagonist. In a postcolonial fable set in the most underdeveloped
region of postindependent India, the migrant foundling knows
that he ??????belongs??™??™ to a list of ??????babus??™??™ (white-collar workers under the Raj,
often agents of empire) as he shuttles between railway hubs. He is traumatized
by how he is perceived as a casteless and homeless thief, and constantly
dreams of being lured by a red light to the train tracks, where he
dies. Karma is haunted by his own bodily disintegration when his feet and
head are sundered from his torso by the carnal engine; in his delirium, and
much to his amazement, Karma sees himself wearing Anthony sahib??™s boots
(Renu equates the colonial sahib to the postcolonial babu/bureaucrat)??”
obviously, he has been murdered for his sin of stealing the boots. Karma??™s
nightmare finds literal encryption in Farley??™s and Grigson??™s encounters with
Lakhaan28 in The Calcutta Chromosome, where a ghostly red lantern leads
27. Parama Roy eloquently made this point about ghosts as a record of the excess inconceivable
to the liberal postcolonial subject, an excess that activists such as Mahasweta
Devi catalog in their fiction. Phaniswarnath Renu presents an interesting parallel to Mahasweta
Devi, since he is best known for his intellectual commitment to nonmetropolitan
milieus and his critique of the postcolonial liberal state, especially in his celebrated novel
Maila Anchal (Delhi: Soiled Border, 1954). Like Mahasweta Devi, then, he is both a chronicler
of and an active interventionist in the modern violences that the nation inflicts on its
own people.
28. Lakhaan is a common name with an interesting mythological referent for our particular
ghost. Lakshman (the Sanskritized version of the eastern Indian variant, Lakhaan) is
Ram??™s brother, who follows the former, the epic hero of the Ramayan, into his fourteenyear
exile; Lakshman??™s motives are simply loyalty and love, and it is a common Indian joke
to cast aspersions on Lakhaan??™s motives. The name Lakhaan, therefore, conjures one who
Ghosh / On Grafting the Vernacular 217
the men to their doom on the train tracks. Yet the tables have turned. For in
Ghosh??™s hands the poor migrant avenges himself by turning the babu (Phulboni)
and the Englishmen (Farley and Grigson) into the victims.
Tagore??™s protagonist, a Hindu man and a theosophist kinsman, hears
the ghost story from a Muslim collector of cotton duties for the British government,
with whom he travels. The cosmopolitan urban Muslim fascinates
the theosophist, who becomes enamored by this someone who is besieged
by ghosts, a Muslim other, no less. In turn, the tax collector recognizes
his ??????malady??™??™ (manifested in hallucinations) through someone else who is
haunted??”the old man, Meher Ali, the custodian of local lore. Tagore??™s investment
in a unified (Hindu and Muslim) national socius??”pervasive in his
fiction following the partition (1905) and reunification (1911) of Bengal??”projects
the fantasy of a Muslim past in the imaginary of a collaborator (colonial
agent), a fantasy that captivates his Hindu audience. The tax collector,
given to facts and figures, cannot account for his temporary madness while
on assignment in Barich. Drawn to an abandoned palace, he succumbs to
its hungry stones: he plays and replays the role of a lustful Muslim pasha
driven mad by his harem, and by one beauty in particular. The drama of
lust, revenge, and yearning has seeped into the very walls of the mansion
that now consumes any who cross its threshold. In this colonial bureaucratic
gothic, Tagore??™s metaphoric hungry stones are the excess that drives British
rulers and their Indian agents to delirium and hallucination; it is a specter
that cannot be accounted for or put to rest.
Both the vernacular stories register a trauma of betrayal. Ghosts are
the literary devices that return us to those ethical questions of historical
cultural and economic violence that trouble Tagore and Renu??”a violence
replayed only a little differently at our current phase of ??????empire.??™??™ Lakhaan
and Mangala are reminders of erasure: they demand redress from rational
historiography; their ghostly stories split the seam of the English-versusvernacular
modernist opposition that has hounded Indian writing in English
from its inception in the 1930s. The protagonists of The Calcutta Chromosome,
Antar and Murugan, are also ??????guilty??™??™ of self-betrayal, of working for
the ??????babus??™??™ of globalization. No small wonder that these stories exert uncanny
pressure on Ghosh, a writer intent on salvaging future epistemologies
from the debris of the past.
comes second, who follows, faithfully, but who remains partially eclipsed in the narrative??”
a resoundingly good choice for the recursive Lakhaan/Lutchman (Mangala??™s assistant) in
The Calcutta Chromosome.
218 boundary 2 / Summer 2004
Such a grafting of vernacular paradigms onto a literary tradition that
characteristically, and often problematically, references only its Anglo antecedents29
is a polemical refiguring of postcolonial literary practice. Now any
postcolonial criticism of the novel in English must recuperate a vernacular
archive to make good its promise. Quite predictably, Derrida concludes his
rumination on ghosts with the injunction not only to speak to and of ghosts
but to let them speak to us:
If he loves justice at least, the ??????scholar??™??™ of the future, the intellectual
of tomorrow should learn it and from the ghost. He should learn to
live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but to
talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them
back speech, even it is in oneself: they are always there, even if they
do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. They
give us time to rethink ??????there??™??™ as soon as we open our mouths, even
at a colloquium and especially when one speaks there in a foreign
tongue. (SM, 176)
29. Consider, for example, the review of The Calcutta Chromosome in Science Fiction
Weekly, where John Clute pitches

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