Pratik Chowdhury is an Associate Professor (Retired) and former Head of the Department of English, DHSK College, Dibrugarh, Assam. His areas of interest include Partition Studies, Trauma Studies, and Classical Literature
This paper examines the role of place and space in the development of the identity of the character of Ila in Amitav Ghosh’s “The Shadow Lines”. It posits the hypothesis that the nature of an individual’s identity can be understood through his/her attachment or alienation to a place, and the phenomenological experiences involved in living or practising these spaces. The paper first provides a literature review of the various discourses on space and place, especially from the disciplines of anthropology and sociology. These disciplines focus on the ethnographic perspectives of lived spatial experiences, thereby contributing to the concepts of place identity, place attachment and placelessness. This is followed by a close reading of Ghosh’s novel to illustrate how the characters of Ila and Tridib are moulded by the places/spaces they occupy. Second, this paper considers how Ghosh exploits the medium of the different images and stories, as narratorial tools to raise questions of belonging and attachment through the contrasting characters of Ila and Tridib.
Key words: identity, place, placelessness, non-place, place-attachment, space, spatial practice.
Identity conventionally has long been the preserve of psychology. In the many post modern critical theories, identity has been variously considered to be gendered (performative), or a psychological, linguistic or social construct. However, with the renewed interest in “spatial turn” the formation of identity has received considerable attention, ranging from anthropology, cognitive sciences, geography, and psychology. A number of scholars, working in the above mentioned disciplines have demonstrated that identity formation, to some measure, is dependent upon the place to which an individual belongs. A place has its own agency, through which it shapes the realities and identities of the characters. In their introduction to “Place and Identity”, Jen Jack Gieseking et. al note that, “Place and identity are inextricably bound to one another. The two are co-produced as people come to identify with where they live, shape it [...] creating distinctive environmental biographies” (73). The authors further contend that an exploration of the relationship between place and identity yields a better understanding of identity formation with regard to the function that place has in social and psychological development (Gieseking et al. 73). Following their line of thought, it can be hypothesised that any individual, whose childhood has witnessed an inexorable progression from place to place, will have difficulties in forming a composite personality, and/or identity. This paper tries to validate this hypothesis, first by foregrounding the various theoretical perspectives on space and place, its importance and role in the formation of identities, and then attempt an analysis of the identity of Ila in Ghosh’s novel The Shadow Lines. The paper undertakes a close textual reading of the novel to undermine the clues that reveal the author’s representation of identity in terms of space and place.
In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, the narrator’s reminiscences of Ila’s childhood travels, attitudes, and memories seem innocuous at a cursory glance, but rather become instrumental in understanding the character of Ila, and thereby, constructing her identity.
In spatial terms, any meaningful
inquiry into identity by necessity, has to engage with the issues of space and place.
Theoretical concerns with identity or personality formation has exclusively
been the preserve of psychology up to the initial decades of the twentieth
century. But with the theorisations of space and spatial negotiations (Lefebvre
1991; Foucault 1976; Tuan 1977; de Certeau 1984), and placelessness (Relph
The conventional notion regarding space was essentialist and sedentary (Üngür 3). Space was considered as an empty container, passive to the actions or events that unfolded within it. The western logos – foregrounding temporality – had considered space to be static, relying mostly on Euclidean geometry, and later, on the Cartesian system of spatial-temporal measurement. Lefebvre’s Marxist analysis of these conventional views of space enabled him to hypothesize that social space was actually a product that could be socially produced in a capitalist society. Similarly, Foucault, as early as 1976, commented on the space/time binary, when he claimed that “space was treated as the dead, the fixed, the undialectical, the immobile. Time on the contrary, was richness, fecundity, life, dialectic” (70). Paul Carter, the Australian historian using an analogy from Shakespeare’s As You Like it compared the world to a stage and “all the men and women merely players”, to describe the dominant mode of modernity’s narrative, which he calls “imperial history” that singularly “reduces space to a stage, that pays attention to events unfolding in time alone...” (Carter qtd. in Wagner 234). These instances demonstrate the shifting trajectory of thinking and theorising about space as a distinct branch of enquiry, separate from the concerns of the temporal.
With the shift in the critical inquiry from the abstract concepts of ‘space’ to a more focussed idea of ‘place’, multiple approaches to defining place are observed. David Manuel Navarrete and Michael Redclift, in their paper, “The Role of Place in the Margins of Space” claim that renewed interest in spatial studies focus more towards the “human dimension of spatiality” (3), seen across various disciplines. They undertake an elaborate literature review of the multiple definitions and meanings of the word “place” to conclude that it is not possible or desirable to arrive at a specific and distinctive definition of place, but can rather be concurred that “places are more than geographic settings with physical or spatial characteristics; they are fluid, changeable, dynamic contexts of social interaction and memory” (3).
Building upon the fluidity of the characteristics of place, Navarette and Redclift mention J.A. Agnew’s work to highlight the “relationship between place and human behaviour” (3). According to Agnew, a place is made up of the elements of “location, locale and sense of place”, while also constituting the processes of the “economic, institutional, and socio-cultural” (Navarette and Redclift 3-4). According to Navarette and Redclift, Agnew’s interpretation looks at a place’s location as the geopolitical element, playing a part in the “world economy”; locale is identified with the “institutional setting of the place” and the sense of place is understood as the created identities and meanings that are given within places (4).
They also refer to Linda McDowell who considers the meaning and importance of place to be “contextual”, suggesting that its significance is dependent upon certain issues and relevant social relations (Navarette and Redclift 2). These multiple illustrations lead Navarette and Redclift to contend that a place cannot be described in terms of the relative location of objects, but must involve an integration of location and meaning in the context of human action (3).
Similarly, in the “Introduction” to People, Place, and Space Reader, Gieseking et al. deal with the multiple meanings and theorisations regarding the definitions and relationships of places and people. They theorise space and place as dynamic, being created and recreated through the actions and meanings of people. They define place beyond its material and geographical aspects to incorporate socio-cultural “forms and practices as well as affective experience(s)” (xx). If space is defined as abstract and continuous, place becomes the static reference point in the life of individuals, imbued with the “qualities that give people a sense of belonging” (Gieseking et al. xx). Jo Vergunst, in his paper titled “Phenomenology of Space and the Environment”, traces the theoretical origins of the definitions of place to the Heidegger’ss “being-in-the-world” philosophy (1). He also states that places are imbued with meaning because of the foundations of “consciousness and perception” (2). In other words, places are permeated with meaning because of the embodied experiences of the people inhabiting them (Vergunst 4). It is evident from these definitions, that spaces and places need to be lived in, and therefore, experienced phenomenologically to make sense of them.
In the humanistic perspective, the phenomenological explanations towards understanding and experiencing places were propounded by Yi Fu Tuan, when he spoke of people identifying places because of its distinct “spirit and personality”(409). Additionally, Tuan also mentions the “sense” of a place, generated because of their visual or aesthetic judgements in seeing a site or a location (410).
This phenomenological perspective was further explored by Edward Relph, who theorised the concept of placelessness and insideness/outsideness, with respect to inhabiting a place. In the Preface to Place and Placelessness (1976), Relph identifies the various ways in which “places are experienced” and argues that “distinctive and diverse places are manifestations of a deeply felt involvement with those places by the people who live in them, and that for many such a profound attachment to place is as necessary and significant as a close relationship with other people” (Preface). Relph examines the different components and intensities of place experiences in terms of a sense of belonging, place attachment and rootedness along with meaning and affinity for childhood places. He demonstrates that the profound psychological connections between people and places emerge from an authentic sense of place, that emanates from “insideness, from a sense of belonging to a place and its community, but one that is not overly self-conscious” (Relph qtd. in Liu and Freestone 3). In Place and Placelessness Revisited (2016), Edgar Liu and Robert Freestone in their essay “Revisiting Place and Placelessness”, observe that Relph’s notion of a sense of place is actuated through an “extended association … often articulated as a sense of identity with a place” (5). This association can be best illustrated through the development of an affinity for the place where one is born and raised. They also note that Relph’s revision of the definition of a sense of place (in the 1991 edition) is a more inclusive and enlarged one. The sense of a place, according to Relph, is “an innate faculty, possessed in some degree by everyone, that connects us to the world” (Relph qtd. in Liu and Freestone 5). It is a learned awareness that people use to understand the world and the changes that inform its “environment, economy and politics” (Liu and Freestone 5).
Liu and Freestone further explain Relph’s concepts of place affinity or a sense of place through the binary of “insideness and outsideness” (6). The feeling of being inside a place requires a greater degree of association rather than possessing a sense of place. In other words, there needs to be an immersive experience of the place through the physical body and the senses. This experience generates the individual’s sense of the place, thereby enabling them to identify with the place more deeply. In contrast, Relph defines outsideness as the “lack of identity with a place” (Liu and Freestone 6), and categorises different degrees of outsideness/insideness on the basis of how intimately the individual can/not identify with the place. According to him, existential outsideness is the weakest form of identification with a place that “involves a selfconscious [sic] and reflective uninvolvement and alienation from people and places, homelessness, sense of unreality of the world, and of not belonging. From such a perspective, places cannot be significant centres of existence, but are at best backgrounds to activities that are without sense, mere chimeras, and at worst are voids'' (Relph 51).
Identification with a place involves the factors of rootedness and care for the place. An individual’s bonding with a place in terms of personal and communal experiences involves a kind of familiarity that results not only from knowledge of the place, but also being known in that particular place. It is this attachment which constitutes an individual’s roots in a place (Relph 37). Relph emphasizes the need of having roots in a place as an “important human need”, and substantiates his contention through an extended citation from Simone Weil:
To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. [...] A human being has roots by virtue of his real active and natural participation in the life of the community. [...] This participation is a natural one in the sense that it is automatically brought about by place, conditions of birth, profession and social surrounding. (Weil qtd. in Relph 38)
Having roots in a place offers a vantage point from which one can look out on the world, and understand their position in the environment surrounding them, thereby providing them the agency to construct their own reality.
The sense of attachment of places develops at a nascent stage of childhood. According to Relph, places for children constitute the edifice on which “the discovery of the self” (11) is founded, thus becoming the vital reference points “which serve to recall particular personal experiences” though the setting may not be the part of those experiences (37). His insights into the phenomenological experience of place and its role in constructing identity, also extends to another phenomenon termed as placelessness.
From the literature review, it follows that place does not connote the conventional signification of being a portion of a static geographical marker. It is rather a fluid, dynamic entity containing within itself multiple contexts of social interactions and memory, while also simultaneously acquiring psychological and cognitive meanings through phenomenological experiences.
This paper therefore considers Relph’s concept of placelessness, alongside the tangential concepts of non-places, first written by Michel de Certeau and later theorised by Marc Auge to analyse Ila’s various journeys as depicted in Ghosh’s novel. This paper aims to demonstrate that the experiences and memories of the different international airports that the character of Ila has traversed, also echo the concepts of placelessness and non-places. This shall be achieved by a close reading of the representation of Ila’s identity, which is portrayed in the novel primarily through the use of imagination and invention.
In the opening section of the novel, the unnamed narrator reflects upon the nature of Ila, his paternal aunt who, he thinks, has never properly occupied any place by living or experiencing it cognitively or psychologically. She has never been able to bond with various people, or form an attachment with the places or environments that she has been to in course of her childhood travels. Ila’s inability to form “place attachment – the bonding of people to places” (Altman and Low 2) stems from her incapacity to connect to the various places that she has lived in or travelled through. She is the daughter of a career diplomat, Himangshushekhar Dutta-Chaudhuri, the Indian Consul General. Being a diplomat, a larger degree of his career was spent travelling and living abroad. The nature of his profession frequently carried him and his family to different places alien to his culture or land. As a consequence Ila found herself uprooted from one place to another, enrolled and subsequently transferred from one elite public school to another. Her childhood experiences as shared with the narrator were a succession of short lived memories, often confused and overlapping. Her inability to forge lasting friendships or preserve memories of either people or places turned her into a restless soul ever in search of some moorings, whether psychological or emotional. In the words of the narrator:
I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one’s imagination; that her practical bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all. (Ghosh 21; emphasis added)
The paucity of Ila’s spatial experiences deny her to form place-identity and place attachment, two concepts which can be used to gain a better understanding of Ila’s childhood predicament. Place-identity and place attachment are terms given by Harold M. Proshansky, Abby K. Fabian and Robert Kaminoff. They conceptualise these to be a “sub-structure of self-identity” which enable an individual to broadly acquire knowledge and feeling of the physical space through cognitive means of “memories, ideas, feelings, attitudes, values” (Proshansky et al. 77). It may also include other ways through which people relate to the various complexities of their physical settings that define their diurnal experiences. Place-identity helps in fostering a sense of belonging and attachment, as well as creating meaning. It consists of “an endless variety of cognitions related to the past, present, and anticipated physical settings that define and circumscribe” the everyday existence of the person (Proshansky et al. 77). Moreover, Irving Altman and Setha Low also define place attachment in terms of “an interplay of affect and emotions, knowledge and beliefs, and behaviours and actions to a place” (5).
Dolores Hayden, writing in “Urban Landscape History-The Sense of Place and Politics of Space” also employs the term “place attachment” following Altman and Low, who have considered it a psychological process almost similar to the natural bonding or attachment that a child has to its parents. Their conceptualisation of place attachment is a pointer to the “ways in which people connect to various places, and the effects of such bonds in identity development, place-making, perception, and practice” (Hayden 82). Moreover, such an attachment can “develop social, material and ideological dimensions, as individuals develop ties to kin and community, own or rent land, and participate in public life as residents of a particular community” (Hayden 82).
It follows from the above discussion that both these concepts can to some degree, decode the reason behind people’s sense of comfort, or homeliness in certain places, and their experiences of a sense of disconnect at other places. A strong sense of place attachment usually develops from a sense of control of some part of the physical environment. Such a control is deemed necessary in the formation of a positive identity of the self, a process that commences from early childhood, as observed by Clare Cooper Marcus: “For children, their bed, their ‘cubby’ at day care, or a secret ‘den’ in the woods may be the start of feeling there is a place that is truly theirs” (88). A loss of the sense of place attachment can also be responsible for the excruciating trauma that is generally associated with displacement whether under violent circumstances, or of one’s own volition.
In The Shadow Lines, Ila’s character suffers from a sense of disconnect and ‘outsideness’ (as coined by Relph) in whatever place she finds herself to be. For instance, on those rare occasions when the Dutta-Chaudhuri family arrives in India and they visit their ancestral home, Ila finds herself insouciantly detached from the flow of excitement and activities that unfold. Quite understandably, her sole companion is the narrator who happens to be of the same age. In his company Ila would “slip away to the shade of the rusty water tank on the roof of their house” (Ghosh 21). Both the children, well ensconced in the shade would seek to share the mysteries of their lives - Ila passing on information about her school and the distant places that she has been to, while the narrator eagerly imbibing and inscribing every iota of information in his imagination, to be invented later. It is on these occasions that Ila would show him her so-called “souvenirs”, which would always be her school yearbooks of the international school that she happened to be studying at that time. The narrator realises that in all the pictures of her yearbooks Ila would always point out certain individuals and flaunt their names who would invariably be either “most beautiful, the most talented, the most intelligent girls in the school” (Ghosh 22). The one commonality in these pictures was that Ila would be conspicuous by her absence in them. At the age of fourteen Ila had shown him the picture of her current crush, who happened to be a handsome boy apparently quite popular among the girls. However, the narrator finds after a few pages, in a group photograph of the class, the heart throb is in the front row with his arms thrown around the shoulders of two blonds, while Ila has been marginalised to the “edge of the back row, standing a little apart, unsmiling, in a plain grey skirt, with a book under her arm” (Ghosh 23). On realising that the narrator had noticed her marginalisation, she quietly removed the page from the yearbook later. This trivial piece of information reveals Ila’s position as someone occupying the fringes, away from the popular people in her class. This shows her experiences of outsideness, and subsequent alienation, as she was that person who wasn’t important enough to figure in the foreground of the picture. Her awareness of her position as the marginal outsider was amplified when she removed any trace of her outsideness from the yearbook, which was the permanent and only record of her existence in occupying that place. This reveals how she did not even find her own existence worth remembering in concrete mediums such as the photograph, nor did she develop any attachment to the place, or the boarding school she resided in.
In course of her various travels and residing in different locations, she has rarely felt places cognitively, or to use Relph’s term, has ever developed a sense of place by “being inside a place”. For Relph being “inside a place is to belong to it and identify with it” (49). Later, he defines the sense of place as an “innate faculty” to comprehend the ever changing realities of the world of/around an individual (Relph qtd. in Liu and Freestone 5). Thus Ila fails to develop a sense of the places she inhabited, because she never was able to ground herself in a place for long enough to develop the innate faculty needed to cultivate a sense of a place. The experiences of Ila’s character can thus be read as a representation of Relph’s concept of existential outsideness. Furthermore, it can be seen that Ila’s state of existential outsideness even develops into a state of placelessness - of “not belonging anywhere, of being an outsider or a refugee” (Liu and Freestone 6), as exemplified in the narrator’s telling of the yearbook incident.
Relph’s initial coinage of the term placelessness was intended to be used as an opposition to felt involvement with places, in the wake of the loss of familiar and established geographical spaces like landscapes which were destroyed for creating urban spaces. In this context he employs placelessness in the sense of a “casual eradication of distinctive places and the making of standardized landscapes that results from an insensitivity to the significance of place” (Preface). Subsequently, this results in the fading of various experiences and identities which were characteristic of the original places. Relph’s contention implies the process of reductionism that characterizes urbanization. In such a process, all topographical elements that act as familiar markers of individuality or figure as distinctive spaces, are ruthlessly obliterated and replaced with a uniformity of structures, thereby rendering them identical and unfamiliar. Such uniformity creates disorientation and emphasizes lack of a phenomenological sense of place that can be experienced by an individual. Placelessness then, according to Relph, is a “weakening of the identity of place to the point where they not only look alike but feel alike and offer the same bland possibilities for experience” (90).
Relph had initially used the architectural structure of modern airports to concretize the notion of placelessness. He maintains that placelessness manifests in “uniformity and standardization in places,” and regards the homogenized ambience and architecture of airport terminals to be formless lacking “human scale and order in places” (118-119). His objection to such spaces is their anonymity and exchangeability which substitute “direct experience with an other directedness of artefactual representations designed for outsiders. They substitute uniformity and standardization for diversity. There is formlessness and lack of human scale, impermanence and instability” (Liu and Freestone 2-3). Borrowing the term “other directed architecture” from J B Jackson, Relph argued that the homogenized airport terminals are deliberately planned architectures that are “directed towards outsiders, spectators, passer-by, and above all consumers” (93).
Relph’s concepts of placelessness has also been echoed in the conceptualisation of non-places by Marc Auge. He uses the term non-places to indicate certain spaces that are not themselves “anthropological places” (78). While Relph’s concept of placelessness emphasizes the lack of a sense of place experienced by an individual, Auge accentuates the lack of social relations in his definition of “non-place”. He contends that “if a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place” (Auge 77-78). Auge’s concern is with the phenomenological conditions of “supermodernity [which] produce non-places, meaning spaces which are not themselves anthropological places and which, unlike Baudelairean modernity, do not integrate the earlier places: instead they are listed, classified, promoted to the status of ‘places of memory’, and assigned to a circumscribed and specific position” (78). Such non-places do not exist in ‘pure form’, and in it, places are reconstituted by themselves, relations are restored and resumed (Auge 78). Auge considers place and non-place to be opposed polarities, a set of conflicting relations in which “the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed; they are like palimpsests on which the scrambled game of identity is ceaselessly written” (Auge 79).
The trajectory of Ila’s evolving identity in relation to her frequent mobility, both as a child and an adult, is analysed in the context of placelessness, and “non-places”. In one of his reminiscences, the narrator recalls listening raptly to the names and experiences of far off places that Ila, her father or her grandfather would talk of. The narrator would be thrilled as he tried to visualise those spatial vistas in his imagination, but Ila would seem unaffected by the recollection of those places. They had “for her a familiarity no less dull than the Lake” in Calcutta had, for the narrator (Ghosh 20). Ila’s lack of association with places stems from her inability to form place attachment; she inhabits various places, but was never able to experience them emotionally and cognitively or invent them in her imagination, as the narrator prefers to call it. For her a place was just a mere geographical location, there was no urgency or immediacy for her to invent or feel any sensory or cognitive perception.
Every individual negotiates with a place through their individual sensory stimuli such as sight, sounds, smells, and feelings, which remain embedded in the memory. Some particular sensations, visual, auditory or olfactory, may be associated with a specific event occurring in remote space and time, and are sometimes liberated later as recollections. In contrast to Ila, the characters of Tridib and the unnamed narrator have always immersive experience of the spaces they occupy. Thus Tridib develops the unique ability to “invent the places in imagination” (Ghosh 21), a stratagem he taught the narrator, who learned to visualise spaces even before physically inhabiting them, an attribute that Relph calls “vicarious insideness”. It is the ability to “experience places in a secondhand (sic) or vicarious way, that is, without actually visiting them,...” (52) The reference to his first visit to London, and his almost mystic ability to find streets and other landmarks (solely on the basis of his memory and imagination) bears testimony to his “vicarious insideness”, his ability of being there through imagination. On the other hand, Ila is a bewildered character often restless, as though in search of roots. Her attitude of disinterest and her inability to form lasting relationships stems from her sense of placelessness. Ironically, Ila’s only sense of place or fixity is located in airport terminals, which have been critiqued by Relph and Auge as sites of placelessness and non-places. The only fixed memory that Ila seems to have of her childhood travels are the locations of the “Ladies” at different airport departure lounges and arrival halls. She on one occasion tells the narrator that she could distinctly remember that the “Ladies” in the Cairo airport was “way away on the other side of the departure lounge” (Ghosh 20). For her, the “Ladies” in the various airport terminals were important not because she wanted to use them, but because they were the “only fixed points in the shifting landscape of her childhood” (Ghosh 20). In her life of relentless mobility Ila could not forge any association either with the places she inhabited, or with the people she came in contact with. The nature of her diplomat father’s vocation did not give her any sense of stability or sufficient time in which she could live in those spaces, or negotiate with those spaces on a deeper level. Her short tenures in the various schools that she had attended, instead of providing any stay against confusion, had only exacerbated her bewilderment. In her “shifting landscapes of childhood” (Ghosh 20), travelling became a part of her-self and being - she had grown accustomed to movement and unlike other children for whom travels signify thrill, Ila remained unmoved.
In order to unpack the nature of Ila’s identity, it is necessary to focus on her spatio- temporal travels and social mobility. The nature of her various travels were always similar, the only hiatus between these transits would be the non-places of the airport terminals, where ironically, she could find some semblance of stability, some kind of mooring to which she could desperately hold on to. The placelessness of the airport spaces would invariably have the ladies somewhere within the hall or lobby of arrival or departure spaces. Ila came to realise that the only definite and reliable thing she could be certain of would be these places, as though, to assure her of her uncertainties. Ila lacked the faculty to realise that each airport had a homogenized built environment, with similar architectural design strikingly devoid of any local identity or connections. Although she could not appreciate that all the terminals had their universal spatial perspectives and designs, yet she would know that the “Ladies” would be “hidden away in some yet more unexpected corner of the hall” (20). For Ila, and most travellers like her, most of the architectural markers within the airport lounges remain unacknowledged for their assumed similarity; their presence is not perceived subjectively thus rendering them irrelevant. Such sign posts at the airport non-places are not objects that Ila’s subjective self becomes conscious of, but rather they just become inconsequential signifiers that simply exist without any meaning for the subject.
Yet the fact remains that Ila could
never develop the practice of inhabiting spaces, or “spatial practices” that
Lefebvre deems necessary because it “ensures continuity and some degree of
cohesion” (Lefebvre 33). Spatial practice is relevant for creating social space
because it “embraces production and reproduction” (33). Spatial practices are
required not only for possessing knowledge of a particular location but are
also perceived to be characteristic of a given social formation. In the case of
Ila, her interactions with any place are not evolved because of the selective
engagements - either consciously or unconsciously - with her environment.
Moreover, she is unable to comprehend the concept of place-identity, because
place identity involves something far beyond memories, feelings, and
“interpretations of each of the real world physical settings” (Proshansky et
In her later years as an adult, Ila continues to be alienated from the places she frequents the most – London in this instance – due to the absence of place-identity, as well as place-attachment. Decades later, when the narrator meets her in London, she intends to take him out somewhere, a film or to a new Vietnamese restaurant in Maida Vale, but the narrator desires to visit the underground railway station because that is a place etched in his memory through the innumerable descriptions provided by Tridib. The narrator takes his time, he imbibes every sensation, whether stepping on to the escalator or absorbing the “smell of electricity and dampness and stale deodorant”, stopping to listen to the music or looking intently at the flashing advertisement (Ghosh 21). The narrator’s deeply immersive and sensorial experiences are highly absurd to Ila; to her the metro is merely a means of transportation bereft of any significance. She fails to comprehend the medium of imagination used by the narrator to constantly invent and experience places. Invention and imagination are the terms that Ghosh uses to suggest what Navarrete and Redclift have called “the human dimension of spatiality”, and “vicarious insideness’ by Relph. Ila’s character or identity then, is as tenuous as her dysfunctional sense of spatial non-attachment and non belonging to any place. She suffers from “existential outsideness” which Relph defines as a kind of “selfconcious (sic) and reflective uninvolvement, an alienation from people and places, homelessness, a sense of not belonging”. Such a state denies perspective and significance to places as “[the] centres of existence, but are at best backgrounds to activities that are without sense, mere chimeras, and at worst are voids” (51).
In sharp contrast to Ila’s “existential outsideness”, Tridib and the narrator are endowed with “existential insideness” that “characterises belonging to a place and the deep and complete identity with a place that is the very foundation of place concept” (Relph 55). Both of them possess place identity cognition skills, which according to Proshansky and others, are capable of expressing and reflecting their individual physical settings along with their properties. The place identity cognitions not only support the physical settings, but also directly become relevant to the social roles and attributes that go to define the person and his mode of behaviour. Although Tridib has travelled widely spending much of his time in London, he remains firmly tethered to Calcutta, to its streets, sights, and noises. He knows implicitly that this where he belongs (Relph 55). Tridib frequently returns to his favourite street corners to regale his old friends who sorely feel his prolonged absence, with stories of his travels and experiences. It also helps that Tridib is an archaeologist, for being one requires a passion for places, particularly antiquated localities; and Tridib in his imagination invents and inhabits those spaces. He has shared this gift of place attachment with the narrator, who develops the uncanny ability to inhabit the places in his imagination even before he has actually visited them. This talent is on display when he visits London for the first time and identifies the streets and corners of the city. He even recognises Nick Price, whom he meets for the first time and of whom he has heard so often in his childhood that he claims to have almost grown up with him.
In summing up, the forces that have
shaped Ila’s nature are her “existential outsideness” along with a conspicuous
absence of place attachment and place identity, two vital attributes that
inform the spatial decoding of her character. Tridib and the narrator on the
other hand possess an abundance of these traits which give meaning and enrich
their beings. Tridib and the narrator’s phenomenological ability to live and
experience places by inventing them in their imaginations yield rich dividends,
while Ila’s inadequacies of the same is like a bad debt that continues to
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