Interrogating the Contentious Representation of Urban Spatiality in Romesh Gunesekera’s Noon Tide Toll
Abhisek Ghosal has completed Master of Arts in English from The University of Burdwan and is currently pursuing M.Phil. in the same university. His areas of research incorporate South Asian Literature, Diaspora Studies, Globalization Studies, Criminology, Victimology, Transnational Justice Studies, among others. He has published scholarly articles in different peer-reviewed and UGC-approved journals.
Following the advent of economic expansionism in 1990s across South Asia, the long-standing perceptions regarding urban spatiality began to alter in that the potent forces of World Economy started to leave indelible impinges upon humanity at large and particularly, on urban spatiality. The contour of urban spatiality is supposed to be shaped up by a number of polyvalent factors including culture, economy, ethics, justice, politics, among others. The opening up of global market coupled with Post-civil war scenario attempt to redefine urban spatiality in Sri Lankan context in 1990s and consequently, it leads to camouflage spatial specificities that had been forged over the decades. The irresistible intrusion of urban spatiality into non-urban spaces is facilitated by fluidity of World Economy problematizes urban and non-urban duality. Romesh Gunesekera’s Noon Tide Toll examines the varied and variegated interactions among spaces. The representation of the conflicts and convergences within the paradigm of urban spatiality in the novel seems to me highly problematic. This article is therefore devised to interrogate Gunesekera’s representations of urban spatiality in the novel, taking some relevant theoretical insights into account.
Key Words: Urban Space; Territoralization; Globalization; Civil War.
The insidious intrusion of urban space into non-urban spaces, after the liberalization of World Economy in 1990s, is being questioned nowadays inasmuch as urban space is supposed to ruin the spatial specificities of non-urban spaces. The opening up of global market triggers the definition and redefinition of the contour of urban spatiality so that World Economy can find ways through non-urban spaces. World Economic forces persuade local people to disseminate objectives of global market among others and to make the passage ready for global market to traverse through it. The persuading forces of World Economy attempt to alter the long-standing perception of urban spatiality and it are through employing urban space World Economy gets disseminated. The varied and variegated interactions among spaces within urban spatiality problematizes Romesh Gunesekera’s the representation of urban spatiality against the backdrop of Post-civil war scenario. This article is intended to lay bare the politics of representation concerning urban spatiality and to question Romesh Gunesekera’s problematic representation of it beset by Globalization, taking recourse to theoretical insights.
The liberalization of World Economy is supposed to have been intended to trigger delimitation of urban spatiality so as to make inroads into non-urban spaces thereby making an attempt to bring non-urban spaces under economic subjugation. The urban space unethically and subtly occupies non-urban spaces by positing itself to be superior to other spaces in terms of world class facilities and challenge the territorial authority of non-urban spaces. Human beings are responsible forging social spaces which are, in actuality, shaped up by urbanity, economy, among others. In the Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre has pertinently postulated: “Social spaces interpenetrate one another and/or superimpose themselves upon one another. They are not things, which have mutually limiting boundaries and which collide because of their contours or as a result of inertia” (86-87). What Lefebvre has meant to say is that social spaces which are constitutive of urban spatiality are always in dialogue with each other and consequently, the nuances among spaces are bound to overlap. The ceaseless interactions among spaces often stretch the limit of urban spatiality and at times, reduce the circumference of it. The porosity of spatial boundary incurs complications in that when human beings traverse across the spaces, they encounter a number of spatial congruities and incongruities among them thereby getting it difficult to come to terms with various spaces. Michel Foucault has offered some valuable insights for better comprehension of urban spatiality. In an influential article entitled “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias”, Foucault has made a series of arguments to substantiate the verifiability of the notion “heterotopias” and has exhorted social thinkers to take it into account. Edward W. Soja turns out to be one of the critics, who points out how politics and ideological trajectories mark out urban spatiality. In Urban Space and Representation, Maria Balshaw and Liam Kennedy corroborate Soja’s perspective in the following terms: “Soja has built on the ideas of these French theorists in Anglo-American contexts through his analysis of how space becomes ‘filled with politics and ideology’, both inscribing and concealing the contradictions of global capitalism” (2). Arjun Appadurai in the article “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy” has pertinently observed: “The New global cultural economy has to be seen as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing centre-periphery models” (32) and subsequently propounded:
I propose that an elementary framework for exploring such disjunctures is to look at the relationship among five dimensions of global cultural flows that can be termed (a) ethnoscapes, (b) mediascapes, (c) technoscapes, (d) financescapes, and (e) ideoscapes . . . . By ethnoscape, I mean the landscape of persons who constitute the shifting world in which we live: tourists, immigrants, refugees, exiles, guest workers, and other moving groups and individuals constitute an essential feature of the world and appear to affect the politics of nations to a hitherto unprecedented degree. (33)
What Appadurai has meant to say is that global capitalism charged up by liberalization of World Economy gets diffused through the five –scapes and frequent visits of tourists in various locations in the world expedite the expansion of World Economy. Following Appadurai’s insights, one may argue that the rising concentration of tourists in different tourist locations leads to the expansion of urban spatiality in that local people give in the project of urban expansion so as to attract tourists there in order to boost local economy. Consequently, urban spatiality is further stretched in order to accommodate top class facilities in it. One may oppose the previous contention and argue that expansion of urban spatiality ultimately turns out to be beneficial for tourists and consequently local economy has to get dissolved in the liberalization of World Economy thereby hinting at porosity of spatial boundary. He may draw the following observation by Edward Soja who posits argumentatively in The Political Organization of Space:
First of all, human activity in space is localized in the sense that it occupies unique and specific places on the earth’s surface, each of its own complex attributes or characteristics . . . . The differences from place to place, in relative as well as in absolute location, and in terms of other features such as climate, economy, language, wealth, and culture shape the nature and intensity of the relationships between people and between locations they occupy. (3)
On the contrary, one may contend that stability and mobility of urban spatiality are contingent upon the interactions among spaces that individual forges, among spaces that institutions occupy and among spaces that individuals and institutions share. He may work out this contention by arguing that expansion of urban spatiality for the alleviation of human misery by powerful men in the society is quite legitimate. Here, one may be reminded of “Globalization, spatial allocation of resources and spatial impacts: A conceptual framework” where Gill-Chin Lim opines:
Under economic globalization, new factories are set up abroad, and cheaper imported goods and services threaten domestic producers. Proponents of economic globalization argue that, in the long run, free trade will increase the overall output of the world and that of the poor nations, eventually making all nations and people better oﬀ. (3)
This proposition could be turned down on the ground that the intrusion of urban spatiality into non-urban spatiality is unethical in the sense that it might lead to decimate spatial specificities. Moreover, human misery existing within urban spatiality could be deteriorated because of its expansion out of the pressure of the global market. Gill-Chin Lim again points out: “. . . the persistent poverty that sometimes concentrates in urban areas may further expand the area of decay” (21). Gill-Chin Lim has been upheld in away by Prof. Sanjay Chakraborty who in “Urban development in the global periphery: The consequences of economic and ideological globalization” said:
Ideas about the value of markets and trade, the need for political reform through democracy and decentralization, and good governance based on social justice and inclusion, have far greater policy signiﬁcance and social impact. These ideas, when translated into policies, have eﬀects at urban, regional and national scales . . . these ideas can lead to further relative declines in already lagging places. (38)
What comes out of it is that economic liberalization leave adverse impact on urban spatiality in that it uses urban space to spread its autonomy. In other words, it leads urban space to get at loggerheads with other spaces in that the business activity within urban space implicitly affects local economies of non-urban spaces. It seems that varied spatial dispositions come into conflict with each other thereby making it difficult to represent. Representation of urban spatiality is problematic in the sense that urban spatiality is a polyvalent entity and therefore it has always been in a flux.
Romesh Gunesekera’s Noon Tide Toll turns out to be an intriguing tour de force in that the novel has not only encapsulated Post-civil war scenario in Sri Lanka succinctly but also explored the interface between urban spatiality and economic globalization. This novel is a moving tale about the protagonist of the novel, i.e., Vasanta who is a retired cab driver and even after his retirement from the job, he takes tourists to different tourist destinations. Being a cab driver, he earns livelihood and more importantly, gets brilliant opportunities to interact with various persons. Against the backdrop of Post-civil war scenario, Vasanta moves across various spatial territories and in course of it, he reveals how the irresistible forces of economic globalization make way through this island and trigger the expansion of urban spatiality for getting substantial room to operate. Gunesekera intends to represent the gradual expansion of urban spatiality across the island following the advent of economic globalization. Here, one may contend that Gunesekera upholds the economic globalization might be beneficial for local people in that local economy could be boosted: “In 1945, Japan was a dump. Nobody thought that Japanese could make even a cup of tea any more, but now Toyota is the biggest car company in the world . . . . No one knows who will have the last laugh” (1) It is through conversations between Vasanta and tourists, Gunesekera shows how tourism culture spreads rapidly in Sri Lanka and local people give in it so as to get rid of financial constraints. Vasanta, on the contrary, says: “They might have been diplomats, or from some funding agency but they did not talk much” (11). What it implies is that the agents of global market tour Sri Lanka in order to find out whether Post-civil war situation is worthy for making hefty investment. The concentration of tourists in Sri Lanka gradually intensifies in the late 1990s because the liberation of World Economy makes the conventional notion of urban spatiality subject to alterations.
The spaces that were once restricted for military activities during Civil war are now being opened up for tourists to visit. In a way, it is through tourism economic forces safely step in once restricted spaces. It is because of the mushrooming growth of tourism culture the contour of urban spatiality is being stretched out: “‘The war is not the heritage, Paul. The priority is tourism. What will attract the foreign tourist? We know what the Chinese and Indian tourist wants. Bargains, no? But what about the modern European tourist? They say the beach is not enough these days’” (23). What it implicates is that Sri Lanka local people living on the margin have to usher urbanity in their vicinity, hoping that it might create jobs for them. In order to substantiate this standpoint, one may draw the following excerpt from the text, which is indicative how urbanity gradually gets dispensed with the growth of tourism: “The road was narrower but smooth. A few minutes later, we were in another world. It is hard to believe this was once fighting territory” (75). It shows that Gunesekera has represented the flourish of urban spatiality in positive terms and has treated it as a boon for local people. One may be critical of Gunesekera’s representation of urban spatiality and may argue that expanding horizon of urban spatiality conditioned by the diffusion of World Economy has taken away the honesty and integrity of local men living on the margin in Sri Lanka where locals have to put up masks of hospitality to come to terms with the present scenario: “Hospitality training, I imagine, helps you to mask your feelings with a smile and to polish that façade of pleasant well-being that Sri Lankans, our foreign visitors tell me, are so good at putting on” (103). One may draw another except from the novel to critique Gunesekera’s representation: “That is the way we live nowadays: driving along a road between hallucination and amnesia. As long as you are moving, you are OK . . .” (105). Vasanta drives his cab through the newly constructed expressway to take his Russian tourists to Southern parts of Sri Lanka. The reference to road that connects spaces is intently made in the novel to show how urban spatiality gets distended towards periphery. The impact of urbanization project is encapsulated by Gunesekera in the following terms. Vasanta utters: “My trips to Galle are the easiest, especially now with the new highway that nobody knows how to use. I love it. Where else in this country can you stay at sixty for more than two minutes?” (128). But one can be critical of Gunesekera’s representation in that the promotion of tourist culture in Sri Lanka might expose the breath-taking beauty spots thereby inviting business tycoons from all over the world to make business out of Sri Lanka’s asserts.
Apart from it, tourism culture cannot provide economic independence to Sri Lanka and rather it might rule over Sri Lankan economy by using local strength. One may critically argue that in the long run, the exposure of Sri Lankan economy and its beauties to the global market might be vicious to the overall development of Sri Lankan culture and economy. He may add up to it that letting global market to make business in Sri Lanka is tantamount to the exploitation of the living and non-living resources in Sri Lanka in a cunning way and therefore it cannot bring out radical alterations in the standard of living of the local people living on the margin. Gunesekera has propounded the idea of “collective amnesia” in that locals need to be oblivious of what had happed to them during civil war and has urged them to welcome the growth of tourism. There are plenty of references of the renovation of existing roads, which are done in tune with expansion of the urban spatiality. The following excerpt could be cited as an example of how urban spatiality engulfs non-urban spaces thereby putting economic independence of Sri Lanka at jeopardy:
The road to Hambantora is very good. The best in the country now. The surface is first-class. It was not so. There was a time when it was part of the wild country. But then it found political favour. Flavour of the month, year, decade, perhaps century. Now the talk is of highways, ports and airports, but all that is new. Ten years ago, people knew of the nicely situated rest house but not much more . . .in the last two or three, everything has changed. It is now the hub. (201-211)
Here, one may contend that neither the idea of “collective amnesia” nor the culture of tourism can be tenably endorsed in that the forgetting of the inevitable consequences of civil war is equal to bury historical past, and the free and fluid run of tourism backed up by the expansion of urban spatiality, across Sri Lanka, has to be resisted so as to safeguard the rich resources in Sri Lanka from the onslaughts of global market and therefore Gunesekera’s standpoints seem to me highly contentious.
Thus, this discussion can be brought to an end with the following argument that although Gunesekera deserves applause for making attempts to represent the transformation of urban spatiality conditioned by the expansion of global tourism industry, his representation of urban spatiality is fraught with flaws and therefore cannot be upheld. For instance, Gunesekera has espoused the growth and flourish of tourism industry across Sri Lanka, which seems to be beneficial for the locals of Sri Lanka. But, this contention does not stand to reason because Gunesekera’s espousal does not bear correspondence to the requirements of locals and it actually puts Sri Lankan locals at jeopardy. Along with it, being a member of an elite society, Gunesekera has either failed to comprehend the real problems of locals or has chosen to be silent on it to safeguard his reputation in the society.
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